“It's all over. I'll never see her again. It'll be the death of me, I know it. I couldn't bear to hold her anymore.”
Maybe because I have never been head over heels passionately in love with someone I have never understood how love can make people do crazy things. At this point in my life doing crazy things for love is crazy to me. I do not know if I ever want to experience that but who knows where life will lead me. I can understand loving someone so much you would sacrifice yourself to save them but I could never understand killing someone for another person just to be with them. So many dramatic films are like that especially ones from the Golden Age. I occasionally do not mind a soppy messy romance film but sometimes I want to rip my eyeballs and my hair out. But is it weird that when there is a story where a man kills his lover’s husband I do not mind it if it is a foreign film specifically a French film? I do not know why but I find French films with even the most generic plot to be ten times better than American films. That even goes for classic films. The 1938 French film La Bête Humaine tells such a story and I actually really liked it.
A train pulls into Le Harve Station. The station master Roubaud hears the complaints of a wealthy passenger after someone has complained of him having a dog in his compartment. Roubaud does not care who the man is he must abide by the rules and explains that the rules are the dog must be boarded when on the train. When his shift is over Roubaud goes back to his home to his wife Severine. Severine’s godfather, Grandmorin, is also a wealthy man with several connections. Roubaud wants her to speak to Grandmorin to see if he can clear things with the wealthy passenger.
Another train that had pulled into Le Harve needs to be fixed leaving the engineer Jacques with time on his hands. He goes to visit his godmother who lives in the area. She asks him how he has been feeling since the last time he was visiting he became very ill with a fever and headache. The doctors could not figure out what was wrong with him. Jacques knows but does not say out loud that his sickness is from generations of his family members being drunks. He feels that their drunkenness has seeped into his veins even though he himself does not drink a drop of alcohol. Jacques finds a girl named Flore whom he has not seen in some time. Flore rejects his advances and he nearly runs her into the ground and nearly kills her until a train comes by and snaps him out of his darkness.
Severine comes back from seeing her godfather. Roubaud was only making jokes about Severine possibly being her father since her mother was a maid in Granmorin’s house. He asks her about her ring again and she gives him another story. Roubaud figures out that Severine was one of Grandmorin’s mistresses. He loses it and chases her into a corner near the bed. He does not physically abuse her. He commands her to get up and write a letter to Grandmorin to meet her on a train in a specific compartment. On the train Roubaud takes out his knife Severine had given to him that day and drags her to the compartment where Grandmorin is waiting for her. Once in the compartment with his object of jealousy Roubaud draws the shades.
Jacques is on the same train and Severine and Roubaud. He was hanging out the window and got something in his eye. Just as he is clearing out his eye the murderous couple walks back to their compartment near where Jacques is standing. They are terrified with nerves that Jacques saw them come back to their compartment. Severine decides to try to flirt with Jacques to see if he had truly seen them. She decides he saw nothing. Grandmorin’s body is found by other railroad workers and the train is brought back to the station. Some of the passengers are questioned including Jacques. He says that he saw no one come from the compartment all the while looking straight at Severine.
Once again Severine decides to turn on her charms and flirt with Jacques to see what he knows. He tells her he knows she and Roubaud killed Grandmorin he saw them come back from his compartment but he did not want to say anything because he likes her. Soon their relationship becomes toxic. Jacques finds himself willing to do anything for Severine and she plays to that. When they are alone she tells Jacques that the only way for them to truly be together is if Roubaud was killed and that if he really loves her he will kill Roubaud for her. Jacques is all prepared to do so one night until just as he is about to kill the station master that he cannot do it. Severine leaves in an angry huff.
Jacques and Severine do not see each other for some time until one night at a dance. She has already moved on to another lover but it is obvious she still loves Jacques and he still loves her as well. Severine still goes on about how she will never be truly free until Roubaud is killed. With their romance rekindled Jacques feels he is ready to kill Roubaud. They hide in her apartment to wait for Roubaud to come back. They hear him coming up the stairs and get behind the door waiting for their prey. Severine kisses Jacques. He looks at her with a blank face and before either of them knows it his hands are around her throat. Roubaud comes home to find Severine dead.
Jacques walks along the train tracks all night right to the moment when he is scheduled to leave with his train. On the train he tells the other conductor what he has done to Severine. His guilt gets the best of him along the route. He jumps to his death.
La Bete Humaine is the second film in the Into Darkness: Investigating Film Noir class and program through TCM this summer. I am participating in this free online class. For this week’s topic those participating were encouraged to think about and discuss how the opening is like the openings of a Film Noir. The opening is the train Jacques is driving. As the audience it feels as though we are on this high speeding train through the tunnels and over the bridges on its route. You can see how the opening influenced the openings of Noirs. There is a feeling of dread and tension. You get the feeling that something will either happen to the train or something will happen to one of the men driving it. It is not a glamorous opening you also feel uneasy. It truly sets the pace of the rest of the film.
La Bête Humaine was a very good film. I loved seeing how Severine was like the femme fatales to come. Like the famous femme fatales of the Noir genre she used a man to get what she wanted. Severine had men wrapped around her finger at all times. She was irresistible. As I mentioned I really liked the plot of people doing crazy things when they are in love in French films and it worked really well in La Bête Humaine. I guess maybe with French films using this plot it is not overly dramatic or shoved down the audiences throats. It works with the overall plot. I also liked it here too because Severine was not really cold as ice or mean she was still kind in a weird way even though she wanted her husband killed and then ran away from Jacques when he could not carry their plan forward. La Bête Humaine is an interesting film to watch to see where the roots of Film Noir started forming. If you like the Noir genre or like French cinema, La Bête Humaine is definitely worth watching at least once.