Sunday, February 7, 2010

1931: La chienne (Jean Renoir)

1931: La chienne (Jean Renoir)

I hate to admit it, but the first time I saw this I was in my favorite theater in Paris (Le Grand Action), and I fell asleep.  I'm sure it was during one of my "three or four films in a day" binges, and I just couldn't keep my eyes open any longer.  Anyway, I think I finally saw it for the first time in its entirety during the Fall of 1996, and it's haunted me ever since.  

As I mentioned in my 1930 post, there are great similarities between this film and Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel.  I'm sure it's even quite possible that von Sternberg influenced Renoir.  But, the Renoir, and Michel Simon's descent (SPOILER!) into absolute depravity, have always felt more rooted in reality (more human, more true) than Jannings' performance.   

I once heard the great French director, Claude Chabrol, say that the ideal filmmaker would consist of Renoir's vitality and Fritz Lang's rigor.  I'm not sure I don't agree.  I've always thought it interesting that Lang only re-made two films in his career and both were originally directed by Jean Renoir (Human Desire was a retread of Renoir's La bete humaine and Scarlet Street of La chienne).  

Like The Blue Angel, La chienne is a grand tragedy, and I feel every inch of Michel Simon's hope and then despair.  There's a naturalism in Renoir's approach to the film that has always greatly appealed to me. But, more than anything, it's the profoundness of Simon's journey that will always stay with me.  

Other contenders for 1931: There are some things I still need to see from this year, most notably: James Whale's Frankenstein, Rene Clair's A nous la liberte, and Josef von Sternberg's Dishonored.  I also have never seen Josef von Sternberg's An American Tragedy, DW Griffith's final film The Struggle, GW Pabst's The Threepenny Opera, Lewis Milestone's The Front Page, Dziga Vertov's Enthusiasm, Rene Clair's Le million, and Frank Capra's Platinum Blonde.  I am a fan of both The Champ and The Public Enemy, but this is a highly competitive year for me and neither of these films could really compete for my top choice.  Then there is M, probably my favorite opening in the history of film, and a film for which I have absolute admiration and respect.  But, emotionally I respond more strongly to my top pick and my #1 runner-up, City Lights. This is my favorite Chaplin, and one of my favorite films of all time, but I finally gave the slight edge to the Renoir as Michel Simon's journey in the film still haunts me to this day.

2/28/10 I watched Rene Clair's A nous la liberte.  Although I know it's Clair's Modern Times and it has its charming moments, it never quite grabbed me.  

3/3/10 I watched Frank Capra's Platinum Blonde.  I loved Loretta Young in the film and Robert Williams in his final role.  The film though never fully grabbed me.  

3/4/10 I watched Rene Clair's Le million.  It had some really charming moments, but some of it lost focus and drive for me, particularly during the long scenes of La Boheme.  

4/30/10 I watched DW Griffith's The Struggle.  It definitely mines some dark and admirable territory, but I can't say it's all fully felt.  The wedding party scene when Jimmy disappears is certainly quite devastating though, and Zita Johann exceptionally beautiful.  

5/1/10 I watched James Whale's Frankenstein.  A bona fide classic. Whale really goes a long way towards humanizing the monster, and scenes like the one he has with the little girl and his final stand are quite moving.  Whale also brings a nice playfulness to the proceedings.

5/2/10 I watched GW Pabst's The 3 Penny Opera.  I find Pabst's style slightly stodgy, just like I did with his two Louise Brooks films.  But this one had some nice moments.  I particularly liked when we first meet Mr. Peachum.  

4/6/14 I watched Rene Clair's A Nous la Liberte.  I did not realize I was rewatching this one.  It has a major reputation but feels dated and thin narratively and emotionally.  

10/11/14 I watched Alfred Hitchcock's The Skin Game.  A pretty hard to follow, underwhelming early Hitch that seems to be trying to find its way into the new era of sound in cinema.  Hitch still manages to show a little flair such as the long sequence he creates as the two men square off at the auction.  

10/13/15 I watched Yasujiro Ozu's The Lady and the Beard.  Seems to be his first film where the tatami shots abound.  Not yet in the full world of Ozu but interesting to see the pieces starting to take shape. 

1/2/16 I am back to working my way through all of Ozu's work chronologically.  This next entry, Tokyo Chorus, seems to be the first-blown emergence of the style most people think of when they think of the filmmaker.  Nearly the entire film is shot tatami-style and with a static camera.

5/28/18 I watched Jean Vigo's Taris.  The way that he uses reverse and slow motion are still more magical and lyrical than they have been in the hands of any other filmmaker.

10/11/19 I watched Howard Hawks' The Criminal Code.  A rare Hawks that I have been wanting to see.  It has some extraordinary moments, particularly centered around Walter Huston or Boris Karloff's acting.  Some of the scenes feel a little rickety but Hawks keeps the story headed in unpredictable directions and by the end it is unclear what type of ending he is going to give us.


  1. Very fine choice here Jeffrey, as Renoir is one of the greatest of all-directors, and has at least five masterworks, including this sordid piece of realism that inspired the later but inferior SCARLET STREET. Yes I agree that the great Michel Simon is in vintage form here too. I was fortunate to own the Image laserdisc of this title, which is yet to enjoy a legitimate DVD release on Region 1. Chaplin's CITY LIGHTS (which you do subsequently note yourself) is one of the greatest films of all-time, and for me it's the best of 1930. The final scene of this shattering masterpiece, which the blind girl hands the Tramp and the flower and schieces recognition is perhaps, the most emotionally moving film in all of cinema. Lang's M, Vertov's ENTHUSIASM, two Clair films and William Dieterle's little-seen THE LAST FLIGHT are masterpieces of cinema.

    My Own #1 Film of 1930:

    City Lights (Chaplin)


    M (Lang)
    Enthusiasm (Vertov)
    The Last Flight (Dieterle)
    A Nous la Liberte (Clair)
    La Million (Clair)
    La Chienne (Renoir)
    Kammeradschaft (Pabst)
    Madchen in Uniform (Sagan)
    Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Mamoulian)
    Frankenstein (Whale)

  2. Jeffrey, that was absolutely fantastic that you saw LA CHIENNE in Paris!!!

    That is the ULTIMATE experience. Wow!!!

    Another Renoir film I absolutely adore is one that comes later, UNE PARTIE DE CAMPAGNE. I hope you revere it too.

  3. Sam, we're in total agreement here! I love CITY LIGHTS so much, it's probably in my top ten of all time. LA CHIENNE just has a special place for me, too. I will track down that Vertov and those two Clair films, as well as the Dieterle. They all sound fantastic.

    I feel really fortunate to have had some cinephile experiences in France. My time there was definitely very formative and memorable, and I can't wait to go back.

    We're on the same page with UNE PARTIE DE CAMPAGNE, too. Here's a post I did recently on my favorite Renoir films:

    Thanks again, Sam! So great to have your expertise here.

  4. I went with Fritz Lang's M as my #1 for 1931, and I'll stick with that one now. I still believe it to be Lang's best movie. City Lights is a close second for me though.

    I haven't seen this Renoir, but I'd be shocked if I liked it more than Lang's later Scarlet Street.

  5. Dave, I totally hear you on M and CITY LIGHTS and absolutely understand those picks. I think they're both incredible films.

    I'd be interested to hear how LA CHIENNE treats you when you have a chance to see it. As a fan of noir and of the Lang film, I think you might really like it.

    Thanks for all the great comments!