Life has not gone well for Maurice Legrand (Michel Simon). He works as a cashier for a hosiery company and is generally despised by his colleagues. In an opening scene, they openly mock and scorn him for being a wet blanket and for having to run home to his wife instead of going out on the town with them. The wife, too, rather deplores Maurice and spends nearly every moment of her time on screen berating him. The only pleasure the poor fellow gets from life is painting and even that is spat upon by his wife who declares he is terrible at it and that it is cluttering up her home.
One evening, he comes across a beautiful young woman, Lulu (Janie Marese), being smacked about by Dédé (Georges Flamant). In a remarkable moment of courage, Maurice strikes out, rescuing Lulu from the violence. Little does he know the scene was staged as those two are hustlers and he has just become their mark. She uses her beauty and his obvious desire to get him to set her up in a nice flat and lavish her with gifts.
This isn’t enough for Dédé who acts as both Lulu’s boyfriend and her pimp. He demands more money to blow on booze and gambling and hatches a plan to sell Maurice’s paintings (which lovingly decorate the new flat) by pretending Lulu is the painter. In a lovely bit of satire, the art world loves the paintings (though this may be due more over their desire of Lulu than the actual art).
All is well for a time. Maurice is happy, Lulu is happy, and Dédé is at least satiated. Maurice doesn’t even seem to mind about the art and never asks for his share of the money. It is only when he finds Lulu in bed with Dédé that things change. I won’t spoil the various ironic endings except to say it goes to places that can still surprise, even after all these years.
La Chienne was Jean Renoir’s second sound film (the first, On Purge Bébé, a short film mostly made to prove the Renoir could make a more costly “talking” picture under budget, is also included in this set and has been restored). Renoir, the son of famed impressionist Auguste Renoir, certainly shows his father’s love of an impactful image. He frames his scenes with a unique visual style and fills each shot with a myriad of interesting images.
The window’s in Maurice’s apartment give direct views into the building next door. Inside, we see a family going about their daily lives. With the exception of a simple moment when Maurice looks longingly at their happiness, they have nothing whatsoever to do with the story. They are just one of the many details Renoir includes in his film to give it realism and depth. Outside the streets of Paris (filmed on location in Montmatre) are filled with extras walking, talking, and carrying on adding texture to the scene.
The story of misguided love and the people who abuse it is nothing new but under Renoir’s hand and with the actors' delicate touch it is rendered masterfully. Though it would be quite easy for it to do so, it never slips into melodrama and the ironic twists come naturally. La Chienne doesn’t quite live up to the director’s later masterpieces but it contains plenty of simple joys.
Criterion has released another superb edition to their collection. For a film that is 85 years old, it looks remarkable. It is surprisingly crisp and beautiful. God knows how long and with what loving care Criterion took to clean it up. The audio is rather limited, but this is not surprising as sound design was still in its infancy and the technology was just coming into existence, but the dialogue is never unclear. Renoir used mostly live audio on location and it generally comes in clear.
Extras include a loving introduction by Renoir (filmed in 1961 for television airings of the movie). Christopher Faulkner gives an informative talk about where La Chienne and On Purge Bébé sit in Renoir’s filmography and his transition from the silents to sound pictures. There is also a long discussion between Michel Simon and Renoir. Filmed in 1967 as part of a television series on Renoir, the two talk about everything under the sun, including their respective careers and this film, and act like old friends reuniting. Lastly, a nice-looking poster is included with an essay about the film included on the back.
I started to say this film is highly recommended to cinephiles interested in early sound pictures or fans of early French cinema, but really La Chienne is a great choice for anyone who loves great movies no matter the type.