Jean Renoir gave French actor Michel Simon his breakout role in this, La Chienne, considered to be Renoir’s first major success in his string of classics from the 1930s. Renoir as a filmmaker bugs me; he is clearly very good at what he does technically, but what he does is rarely all that entertaining even for a classical film. I loved La Grande Illusion, and appreciated La Regle du Jeu, but it seems the earlier into Renoir’s career I go, the less I’m finding. Which makes sense, that he would get better with time, so maybe it’s my own fault for essentially watching the man’s major works in reverse order. Oh well; here’s La Chienne, the earliest of Renoir’s films to make the list, and arguably the most rudimentary.
Simon plays Maurice Legrand, an average joe working under the thumb of society, and the tempered fist of his harpy of a wife (really, it stuns my brain to think there are actually people like this woman out there in the world). One night, he runs into Lulu, a street girl, and pretty much falls instantly in love with her. Lulu, however, with the aid of her pimp Dede, begins using Maurice and extorting money and gifts from him, with his blind love for Lulu disallowing any realization on his part. Maurice is slightly more upright than the bums and buffoons I’m used to seeing Simon portray, so this was a bit of a culture shock, but it didn’t make his performance any less competent. On the technical side, this seemed like a thesis film for Renoir, one to simply make sure he really knew how to make sound pictures; this being only his second. There’s nothing too outstanding, but in typical Renoir fashion, it is well constructed. Well, except for the waltz Lulu and Dede share about halfway through the film, which is shot handheld; needless to say, it’s truly a wonder how cameramen and DPs got by before the invention of the Steadicam.
The film had a really disjointed narrative. It often skips large chunks of time, which would have been better suited to getting us to care more for Maurice; instead, the film focuses much of its screentime on the devious pair of lovers, inadvertently causing us to sympathize more with them as main characters rather than Maurice. Of course, it doesn’t help that Maurice’s rose-tinted glasses are completely opaque when it comes to Lulu and how she is using him, so we almost want the “bad guys” to win in this one. Also, tying in with the film skipping chunks of time, is that what time we do spend in the film is either spent with Lulu and Dede, or with an off-the-cuff subplot involving Maurice and his wife and her first husband, that takes up all of the second act of the film, before ending and leaving us with the third act, which starts off by resolving the main plot of the film, with twenty minutes still left in the running time. This plotline is just really, really odd, and I can’t tell if it makes the film special or if it’s completely a rookie mistake, structuring the film the way it is. Still, I was left unsure of how the film would end even minutes before the actual ending, so it kept me in suspense the whole way through, which is something. If you haven’t seen a Renoir film, and want to delve into the fine work of this man, this would probably be the best place to start. It might be a difficult watch, especially for how short it is, but it’s a key Renoir work, so I can take it in stride.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10