Expanding the Palette of Pre-Noir


Between his twin Elvis years of 1937 (Grand Illusion) and 1939 (The Rules of the Game), master artiste Jean Renoir crafted this brooding, fluid adaptation of Émile Zola’s doctrinaire novel, expanding the palette of pre-noir “poetic realism” to include the hardscrabble locomotion of proletariat desperation and fashioning a national icon of working-class struggle in the process. The mechanics of Zola’s disastrous, homicide-poisoned love triangle—between train engineer Lantier (Jean Gabin), his co-worker Roubaud (Fernand Ledoux), and Roubaud’s luscious kitten-wife Séverine (Simone Simon)—are nearly supplanted by the machinery of the trains (Gabin drove them himself, and the sequences are realistic enough to come with hand signals instead of dialogue), and of Renoir’s mise-en-scéne, which comes at you in a subtle but relentless battery of transitional portals, doors, windows, movements, gazes, points of view, and secret spyings. If Fritz Lang used the same tale to tell a grim story about low-class American impulses 16 years later in Human Desire, Renoir characteristically saw to it that Zola’s prejudicial class attack gave way to a sense of sympathy, bruised victimhood, and communal meaning. The DVD edition, which offers the cleanest access to the uncensored film since Hitler invaded Poland, comes with a Criterion tool kit that includes a fat booklet written by Geoffrey O’Brien, Sight & Sound writer Ginette Vincendeau, and production designer Eugéne Lourié; a filmed introduction by Renoir; interviews regarding adapting Zola; a slice from a ’60s French TV show in which Renoir and Simon re-enact their prep dialogue for a famous scene; and more.

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