Chienne, La (1931)

“You’re no woman. You’re a bitch. You lick the hand that feeds you — and the hand that beats you, too!”

Synopsis:
A henpecked husband (Michel Simon) falls in love with a deceptive prostitute (Janie Marese) who milks him for money, sells his amateur paintings under her own name, and maintains a clandestine relationship with her pimp boyfriend (Georges Flamant).

Genres:

Review:
Jean Renoir’s second “talkie” film — remade by Fritz Lang in 1945 as Scarlet Street — marked the leading-role debut of jowly Michel Simon. Simon is simply brilliant here, playing a man who can’t seem to win: he’s henpecked by his insufferable wife on one side, cuckolded and plagiarized by his duplicitous lover on the other. Yet despite the fact that Simon seems to be headed straight from the frying pan into the fire — and must ultimately pay dearly for his brief foray into misguided adultery — at least he’s taking control of his life for the first time; we can’t help but watch his downfall with both fascination and pity.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Michel Simon’s memorable performance as the cuckolded, love-struck painter
  • Janie Marese as the duplicitous prostitute who causes Simon’s downfall
  • Simon duping his wife’s no-good ex-husband into coming back to her
  • Creative camera work

Must See?
Yes. This early French version of Scarlet Street is arguably Jean Renoir’s first masterpiece, and remains must-see viewing. Peary lists it in the back of his book as both a Personal Recommendation and a film with historical significance.

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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One Response to “Chienne, La (1931)”

  1. First viewing. A must – as a solid entry in classic French cinema.

    How interesting to finally happen upon this earlier version (by Renoir) of Lang’s own classic ‘Scarlet Street’! This is a rare instance in which the original and the remake stand equally on their own (and how often does that happen?). One is not better than the other and each is a rich experience.

    There are differences: ‘La Chienne’ is a more somber work – even with the ingenious opening of a Punch and Judy show informing us – basically – that the film is either a comedy or a tragedy…but without a moral. (Which is true – it’s a film about being totally amoral.) Whereas ‘Scarlet Street’ is more pointedly amusing (thanks to the contributions of screenwriter Dudley Nichols), ‘La Chienne’ is more obviously sexual and unafraid to be so. (Ah, the difference between being open and European – and being held to America’s strict censorship code.) As well, certain scenes in ‘La Chienne’ do not appear in Lang’s film at all – but more than essentially the storyline in both remains the same and most of the key scenes are similar.

    Those who are put off (as I am, to a degree) by some films from the latter part of Renoir’s career would do well to see this film. It’s quite strong on just about every level and has given me more of an awareness of Renoir’s place in cinema. What is perhaps most intriguing is the delicacy with which Renoir handles such tawdry material. I’m assuming it was something of an eye-opener in its day and some of that power remains. Well, first of all…when the title of your tale is ‘The Bitch’… (Interestingly, said bitch’s actual name in the film is Lucienne – which sounds so close to the film’s title that one makes the assumption that this woman is intimately known by no other name than ‘Bitch’. …She really is a totally pathetic human being, even if less overtly so than in Lang’s remake. One suspects that there is just no ‘there’ there.)

    Of the leading men in both films, I will probably give Edward G. Robinson in ‘Scarlet Street’ the edge over Simon here – though Simon does give a wonderful, if subdued, performance. Robinson is given more psychological complexity – and I find that carries more weight for a character.

    A very satisfying, still potent example of film in the early sound era.

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