Bete Humaine, La (1938)

Bete Humaine, La (1938)

“If my husband were out of the way, we could put our troubles behind us.”

When a stationmaster (Fernand Ledoux) kills the former lover (Jacques Berlioz) of his wife (Simone Simon) in a jealous rage, a train conductor (Jean Gabin) accidentally becomes involved in their cover-up and soon falls in love with Simon.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Domestic Abuse
  • Femmes Fatales
  • French Films
  • Homicidal Spouses
  • Infidelity
  • Jean Gabin Films
  • Jean Renoir Films
  • Plot to Murder
  • Simone Simon Films
  • Trains and Subways

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary writes, “Jean Gabin, France’s top romantic idol prior to WWII, had one of his best roles in Jean Renoir’s updating of Emile Zola’s novel,” playing a “world-weary… train engineer who is tormented by debilitating headaches that drive him toward violence.”

Peary notes that this “fatalistic, moodily photographed murder drama undoubtedly influenced American film noir, thematically and visually” — though interestingly, Simon’s character is presented from the beginning as the sympathetic victim of not only an abusive husband but a traumatic past, and her willingness to manipulate Gabin only gradually emerges. With that said, Peary argues that “the way femme fatale Simon uses sex to take control of Gabin — to make him act stupidly so he’ll fall into a trap — reminds [him] of how Kathleen Turner handles William Hurt in Body Heat,” and that’s one possible way to interpret things here.

Regardless, we’re kept genuinely in suspense throughout, wondering what moves each individual will make next given that none of them — Gabin, Simon, or Ledoux — is predictable. Renoir makes excellent use of real-life railroad locales, and the investment he made in encouraging Gabin to learn how to actually conduct a train shows up in the film’s overall air of authenticity:

Watch for Renoir himself in a cameo role as the unfortunate passenger who ends up wrongfully taking the blame for Berlioz’s death:

Remade by Fritz Lang in 1954 as Human Desire, which is equally worthy viewing.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Jean Gabin as Jacques
  • Simone Simon as Severine
  • Fine cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as one of Renoir’s best films.


  • Foreign Gem
  • Genuine Classic
  • Important Director


One thought on “Bete Humaine, La (1938)

  1. A tentative once-must, for its place in French cinema history. That said, for me its flaws get in the way of making it an enthusiastic must-see.

    Having rather recently rewatched Lang’s ‘Human Desire’, I naturally had that film in my head for this revisit. And the Lang film kept revealing itself to me as the better film.

    As I noted in my response to ‘HD’, Renoir only used part of Zola’s novel (one I haven’t read). While this French screen version at least feels more faithful to the book (and its emotions), it also feels rather truncated – with motivations unclear and events smashed together.

    ‘Human Desire’, on the other hand, seems to play out more organically and in a more satisfying way.

    Fans of Gabin and Simon will, of course, want to check this film out; a few of their scenes together are particularly potent.

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