“What happens with great actors, and consequently with Michel Simon, is that they unmask you, bring dreams that you’ve had, but haven’t expressed, to light.” —Renoir
In La Chienne, Michel Simon is an unhappily married middle-aged bank clerk whose only passion in life is painting, which he does in his spare time, until he becomes obsessed with a prostitute (Janie Marèze). She plays him for the tragic sucker he is. Unlike Fritz Lang’s remake, Scarlet Street, as Bertrand Augst points out, Renoir’s protagonist has no remorse. The film is infused with a sado-masochistic sexuality that is both heightened and tempered by Renoir’s camera, which (Renoir said) followed “the slightest detour of [Simon’s] thoughts”—through windows, through time, truly through depth of field. In Renoir’s first major sound film, shot on location, sync (rather than mixed) sound is brilliantly used: “Not only is the caustic criticism of French society most explicitly depicted in the mise-en-scène, but the soundtrack dramatizes very effectively the underlying social conflicts which characterize this society.” (Augst) —BAM/PFA
The son of the painter Auguste Renoir, Jean Renoir became one of France’s most important and respected filmmakers during the middle of the 20th century. A Philosophy and Math student, Renoir became a cavalryman, but was invalided out of the army before World War I. Later, he married a model and aspiring actress, and, following the death of his father and the acquisition of an inheritance, set up his own production company to produce movies for his wife. Renoir learned from these early experiences of financing movies and watching other films, and became a director in 1924. With the advent of sound, Renoir’s career was quickly made with a series of profitable films, including La Chienne (1931), a savage and dark drama about a man’s self-destruction, which was later remade by Fritz Lang as Scarlet Street. Renoir’s subsequent films, including The Lower Depths (1936) and Grand Illusion (1937), were among the finest made in France before the war, and were well acknowledged at the time of… read more
In the film Michel Simon falls in love with Janie Marèse, and he did off-screen as well, while Marèze fell for Georges Flamant, who plays the pimp. Renoir and producer Pierre Braunberger had encouraged the relationship between Flamant and Marèze in order to get the fullest conviction into their performances - (Flamant was a professional criminal but an amateur actor). After the film had been completed Flamant, who could barely drive, took Marèse for a drive, crashed the car and she was killed. At the funeral Michel Simon fainted and had to be supported as he walked past the grave. He threatened Renoir with a gun, saying that the death of Marèze was all his fault. "Kill me if you like", responded Renoir, "but I have made the film"
Working from the same source material later adapted again by Lang for Scarlet Street, Renoir fashions a marvellous film in a filmography already bulging with great work. The remarkable Simon, incapable of giving a bad performance, plays an artist whose infatuation with a woman of ill-repute leads to his downfall. The opening and closing scenes in particular are magnificent and show a director at the top of his game..
Renoir's direction doesn't follow the contemporary rules of that period, but relies solely - like all great filmmakers - on his own notion of form and narrative, one of the many reasons this film has aged extremely well, in addition to the great performances of course.