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I Found It At The Movies: 1931: La chienne (Jean Renoir)

I Found It At The Movies: 1931: La chienne (Jean Renoir)

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Inspired by Dave Hicks’ excellent blog, I have decided to write about my favorite film for each year from 1926-2008.

I hate to admit it, but the first time I saw this I was in my favorite theater in Paris (Le Grand Action), and I fell asleep. I’m sure it was during one of my “three or four films in a day” binges and I just couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. Anyway, I think I finally saw it for the first time in its entirety during the fall of 1996—and it’s haunted me ever since.

As I mentioned in my 1930 post, there are great similarities between this film and Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel. I’m sure it’s even quite possible that von Sternberg influenced Renoir. But, the Renoir film and Michel Simon’s descent (SPOILER!) into absolute depravity, have always felt more rooted in reality (more human, more true) than Jannings’ performance.

I once heard the great French director Claude Chabrol say that the ideal moviemaker would consist of Renoir’s vitality and Fritz Lang’s rigor. I’m not sure I don’t agree. I’ve always thought it interesting that Lang only re-made two films in his career and both were originally directed by Jean Renoir (Human Desire was a retread of Renoir’s La bête humaine, and Scarlet Street a version of La chienne).

Like The Blue Angel, La chienne is a grand tragedy, and I feel every inch of Michel Simon’s hope, then despair. There’s a naturalism in Renoir’s approach to the film that has always greatly appealed to me. But, more than anything, it’s the profoundness of Simon’s journey that will always stay with me.

What moviemakers can learn: A certain “invisible style.” Jean Renoir was rarely flashy. He made well-crafted films that were perfectly cast and very nicely acted. It was always substance over surface for him, and his work always put the movie before the moviemaker.

Other contenders for 1931: There are some things I still need to see from this year. These include: Josef von Sternberg’s Dishonored and An American Tragedy, Lewis Milestone’s The Front Page and Dziga Vertov’s Enthusiasm. From this year, I really like King Vidor’s The Champ and William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy. I love James Whale’s Frankenstein and Fritz Lang’s M. And even though my closest runner-up, Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, is one of my favorite films of all time, I finally gave the slight edge to the Renoir. Michel Simon’s journey in the film still haunts me to this day.

After living in Los Angeles for seven years, Jeffrey Goodman returned to his hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana to direct The Last Lullaby. Co-written by the creator of Road to Perdition, and starring Tom Sizemore and Sasha Alexander, The Last Lullaby was filmed entirely in and around Shreveport and financed by 48 local investors. Goodman is now at work, raising money for his next feature, Peril.

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