The “Cynicism” of Jean Renoir’s La Chienne
Note: This is the hundred-and-sixty-third in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my third favorite 1931 film, LA CHIENNE, directed by Jean Renoir.
“La Chienne,” translated from French, means “The Bitch.” Jean Renoir’s second sound film, and the second in a decade that would see him transformed into “le patron,” the master, was never transliterated in this way for any release. But the namesake of LA CHIENNE, in spite of Michel Simon’s prominence as the timid cashier/amateur painter turned murderer turned tramp Maurice Legrand, is the woman he calls a bitch in the film’s climactic moment. He derides his Lulu (Janie Marèse), his mistress, a prostitute, a woman who, when the jig is up, reveals her disgust with Legrand. He calls her a slut. And then, he falls on top of her and weeps, causing her to laugh and enflaming his rage to the point of killing her with a knife. These two points in the love triangle of LA CHIENNE meet for the last time in a crime of passion, but such passion was always one-sided, and filled with predation. It seems a cynical theme, one of many that could be found in LA CHIENNE. Before her murder, many may very well see Lulu as a “bitch,” and perhaps they still do after. But Renoir has sympathy for the apparent namesake of his film, and LA CHIENNE is not so didactic as to deserve the simple designation of cynical.
Let’s be clear: LA CHIENNE is not an upbeat film. But it is also not a screed against certain behaviors, or a true morality tale. As the puppet show that opens the film makes clear, this is a play with no moral. The movie, we are told, has no point to prove. Of course, this is not entirely true, as Renoir suffuses LA CHIENNE with all kinds of meaning. In employing this framing device, however, he opens the audience’s imagination to the humanity to be found in his film, uncomfortable as some of that humanity might be. As the opening moments also state, this is a tale as old as time, one about He, She, and the Other Guy. The cynicism to be found in each of their characters can also give way to more humanistic interpretations.
Let’s start with He: Maurice Legrand, again, played by French acting legend Michel Simon. Legrand is a mousy fellow, but as the puppet at the beginning of the film states, he is so smart that others think him a fool. That intelligence rises later in LA CHIENNE, when he tricks his wife’s husband, long thought dead in World War I, into being caught by her and the authorities; the former sergeant was attempting to blackmail Legrand. This frees Legrand up to be with his mistress Lulu forever, but when he reaches the apartment he has set up for her, he discovers her in bed with her boyfriend and pimp Dédé, the Other Guy, played by Georges Flamant. Legrand departs without a word, then returns the next day, leading to Lulu’s murder. He departs again, with no witnesses, but Dédé arrives just after, and the landlady’s sighting of him just before the discovery of Lulu’s body leads to Dédé’s conviction and death sentence.
But back to Legrand, who it could be argued, is not He but the Other Guy. He is constantly on the outside, and played by Lulu and Dédé, who sell the paintings he has gifted to Lulu under a fake identity to gain money and prestige that should be his. Legrand steals from his company, a hosiery manufacturer, to support Lulu while the cash from his own paintings has been spent. The craziest part of all of these actions? He falls for Lulu’s bad lie after he discovered the paintings were for sale, and never even asks for a portion of the profits. Here is the cynicism to be found in Legrand: that when one is helplessly, deeply in love, they don’t see the shortcomings or even outright despicable behavior of the object of their desire.
But Renoir lets up on the cynicism concerning Legrand, even as he somewhat encourages it, in the epilogue of LA CHIENNE. At this point, it’s been many years, and Dédé is dead and gone. So is, apparently, Legrand’s former wife Adèle (Magdeleine Bérubet), a one-note shrew who always belittled him and his passion for painting. We learn this through Legrand’s chance meeting with the old sergeant Alexis. They are both tramps begging on the streets of Paris, and as Legrand notes, he wishes he was dead like his past wife. But after getting a whopping 20 francs, he exclaims that life is beautiful. He and Alexis walk out into the street, ready to feast, as Legrand’s self-portrait, loaded into the car of his 20 franc donator, departs from the curb. Legrand’s art has survived all these years, just like him. He is a murderer who got away scot-free, who allowed another to take the blame and pay the ultimate price. But Legrand is free, free to roam the streets and escape the captivity of his cashier cage, his apartment with his wife, and his predatory affair. It’s not fair, is it? But Renoir seems to appreciate Legrand’s freedom.
The cynicism surrounding She, or Lulu, is similar in a way. As the opening states, she is always sincere and always lying. She is always lying to Legrand, but she is always sincere in her love for Dédé. As I said in regards to Legrand: when one is helplessly, deeply in love, they don’t see the shortcomings or even outright despicable behavior of the object of their desire. In the case of Lulu, that’s in regards to Dédé’s shameless encouragement of her affair with Legrand, attempting to milk him for all he is worth, and his physically abusive nature. He’s a degenerate gambler and just an all around not good person. But Lulu loves him all the same.
In an introduction to LA CHIENNE on French television in 1961, Renoir said his idea for the film (which is based on the novel and play of the same name) came from his platonic love for the working class ladies of Paris. There is nothing more charming, he stated, than such a woman catching her train. In the case of Lulu, “catching the train” is dealing with Dédé. Legrand’s love affair with her begins when he pushes the boyfriend away from striking his girlfriend. He is already so smitten with her that he helps lead Dédé back to his home, heeding her pleas and explanations that he isn’t so bad.
Renoir accordingly affords Lulu a sympathy that her nominal placement as the “Bitch” might not imply. She is shown to greatly desire a traditional relationship, a little place in the country with her love, or to be taken out into “society” with her boyfriend who has now come into some money (thanks to her and Legrand). Lulu is not without appeal, beyond her good looks. Her faux relationship with Legrand is only convincing because her love is true for Dédé, for all his great faults. Although she is complicit in taking advantage of Legrand, Renoir has clear admiration for Lulu’s dedication to Dédé.
Ah, yes, Dédé. As has been described, he is not a good guy. As opposed to He and She’s descriptions in the beginning of the film, Dédé is simply referred to as, well…Dédé. Enough said. But in earlier stating that there are no heroes and villains in this story, LA CHIENNE’s puppet show vitally imparts Renoir’s perspective yet again.
Dédé is the portal to LA CHIENNE’s most cynical aspect, a realm that Renoir had a great deal of personal experience with, and much less sympathy for than a murderer, prostitute, or pimp: the art world. Renoir’s father was the famed painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Jean’s experience in dealing with his father’s estate obviously soured him on the hypocritical and farcical “business” of high art. Dédé passes off Legrand’s paintings, which are not signed, as “Clara Wood’s,” who Lulu pretends to be. He gains favor with an art critic, who as the man boastfully states, can make or break an artist’s career. Well, in the case of the American Clara Wood, he makes it. “Her” paintings sell well and at great sums; one receptionist at a gallery says that she has great fame abroad. But of course, this woman doesn’t exist. So, through Dédé’s dealings in this way, Renoir is making a critical assessment of the commodification of art, a commodification that isn’t even built on honest ground.
Dédé is not blameless for much of the cynicism of LA CHIENNE, but he is also used to take aim at another institution: the legal system. He is shown, after Lulu’s murder, to be a clear favorite for the culprit because of his criminal past. He is swiftly taken through the system and sentenced to the death penalty. Of course, we know he didn’t do it, but the authorities are shown to not even do their due diligence in interrogating Legrand; after all, he is not the usual kind to be mixed up in these sort of crimes. Dédé is never fully absolved of guilt. But in showing his final moments, as he lifts himself from sleep off his jail cell cot, light streaming onto his face from the window to the outside world, the realm of freedom that true murderer Legrand enjoys many years later, Renoir clearly paints him as some kind of sacrificial lamb.
What’s incredible about LA CHIENNE is that these interpretations are by no means definitive. For my own part, I don’t know that He, She, and the Other Guy deserve the favorable readings I’ve imparted. Most pieces of good art aren’t terribly didactic, but LA CHIENNE is particularly adept at weaving conflicting feelings into a compelling story, thanks in no small part to the cinematic language Renoir uses to support the central performances. It is not purely a telling of scandalous tragedy. The movie also sets the context for such stories we’ve heard about since the beginning of time, those violent resolutions of love triangles. LA CHIENNE embodies the spirit of the cinematic medium by rationalizing the irrational, by assigning faces, names, and complicated characters to the figures behind such tales. Ironically, a true cynic would never have opened the film with the puppet show. You could call it thematic fence-sitting, but the statements from Renoir’s puppets (themselves exaggerated representations of humanity) illuminate that we are not all one thing. He, Legrand, is smart yet foolish, sympathetic yet murderous. She, Lulu, is sincere yet dishonest, loving yet “a bitch.” The Other Guy Dédé, is, well, Dédé yet conniving, an innocent fall guy yet abusive. LA CHIENNE could simply be called cynical, sure, but cynicism is not supported by the kind of characterization that Renoir brings to his first truly great work.