“Now that I’m somebody, I’d much rather be nobody” sighs the title character, Lulu (Janie Marèse), of Jean Renoir’s La Chienne (1931) to her pimp Dédé (Georges Flamant). She has become an unlikely “somebody” by making someone else a “nobody”. Lulu is passing off this “nobody’s” paintings as her own, or rather as those of the American Clara Wood, thus robbing him of his gender and nationality as well as his name. That name, with clunky irony, is Michel Legrand (Michel Simon), who, far from being “grand”, is bullied at work and terrorised at home.
A dark absence stalks much popular French fiction of the late 1920s and early 1930s, such as the Maigret novels of Georges Simenon (1) or Georges de La Fouchardière’s La Chienne (1930). That pervasive, tangible absence is the generation of young Frenchmen slaughtered in the last war, and against which the surviving, usually hapless males are measured and found wanting. The shrewish Adèle Legrand (Magdeleine Bérubet) repeatedly compares the frozen image of her first husband, dead war hero Adjutant Alexis Godard (Roger Gaillard), to the personally negligible and physically unprepossessing reality of salaryman and Sunday painter Legrand. When this hero turns up alive, well and as a blackmailing tramp, grand illusions of heroism, memory and religion are destroyed. These were the only illusions left in a bleak world of confinement and self-defeating repetition, where the exploited exploit in their turn, creativity is corrupted, the not-very-innocent innocent are executed, murderers roam free, and the only possibility of resurrection is in the guise of a bum.
Michel Simon is today revered for his subsequent roles as shambling fauves in Boudu sauvé des eaux (Boudu Saved From Drowning, Jean Renoir, 1932) and L’Atalante (Jean Vigo, 1934), but he was often cast as constipated bourgeoises in films like Drôle de drame (Marcel Carné, 1937) and Circonstances atténuantes (Jean Boyer, 1939); his previous performance for Renoir, in the Feydeau adaptation On purge bébé (1931), was as a senior civil servant given the runs by the titular brat. His Legrand is introduced in the macho male company of his work colleagues as a bit of a mouse; the moving camera stops when it first reaches him; his fear of a scolding from his wife ruins a proposed spree at a brothel. Renoir emphasises Legrand’s confinement stylistically: the opening and closing sequences are boxed in a puppet theatre; the first “live action” shot is filmed from within a dumb waiter. Legrand is mostly framed in doorways and windows or behind the grille of his cubby hole at work, bannisters, and the bars of his bedstead. Camera movements turn back on themselves, windows open onto mirroring windows with their mirroring, narrow apartments. Depth-of-field only reveals the length of the entrapping space. André Bazin wrote, “There is a deliberate attempt [in La Chienne] to use a frame within the frame to underline the importance of all that lies beyond the limits of the screen” (2). But the effect of the frames is to underline suffocating limits where what a character sees – and doesn’t see – delimits their existence. There can be nothing beyond the screen – no true freedom from the frame – until desperate measures are taken. But perhaps this is too “psychological” a reading of an artist Bazin praised as a realist of manners, not psychology (3).
Is Legrand the sad sack he first appears? For all the bullying, he is the centre of conversation at that opening banquet. He has managed to plan his domestic life under unpromising conditions to express his creativity through painting, and he relates to his wife’s oppression with a protective irony that increases as he grows in confidence. He even plots the destiny of the four characters who most threaten his well-being. In a conventional film, his art would express a “true” self compared to the deadening rigidity of his social and domestic selves. Ditto his sexual self. But both his art and libido are prone to exploitation – when he comes home after first meeting and kissing Lulu, he trips over his paintings in the dark. They are as much a part of his oppression as his job, his marriage and his cramped apartment. Legrand’s growing confidence, freedom, and sense of self-worth are based on false premises – a fulfilling sexual relationship with a woman who actually hates him; a sense of mastery, liberation and resurgent identity (crowned by staging Godard’s public exposure) founded on the loss of gender, nationality and name mentioned above.
The motif of staging reminds us of Renoir’s perennial theme – the interplay of theatre and life – and the Guignol that frames the narrative. The prologue dehumanises the characters as “Lui”, “Elle” and “L’autre”, the plaything of puppets. They are also made bestial: Lulu may be the “bitch” (chienne) of the title, but the epithet could equally apply to Legrand (aka Clara Wood), whose narrative journey is from house trained dog to scavenging stray; the apartment he puts Lulu up in has a caged bird; animals recur as images in his painting; and an unlucky black kitten “guards” the murder room. But the prologue is also the first of many performances in the film that raise the issue of identity: speeches at the work party, records and waltzes in cafes, street singing, Clara Wood’s reception, Dédé’s trial. It is the ability of Legrand and Godard to adopt and adapt to roles that ensures their survival, figured in Legrand’s self-portrait-as bourgeois being driven away at the end of the film, without the artist even noticing. Lulu and Dédé remain the doomed whore and pimp of pulp fiction, even if Dédé’s wrongful arrest prompts a change from suave nastiness to desperate humanity that has no metaphysical charge but is rather magnificent.
The “absence” mentioned earlier is most important in the film’s key scene, where the fates of all three main characters are decided. In a film about naming, showing and exposure, Legrand’s murder of Lulu is pocked with ellipses. The camera moves outside the apartment building, glides by the room’s windows; Renoir crosscuts with street singing or fades to black. We don’t see the act, just its bloody result. It is a privileged moment because here the fates of “Lui”, “Elle” and “L’autre” converge and unravel. The film’s form, which has begun to move definitively from the studio to the streets, is ruptured to indicate what the Cahiers du cinéma critics read as Legrand’s almost spiritual release into “liberty” (4). If this was indeed Renoir’s intention, the misogyny is breathtaking: kill a woman, save your soul. The prologue affirms that La Chienne will be neither a comedy nor a drama and will carry no moral, but the moral seems to be: don’t be a woman in the world of La Chienne. Both women dominating Legrand’s life receive their brutal comeuppance, suffering either social or literal death.
In terms of Renoir’s career, however, La Chienne has long been seen as a rebirth, after his undervalued, often remarkable but erratic silent period. It was the first of a string of masterpieces that fused documentary realism and theatrical artifice, comedy and tragedy, political engagement and classical theme, visual bravura and experiment with sound to produce the greatest single body of work in the cinema.
La Chienne (1931 France 91 mins)
Prod Co: Les Etablissements BRAUNBERGER-RICHEBÉ Prod: Pierre Braunberger, Roger Richébe Dir: Jean Renoir Scr: Jean Renoir, André Girard, based on the novel by Georges de La Fouchardière Phot: Theodoré Sparkuhl Ed: Denise Tual, Paul Fejos
Cast: Michel Simon, Janie Marèse, Georges Flamant, Magdeleine Berubet, Gaillard, [Jean] Gehret, Romain Bouquet, Pierre Desty