La Bête Humaine (1938)

12 04 2008

Not quite as great as Gabin’s collaborations with Marcel Carné but a good movie none the less. If it wasn’t obvious, this “poetic realism” has been growing on me a lot lately. Speaking of which, this is probably the most artistically ambitious film I’ve seen from period. Where this doesn’t have all the depth of Port of Shadows or Daybreak, it makes up for it in aesthetic categories. It seems that Renoir is a bit more willing to partake in some formal experimenting than his peers, but this doesn’t always yield fantastic results. Still, Jean Gabin is in this and he alone is worth giving it a try.

Jacques Lantier, a honest hard-working train conductor who gets caught in the middle of Mr. Grandmorin’s murder case, which was done by Roubad with his wife, Séverine. To keep him from talking, Séverine begins to spend time with Jacques, and eventually, they both fall in love. This is not part of Roubad’s plan, though, and he is constantly trying to win his wife back. Jacques and Séverine decide that the only way they’ll ever be able to live together in peace is if they kill Roubad. This plan, also goes wrong but results in something much more tragic.

As with Carné-Gabin collaborations, one has to be ready for a certain amount of overly-dated aspects. Fades, dissolves, overly-expressive music, a straightforward structure and so on. To make matters worse, the film begins with a excerpt from Zola’s original text with some terribly intrusive music in the background. From there on, though, it’s relatively smooth-sailing. The sequences on a real life train have a certain mystique to them. They have an odd steadicam feel brought on by the train’s organic vibrations. The fades, which are usually just a minor flaw, are practically problematic here as Renoir seems to be attempting a rapid-fire style of editing. This idea is eventually abandoned but I have to admit that it was interesting to see something new being tried in the context of a very a formal movie. This isn’t to discredit Renoir’s style, if anything, I find that this has a bit more lyrical visual style when compared to Carné’s work.

As skillful as Renoir is with the camera, he seems a bit lighter on the characters. For what it’s worth, Peter Bogdonavich recognizes this as being unusually plot-heavy for Renoir’s standards. Still, I could do without the self-conscious attempt at being film-noir. It seems that the few moments we are given to observe the characters are rushed, so much so that we can get to a scene that is more energetic. That said, all the performances do come off as very genuine with one exception, ironically enough, being a cameo performance from Renoir himself. Simone Simon, though is pretty fantastic, and of course, Gabin is magical in that inexplicable way. It seems that, regardless of the film, he is able to breath complexity into his character. He makes even the shallowest of writing seem deep and profound. Thankfully, the writing here isn’t shallow, and the film is extremely accomplished. In other words, there isn’t much to complain about.

Il Bell’Antonio (1960)

12 04 2008

While certainly tied down by some conventions of the time period, this does come off as a very good, albeit very flawed example of post Neo-realist Italy cinema. While it certainly doesn’t live up to Antonioni or Olmi (who I personally regard as the greatest directors of the period) it doesn’t seem that far off. A lot of the plot development is a bit soap-operaish but on the technical side of things, it’s a bit more polished, which makes for a very pleasing experience, regardless of the many problems.

Antonio has returned home to Cantania after a three year period in Rome, and with him, comes a wide variety of sexual rumors. At parties, women giggle behind his back and imagine being with him. He remains oddly passive, though, at least until he encounters a picture of Barbara, who his parents wish to marry. He joyfully agrees but after they wed, they have nothing to look forward to. Both attempt to show their love for one another but the result always feels awkward. It is eventually revealed that Antonio is impotent, which leads to an annulment from the church.

The tongue-in-cheek twist threatens to destroy the passive tone that haunts the lovers’ happier moments from earlier on in the film. The complexity of Antonio is attempted to be “explained” by this silly plot twist. Thankfully, the tone is never shifted to a carefree Italian comedy, which it easily could have done. Instead it gracefully attempts to pry into the reactions of Antonio’s family. Here is where I would have preferred some slightly more personal moments. The protagonist seems to disappear every now and then just so the local reaction can be observed. This is unneeded and frankly, uninteresting. In one of the more embarrassing stretches, Antonio’s cousin, played by Tomas Milian, attempts to provide solace to his neglected relative. The overly-expressive dialogue does bog down the pace as well, and makes for some laughable monologues.

Overall, though, this is still a really nice movie even though I can’t completely love it. Perhaps it’s a personal interest in 60s Italy that makes me want to try to like movies that I could easily dismiss. This is not L’Avventura, this is not Il Posto, but one gets the feelings that it’s on the way there. The enjoyment of this film comes out of a greater love for those films. If you don’t like Antonioni, there’s no reason to watch a watered-down version, but if you do, you’ll still have to overlook some things to like this.