Combustible Celluloid
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With: Michel Simon, Janie Mareze, Georges Flament, Jean Gehret
Written by: Jean Renoir, from the novel by Georges de la Fouchardiere
Directed by: Jean Renoir
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 85
Date: 11/19/1931

La Chienne (1931)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Dog's Day

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Legendary French director Jean Renoir hunkered down and got serious for this, his first real masterpiece and his most toxic movie. Yet it was the only time he dabbled in the "low" thriller genre.

The great Michel Simon (L'Atalante, The Two of Us) stars as Legrand, an accountant and part-time painter saddled with a shrieking harpy of a wife. He "saves" a prostitute named Lucienne (Janie Mareze) from a beating, falls in love with her and rents her a secret apartment. But Lucienne still has a thing for her "boyfriend" (a.k.a her pimp) 'Dede' (Georges Flamant) and continues to see him on the side.

Dede cooks up a scheme to sell some of Legrand's paintings with Lucienne posing as the artist and signing Legrand's work. But Legrand catches on and murders her in cold blood with Dede to hang for it. The kick-in-the-pants ending has Legrand, now a tattered tramp living in the streets watching one of his paintings (a self-portrait no less) being sold for big dough.

Even with this pulp material (from a novel by Georges de La Fouchardière) Renoir manages moments of great beauty and humanity. He shot real exteriors to match his set-bound interiors, opening up the feel of the film. One great shot has Legrand entering his love nest among a group of pedestrians, gathered to listen to a street musician. The camera then moves up three stories to the top floor where we see Legrand strangling Lucienne. It moves back down in time to see Legrand exiting the building, noticed by no one, and the music continuing throughout.

It's a harsh movie to get through, but surprisingly effective once you do. The same material was turned into an equally harsh, and equally great movie by Fritz Lang, Scarlet Street, a decade later.

In 2016, the Criterion Collection released an impossibly beautiful new Blu-ray, looking for all the world like a fresh, new print. It's a new 4K transfer, with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack, and a new subtitle translation. The extras are quite generous. It comes with a filmed 1961 intro by Renoir himself, plus a restoration of Renoir's On purge bébé (1931), also starring Simon. There's also a feature-length conversation between Renoir and Simon, from 1967, directed by a young Jacques Rivette. Finally, we get a new interview with Renoir scholar Christopher Faulkner. Film scholar Ginette Vincendeau provides the liner notes essay, which folds out into a lovely new poster.

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