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Monday, April 19, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 weeks, #11: La Chienne, 1931

MC 1: "Ladies and Gentlemen, we are proud to present a stirring social drama. Our presentation will prove that vice never goes unpunished."

MC 2: "Ladies and Gentlemen, we're proud to present a comedy with a moral."

MC 3: Ladies and Gentlemen, don't listen to them. The play we shall perform is neither drama nor comedy. It contains no moral message and has nothing to prove. The characters are neither heroes nor villains. They're plain folk like you and me. The three leads are He, She, and the Other Guy, as always."

-from the opening of the film.

La Chienne, 1931

Director: Jean Renoir
Writers: Jean Renoir, adapted from a novel by Georges de La Fouchardière
Cinematographer: Theodor Sparkuhl
Produced by Roger Richebé for Les Établissements Braunberger-Richebé
Starring: Michel SimonJanie Marèse, Georges Flamant 

Why I chose it
I was tempted by The Front Page, a well-known film based on the celebrated play by Hecht and MacArthur, but I was really in the mood for something outside classic Hollywood. I had seen two of Renoir's most famous films, The Rules of the Game and The Grand Illusion, but nothing else, so it was time to correct that. Additionally, 'La Chienne' sounds so elegant...but the English translation "The Bitch" would not have made it as a title for a film in the U.S., especially not in 1931.

'No-spoiler' plot overview
Socially awkward retail clerk Maurice Legrand has taken up painting as an escape from his nagging, shrewish wife Adèle and his tiresome day job. Leaving a late evening work function, he comes across Lulu on the street, who is being mistreated by Andre Jauguin, also known as Dédé. He comes to Lulu's aid, and opportunist Jauguin decides that Legrand is a convenient mark to fleece: Lulu is a prostitute who is pimped out by Dédé, who treats her horribly but still receives her love and devotion. Lulu lures Legrand who falls hard for her and puts her up in style in an apartment, and then proceeds to sell his paintings to keep up the lifestyle she and Jauguin have come to expect. Legrand doesn't realize that Lulu is two-timing him while he himself is seeing her behind his own wife's back. A further complication results when Legrand's wife's first husband, thought killed in WWI, shows up with plans to blackmail Legrand for the price of letting him stay with Adèle. Unfortunately for him, Legrand turns this to his advantage, as, of course, he is looking for any reason to be free to be with Lulu. The film climaxes with a murder and an execution.

Production Background and 1931 in Film History
The film was celebrated director Renoir's second sound film and its production was difficult, to say the least. Filming on location in the Montmartre area of Paris, Renoir clashed on set with the production executives when he insisted on using direct sound, a technology difficult to get right in 1931. Further, the human drama playing out on the set paralleled that on screen. Apparently, lead actor Flamant and leading lady Marèse began an affair, while co-star Simon also fell for her. Shortly after production wrapped, Marèse tragically was killed in a car being driven by Flamant, who survived the crash. So when the film was released, the mourning public turned against Flamant, and his career really stalled after.

Another European directed a film based on this story, but converted it to an American setting. This was Fritz Lang's noir Scarlet Street with Edward G. Robinson as the Legrand character, supported by the always terrific Dan Duryea and Joan Bennett. It's certainly worth seeing, but a very different experience. 

Some other notable film-related events in 1931*:

  • 1931 saw the release of two of the most celebrated early "monster" films, both from Universal studios: Dracula (with Bela Lugosi) and Frankenstein (with Boris Karloff).
  • Additionally, two of the earliest and most celebrated gangster films were released: Little Caesar (with Edward G. Robinson) and The Public Enemy (with James Cagney), launching the era of the gangster film, which morphed in the 1940s into a crime film/film noir genre.
  • The 'double feature' came into common use as cinema entertainment.
  • The Best Picture-nominated Trader Horn, by director W.S. Van Dyke, was notable as the first non-documentary production to be filmed in Africa. Some of its jungle stock footage was later used for MGM's first Tarzan film with Johnny Weissmuller, Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932).

*Thanks to

My Random Observations
  • Having watched *mostly* American-made films during my decade-long love affair with classic film, my immediate reaction to La Chienne was how much it was, well, French. The story dealt more frankly with sordid details of the life of a prostitute than even contemporaneous pre-Code films from the U.S. There was a scene in which Lulu mentioned matter-of-fact details of the sex act to a girlfriend that just seemed natural at the moment. Another example is Michel Simon's character: while being cuckolded and shown to be socially awkward, he could still be sensual and passionate in his interactions with Lulu, in a way that Edward G. Robinson could not do in Scarlet Street.
  • Is there a character here that is worth rooting for in this film? Probably not. At least the motives and situations of the three main characters, along with the actors' performances, render them interesting and at times sympathetic, proving once again that a 'hero' isn't a requirement to keep the attention of the audience. 
  • Was Renoir's attraction to this work related at all to the Legrand character being an underappreciated painter?
  • As hinted by the 'play within the play' opening commentary, the film defies categorization. While mostly a drama, dark comedic elements are hard to miss. Perhaps the most obvious is the irony of the vaunted late husband 'Sgt. Godard' showing up alive and demonstrating himself to be a low-class petty criminal who never really loved his wife.
  • Renoir was a visual genius on film like his father was on canvas. There are so many brilliant compositions, a few of which I've captured below. 

MC in the opening framing device introduces us to Lulu, 
"La Chienne", while her image is superimposed.

Opening shot frames a banquet table through a dumbwaiter
being used to produce a delicious entree.

Legrand (Simon) does not enjoy the conviviality
of his fellow employees.

Lulu (Marèse) is introduced after suffering a beating from her
lover, Dédé.

Legrand arrives home to the wrath of his wife, Adèle.

With her late husband's portrait between them in the scene,
Adèle reminds Legrand that he isn't living up to his memory.

Terrific mirror-aided shot of Legrand painting his self-portrait.

Legrand is feeling amorous but Lulu wants to talk business.

The former husband, Sergeant Godard, is not dead
after all.

Lulu confides in Dédé (Flamant) that she is getting tired
of her duplicitous love life. 

The ruse might be over.

Legrand and Sgt. Godard fall on hard times.

Where to Watch
Modern audiences now have the benefit of the Criterion restoration to enjoy this film as it looked when it was released in 1931. Get it on DVD or see it streaming on the Criterion Channel, or Amazon, YouTube, and other services for a small fee.

Further Reading
Ginnette Vincendeau's essay for Criterion is detailed and insightful if you don't mind important plot points being revealed. And TCM's article shares more about the troubled production of the film, including struggles with editing.

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