Jean Renoir is best known for two movie masterpieces he directed in the late 1930s: La Règle du jeu, a social satire often cited as one of the best films of all time, and La Grand Illusion, a highly regarded anti-war film. The latter was infamously described by Joseph Goebbels as “cinematic public enemy no.1”, and was among the first things the Nazis seized when they occupied France.
Less well known is the director’s earlier film La Chienne (“The Bitch”), a controversial social critique that is part noir and part tragicomedy, but resists ready categorisation. Its opening scene, in which puppets fight over what kind of film it is, quickly sets the tone — violent but playful, melodramatic but ironic — and primes the audience to interpret it as they see fit. The surviving puppet introduces the main characters: “He, she, and the other guy . . . as usual.” There is Legrand, a timid cashier and painter; Lulu, a prostitute he falls for (“She is always sincere and she lies all the time”); and Dédé, Lulu’s scheming lover and pimp, who rolls his eyes more than any film character I have ever seen.
Legrand is unhappily married to a henpecking harridan who makes no secret of her contempt for her second husband and his art. He jumps at the chance of an affair with a seemingly less vicious young woman. Intervening in a fight between Lulu and Dédé, Legrand sets the woman up in a flat, where he also begins to store his paintings (lots of baleful self-portraits). He is soon exploited by the unscrupulous couple, who mistakenly believe him to be a successful artist.
The story takes some surprising twists, while layers of duplicity pile up to breaking point. Observing the tangle, a concierge muses: “Let them stew in their own juice”. This might also be Renoir’s attitude: people get into trouble — let us see what happens. La Chienne’s characters learn no lessons and receive no justice; they are dragged to their destinies, blindly and sometimes fatally. Nor does the film reach a tidy resolution. It is suffused with cynicism and degradation, but transcends them at the same time through Renoir’s light touch. The silent era had recently ended, and the film is full of the sounds and incidents of its Montmartre neighbourhood.
For example, in a scene central to the drama, the camera suddenly cuts from a tense argument to an improvised weapon to a street performance outside the building, lingering a moment before returning to the story in the aftermath of its critical turning point. Such camera movement would seem perverse in most contemporary films, which would be more likely to play on the audience’s emotional involvement by bringing the characters to an orchestra-led epiphany. Renoir spares us any such false flattery.
In a short essay called “The Greatest of All Directors”, Orson Welles wrote about Renoir’s belief that “every artist must be twenty years ahead of his time”. La Chienne remains fresh, funny and affecting many decades later; we can only imagine how scandalous it must have been on its release at the beginning of the 1930s. The BBFC banned it in the UK and it remained unscreened in the U.S. until 1975. (I don’t know if it has a history with the Irish censors.) It was remade in 1945 as Scarlet Street, directed by the great Fritz Lang. The remake is more noticeably noir, and adds more cruelty to the black comedy of its predecessor.
Ironic as Renoir’s direction was, it was soon trumped by off-screen events. In an eerie and extreme case of life imitating art, Michel Simon (the actor who played Legrand) fell for his co-star, Janie Marèze, but she fell for George Flamant, who played her pimp in La Chienne. Soon after the film’s completion, Marèze died, at the age of 23, as a passenger in a car Flamant was driving. Simon was devastated, and threatened Renoir with a gun at the funeral. Tragedy, it seems, got the upper hand in the end.