Jean Renoir’s ruthless love triangle tale, his second sound film, is a true precursor to his brilliantly bitter The Rules of the Game, displaying all of the filmmaker’s visual genius and fully imbued with his profound sense of humanity. A hangdog Michel Simon cuts a tragic figure as an unhappily married cashier and amateur painter who becomes so smitten with a prostitute that he refuses to see the obvious: that she and her pimp boyfriend are taking advantage of him. Renoir’s elegant compositions and camera movements carry this twisting and turning narrative—a stinging commentary on class and sexual divides—to an unforgettably ironic conclusion.
Jean Renoir is one of the most well-respected filmmakers in cinema history. There are classes taught specifically on him and there are many scholars who have devoted their lives to teaching and talking about Jean Renoir. The French director is most known for his dark humor and amazing characters in his films, including 'Grand Illusion' and 'The Rules of the Game', which are often cited with words like, "Greatest movies ever made." Before those films were made and released, Renoir made a little film that doesn't often get discussed, which is 'La Chienne', which in English means 'The Bitch'.
The film was made in 1931, right about the time most filmmakers were transitioning from silent films to "talkies", or films with sound and audio dialogue. In fact, this was Renoir's first feature film to have sound and his story he told was quite controversial at the time, as it wasn't shown in the states until the 1970s. With the many limitations from the early 30's in film, Renoir crafted a mix of drama and comedy in this compelling story about a man who just wants to be loved. Things of course don't go as planned.
Renoir's use of the camera to tell his story, often switching back and forth from the story at hand and a crowded street of people was rather fascinating in that he recorded every sound and noise live. When you think about this, it's quite brilliant. 'La Chienne' follows a sad sack of a man named Maurice (Michel Simon), who has a day job, but his true passion is painting. His wife doesn't respect him and doesn't like his paintings. Soon enough, Maurice comes across a woman named LuLu (Janie Marese) who is being beaten by a man in the street. Maurice rescues her and he falls head over heels for her. Lulu also seems to like him and his paintings.
Little does Maurice know that the guy beating Lulu in the street was her pimp and that she is actually a prostitute, and that Lulu is still very much in love with her pimp, making this a little like 'Casino'. Maurice gives her his paintings to hang up, which Lulu and her pimp sell to art galleries under a fake name with Lulu as the supposed artist. Maurice's paintings sell like hot cakes here and he even finds out about this con, but as long as Lulu still "loves" him, he doesn't care that she's selling them. Things take a dark turn when he finds out about her pimp though, which ultimately leads to an ironic ending.
Lovers of Renoir are sure to enjoy this early film of his and appreciate the humor and unfortunate conflicts that arise here. In the beginning of the film, there are a few puppets that tell the audience that this is neither a comedy or a drama and that there are no villains or heroes in this story. This is a ploy for sure by Renoir, as there are variations of these aspects to the film, but with each character and element, we can relate to most of the actions and decisions the characters make. That was his long con for the movie and it successfully worked, making 'La Chienne' a hidden gem in Renoir's resume.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'La Chienne' comes with a 50GB Blu-ray Disc from Criterion that is Region A Locked with the spine #818. The disc is housed in a clear, hard plastic case with a fold out booklet of a poster from the film as well as an essay from Ginette Vincendeau.
'La Chienne' comes with a 1080p HD transfer and is presented in a rare 1.19:1 aspect ratio. According to the Criterion booklet, this is a new digital transfer that was created in a 4K resolution from a 35mm safety fine grain made from the original 35mm nitrate negative. Then the film was restored in 2K resolution. Now let me say that this film is 85 years old. You read that right. 85 years old, and Criterion has done an excellent job in remastering this print.
There is some great detail here on this old film that is clear and vivid. There is a great layer of grain as well throughout. The contrast looks exquisite too. The image has some depth now and looks rich, for being an 85 year old film. Sure, there are some minor issues here and there, but overall, this video presentation is top notch.
This release comes with French LPCM Mono mix that sounds about as good as it can, given the age of the film and the restrictions from the time period. The people at Criterion have done the best they can here, but just don't expect a fully immersive experience or something with really any depth to it. Dialogue sounds decent enough in French with optional English subtitles, but it can sound delicate at times with a tin-can ring to it.
The score sounds good, but sometimes over-powers the dialogue too. This is an issue with how the sound was recorded in the 30s and not the transfer. Still, this audio presentation has some good moments, but this isn't the best sounding film.
Introduction by Jean Renoir (HD, 3 Mins.) - This intro is from 1961 and took place before a television broadcast of the film. He talks about why he made the film and the difficulties in making it.
'On Purge BeBe' (HD, 52 Mins.) - This is a short film from Jean Renoir that he made in order to secure financing for 'La Chienne'. It also proved that he could make a talking picture without breaking the bank. It's actually a fun film that stars Michel Simon.
Renoir in Transition: From Silent to Sound Film (HD, 26 Mins.) - Film scholar Christopher Faulkner who is an expert on Renoir, discusses Renior's life and how he transitioned into the iconic filmmaker we know today with the use of sound in films.
Jean Renoir le patron: Michel Simon (HD, 95 Mins.) - This is part of a trilogy of segments that aired in 1967 as part of a documentary. It was directed by Jacques Rivette and is mostly just a fun conversation between Michel Simon and Jean Renoir as they talk about their early lives, films, and culture.
Criterion Booklet - A foldout booklet of a poster from the film as well as an essay from Ginette Vincendeau.
'La Chienne' is a great early work of the iconic filmmaker Jean Renoir. It was his first feature film that included sound, and he did an impressive job in combining the imagery and sound here for 1931. The film still holds up after 85 years and packs a punch. Criterion has yet again knocked it out of the park with the video and audio presentations, as well as with the bonus features, all of them which are worth watching. 'La Chienne' comes highly recommended!