The Criterion Collection Review | La Chienne
Reviewing Jean Renoir’s La Chienne is a bit of, well, a bitch. This is a film that, whatever its qualities, has been eclipsed by the dark drama surrounding its making. Any discussion of the film’s actual story can only be a discussion of how life imitates art. This is a bit of a pity, because La Chienne is actually a tragic, melodramatic tale of deep humanity.
Made in 1931, La Chienne (literally The Bitch, although not to be confused with the Joan Collins film) was Jean Renoir’s second sound feature, and the twelfth of his incredibly prolific career. Even by this point, Renoir’s aesthetic and thematic concerns had already been codified, and his heartfelt sense of theatrical presentation was already folded directly into his filmmaking. Indeed, La Chienne opens with a theatrical Chorus, narrating over a puppet show, entreating us to behold the silly little drama that’s about to unfold as if it were little more than a Punch and Judy show. What begins is a tragic tale of heart-wrenching sadness, a tale of loss, and another one of Renoir’s litanies of how the good-hearted are exploited, and how love is the devil.
The story follows a sad-faced married man named Maurice Legrand (Michel Simon) who falls in love with a young floozy named Lulu (Janie Marèze). Legrand is supremely unhappy with his shrewish wife, who often regales him with stories about how her dead first husband is superior in every way to him. Lulu and Legrand find a weird comfort in one another. He, because she’s lovely, and she because he gives her money. Lulu, it seems, is a soulless chienne who absorbs Legrand’s gifts, who doesn’t care about him, and who passes money on to her dashing scoundrel criminal boyfriend/pimp (Georges Flamant). When Legrand paints a painting for Lulu, she just passes it into the art market under an assumed name.
Lulu will, of course, eventually finds violent comeuppance, and her boyfriend will be punished for his iniquity. And, in a piece of dark cosmic poetry, Legrand will also find ruination.
High melodrama had a more comfortable home in the early days of cinema, and bold, brash, heart-wrenching tragedy felt like a more natural extension of the cinematic form. Modern audiences demand more realism from their drama. Renoir is a reminder of how great theatricality can be in cinematic form. It would be eight years before Renoir would eventually take the tragic social and romantic themes from La Chienne and apply them to The Rules of the Game, probably his masterwork and easily one of the best films of all time.
This all runs parallel, one will find, with real life. Over the course of the film’s production, Michel Simon fell in love with Janie Marèze, while Marèze fell in love with Georges Flamant, the man who played her on-screen boyfriend. The love triangle on screen matched real life. Evidently, Renoir knew of this love triangle, and stoked the backstage drama in order to get better performances onscreen. The performances are all great (although Flamant is clearly not a professional). After filming wrapped, Flamant took the money he earned from the production and bought a new car. He went joyriding with Marèze, got in a wreck, and killed her. Yes, her character also died in the movie. This was all before the film’s premiere.
Michel Simon was so distraught over Marèze’s death that he reportedly threatened to murder Renoir, once holding a gun on him. The story goes that Renoir saved his own life by merely and sadly intoning “Kill me if you like, but I have made the film.” Art and life overlapped in a sad, sad way.
Knowing this, of course, colors one’s viewing of La Chienne, and will cause a viewer to look past the immediate drama to what it may be translating to in real life. While this does, in a way, enrich the cinematic experience, it (perhaps lamentably) ignores the power that the film has unto itself. Renoir probably didn’t want audiences to be involved in the dark gossip of his actors. He wanted us to see the whole film: La Chienne is a lachrymose, if small, drama that proffers emotional largesse. It’s a film that should perhaps be discovered on its own, and appreciated as the tragedy that it is. Outright lamentation is not often seen in feature films any more, and there is something emotionally disarming about discovering it in the films of bygone eras.
But life, as we now know, overtook the film. Any modern audiences coming to La Chienne are listening to a different story entirely. For the modern audience, then, La Chienne functions largely as a documentary of its own making. It’s a fascinating documentary to be sure. But don’t forget the power of the film itself.
Top Image: Gaumont
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.