Wednesday, February 16, 2011
It has no moral whatsoever and proves nothing at all
BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren. To donate to the fundraiser for The Film Noir Foundation, click here.
By Edward Copeland
As we conclude my trilogy of posts for the For the Love of Film (Noir) Blogathon, I turn to Jean Renoir's 1931 La Chienne, which translates roughly to The Bitch. Its source material, a novel and play of the same name, also provided the basis of Fritz Lang's 1945 masterpiece Scarlet Street, an exemplary depiction of the noir genre. Even though the characters and plots of Renoir and Lang's films contain much in common, I'm not certain whether you can get away with calling La Chienne an example of noir given not only the year of its release but also the way Renoir approaches the material. Supposedly, Renoir hated the direction Lang took with Scarlet Street which, though a remake of Renoir's second sound film, was a remake of a movie that didn't get released in the United States until 1976, 45 years after its initial release. Renoir opens La Chienne with a shot of a tiny stage where a curtain rises and we see a puppet who informs us that we are about to see "a social drama where vice is always punished." A second puppet appears and contradicts the first, declaring that we are about to watch a "comedy of manners with a moral." The two puppets start arguing over which of them was supposed to be the announcer when a third puppet appears and knocks the first two out of the frame. The final puppet says to the audience, "Ladies and gentleman, pay no attention to them. The play you are about to see is neither a comedy nor a drama. It has no moral whatsoever and proves nothing at all. There are no heroes or villains. Just plain people like you and me." He then introduces the three main characters, who he tels us are, "HE, SHE and THE OTHER GUY, OF COURSE" and they appear like apparitions behind him. "He" is described as nice, timid and not too young, but much too naive." "She" has "a special brand of charm, always sincere, but she lies." As for the other guy, he is "just plain Dédé." The stage dissolves and the movie begins.
The basic mechanics of La Chienne follow Scarlet Street rather closely (or I guess I should say it the other way around since La Chienne preceded Scarlet Street by 14 years). Just for simplicity sake, before I begin delving into La Chienne in detail, I thought I'd include a chart so you'd know which characters in Renoir's film are the equivalent of the ones in Lang's American remake. It almost goes without saying that lots of SPOILERS are coming, but that's the case if you've already seen Scarlet Street.
The biggest differences in the characters in Renoir's version is that France didn't have to conform to the Hays Code and could be more frank about the nature and activities of its characters. It's blunt about the relationship between Lulu (Janie Marèze) and Dédé (Georges Flamant): She's a prostitute and he's a pimp. Maurice (the great Michel Simon, the year before he'd team with Renoir on the classic Boudu Saved From Drowning) still works as a cashier, only it's for a wholesaler, not a bank. La Chienne opens at a party for the employees of that wholesaler, just as Scarlet Street did, only it's not a celebration to honor Legrand's many years of faithful service. In fact, most of the partygoers spend their time mocking the cashier behind his back and talking about trying to trick him into a tryst with a woman, but abandoning the idea because they know he'd never go for it because he's too fearful of his wife. The initial meeting of the three main characters plays a bit differently as well. Legrand does stumble upon Dédé beating Lulu on the street and intervenes, but he doesn't run for the police. Instead, he offers to take Lulu home, but she expresses concern for Dédé's well-being, so he hails a cab and rides with both of them to their place. Once there, Dédé whispers to Lulu that given the way Legrand is dressed, she should try to score with him. Lulu stays and flirts with Legrand, who asks why she stays with Dédé, but she insists he can behave when he wants to. Legrand already has become smitten with the girl and she asks if she can write him, but he tells her she better write to him in care of his post office because he's married and he wouldn't want his wife to see.
The Adele portion of the story is what matches up most closely between the two films. She's a shrew in both versions, always pestering her husband and comparing him unfavorably to her presumed dead first husband. As in the American remake, Adele hates Maurice's painting and it's when he comes home late that she lays in to him about them and threatens to give them to the junk man. Her "late" husband wasn't a cop who died in the line of duty in La Chienne, but a soldier killed in World War I.
One month after their first meeting, Legrand has set Lulu up in her own place and moved in his paintings. La Chienne's frankness also extends to openness about the sexual nature of the relationship that develops between Lulu and Legrand. Lulu even admits at one point that she "can't say she minded doing it with him much, unlike others." It's a big switch from Kitty Burke, who cringed when Chris Cross even tried to kiss her. While it's clear that Dédé is her lover as well as her pimp, her relationship with Legrand pleases him as well. He tells an associate that he used to have rough Lulu up for cash, but living's a lot easier with Legrand on the hook. Dédé's greed gets him to show Legrand's art around and as in the other film, it earns raves. He decides to pass it off as Lulu's work, only instead of using her name, he invents the name of an American woman and places them in a gallery. It's not Adele who spots the art in the gallery in La Chienne though, it's Legrand himself. His reaction follows Chris' closely as he forgives his beloved Lulu as she gives a crying explanation (shown in a very nice zoom by Renoir).
It's about time for that not-so-dead husband of Adele's to show up and he does. Turns out that he had been a German prisoner of war and he switched names with a dead pal and went to work for a Manhattan advertising agency...(not really, just seeing if you are paying attention). He needs money to stay gone, but Legrand eagerly offers to hand Adele over to him right there. However, it seems her first hubby hasn't been a good boy while he was gone and if he tried to reclaim his life, he might face criminal charges. He suggests the same exact plan that Chris did in Scarlet Street. Legrand goes home to pack and Adele is ready for another round, but feeling as if the burden has been lifted off his shoulder, Maurice wants no part. He tells Adele that their marriage, "Tis a habit born of a long misunderstanding which brought us to exist in the same bed for several years." This part of La Chienne is one section I think it gives us that I felt Lang cheated the viewer out of in Scarlet Street. Whereas in the later film, all we hear is Adele's scream as her first husband enters her bedroom, Renoir shows us the whole reunion, including a great speech for Simon witnessed by neighbors that lets him leave the apartment with some sense of dignity instead of sneaking out with a giggle.
When Legrand arrives at Lulu giddily announcing his freedom and asking Lulu to marry him, her character undergoes an abrupt switch that we've really seen no hints of before. If the words came from Kitty, they'd be expected, but Lulu's turn is too sudden. At first, she just denies Legrand by admitting that Dédé isn't just her pimp, he's her boyfriend, and a dejected Legrand leaves angry. He comes back and tries to talk sense to her, saying that Dédé is no good for her, but then Lulu starts getting nasty and laughing at him. "What a fool I was. You make me sick," Legrand tells her. "You think it didn't make me sick? If it wasn't for your money, I'd have dropped you like a hot potato," she spits. "You wanted to be loved for your sweet self, What a laugh." The anger keeps rising in Legrand. "You aren't a woman. You a are a bitch," Maurice tells Lulu. "You lick the hand that feeds you and the hand that beats you too." Lulu just keeps laughing and it's too much for him and he stabs her to death.
Pretty much the rest plays out the same as well. Dédé goes down for the crime. Legrand gets caught for stealing from the wholesaler and only gets fired, though the investigator also figures out he did it for a woman and tells him, "It's a dangerous thing to have affairs at our age. They usually mean trouble — better to be quiet at home." However, as the puppets indicated at the beginning, the story proves nothing and though Legrand ends up a bum on the streets, he's not haunted the way Chris is in Scarlet Street. In fact, the ending almost has a comical air to it. We see Legrand years later, wandering the streets as a bum when another bum gets his attention. It turns out to be Adele's first husband. Legrand asks how she is and the man laughs and says she kicked off years ago. He asks Legrand what he's been up to and he tells him the truth about killing a woman, another man paying for the crime and losing his job for stealing, but he shares it with a sort of delighted air and the two men, who really only had the shrewish Adele in common, walk off together laughing as the curtain of the puppet stage falls again.
As enjoyable as La Chienne is and as many great touches as Renoir brings to the material, it really can't be called a noir. Renoir's approach, as with most of the master's films (and remember, this was only his second sound feature) took a humanistic approach. So many of Renoir's movies were remade by other directors, that it's truly fascinating to watch the different takes. Lang also remade Renoir's La Bête Humaine as Human Desire, Kurosawa remade The Lower Depths and Paul Mazursky turned Boudu into Down and Out in Beverly Hills. While most remakes are pointless wastes of time, when a Renoir work gets redone by a strong director, it's guaranteed to at least be interesting because it's damn near impossible to imitate Renoir's style so it forces a thorough rethinking of the material instead of just a carbon copy. That's why the same story works well whether it's approached lyrically as by Renoir or bleakly and suspensefully as by Lang.
The most tragic, dramatic and noirish part of La Chienne actually happened offscreen. Georges Flamant, who played Dédé, wasn't a professional actor but really was a criminal that Renoir thought would be perfect for the part. Meanwhile, as often happens on a movie set, Michel Simon and Janie Marèze not only played lovers onscreen, they assumed the role in real life as well. Unfortunately, while Flamant was driving Marèze to the premiere, he wrecked his car and she was killed. A despondent Simon actually fainted at her graveside funeral. Later, he pulled a gun on Renoir (how Herzog-Kinski!), threatening to kill him because he blamed him for hiring someone such as Flamant in the first place. Renoir reportedly told him to go ahead and kill him for he already had his film. Needless to say, Simon didn't kill Renoir and worked with him again on his next film and Renoir went on to make even greater films.