Jean Renoir’s La Chienne
August 18, 2010 Leave a comment
Human Vice and Relationships in Jean Renoir’s La Chienne
Written for FRNCH 41 at UCLA with Professor Eric Gans on October 24, 2008
FRNCH 41 was one of the first classes I ever took at UCLA. I remember enjoying the class immensely, though admittedly falling asleep during some of the movies. La Chienne was an interesting film and I felt the most comfortable choosing it as the subject of one of my first undergraduate assignments. My teaching assistant was a patient, soft-spoken graduate student named Denis Pra. He was definitely a kind, congenial, and well-intentioned teaching assistant. I got an A on this assignment, but it is not without its mistakes and moments of awkardness.
Jean Renoir’s La Chienne is complex both in style and in narration; most intriguing however, are the numerous incidents of parallelism within his film that motivate the characterizations of the people in La Chienne’s 1930s universe as well as a deeper understanding of the film’s purpose. In a film such as this one, in which the overarching theme is the futility and isolation of one-sided relationships, the parallel sequences provide an almost geometric tragedy similar to lines that can never converge in a given a Euclidean space. The characters, Legrand, Lulu, and Dédé never experience a truly actualized relationship with another person; the bonds they do form are ephemeral and unsatisfying and, as indicated in the film, result in calamity and heartbreak. Indeed, it is at this depth of mutual reality that Renoir makes his most poignant point about humanity. Because humans are fallible, their relationships are consequently doomed to imperfection. This idea resonates throughout two integral parallel sequences in La Chienne in which Renoir makes deliberate narrative decisions to provide for the viewer a thematic continuity: the first sequence begins with an inebriated Legrand being cheeky with his wife and ends with Alexis Godard’s reveal to his shocked wife while the corresponding second sequence is the epilogue involving an older, rugged Legrand having a chance meeting with Alexis Godard once more in the streets of Paris and Legrand not noticing his self-portrait being carried out from the art gallery.
When Legrand and Alexis Godard interact, Alexis Godard functions as a device from the past returning to influence events of the present. In the first sequence, Alexis Godard is reintroduced into the Legrand household—he was previously only mentioned by Adèle to emasculate the unassuming and withdrawn Legrand—and enables Legrand to ultimately take steps toward what he later calls “Liberté et Lulu!” While not a primary character, Alexis Godard is a significant force in redirecting the destinies of characters in La Chienne; he is, in a sense, a catalytic plot device. As such a construct, Alexis Godard is appropriately characterized in the first sequence when he enters the Legrand household obscured by the shadows of night—for the audience, the lack of visual distinction when he breaks in further demonstrates the clarity of his role as a plot manipulation. Alexis Godard’s actions are comically intrusive and erratic; he knocks over household objects loudly, attempts to strangle Legrand, and almost clownishly expresses his dismay during Legrand’s reveal at the end of the sequence. Alexis Godard’s folly, his brash greed, prevents him from realizing the possibility of Legrand’s double-crossing, and in a surprising twist—for him at the very least—he is bound once more to a shrewish wife he sought to escape previously. Renoir also uses Alexis Godard’s greed to highlight the film’s juxtaposition of the bourgeoisie and the lower class; Alexis Godard is shown with raggedy clothes and an unshaven face, an eyesore when placed within the elegantly furnished Legrand abode. Alexis Godard’s behavior too is comparatively callous while Legrand, though he is supposedly drunk, is only jovial and a little loopy. Legrand’s behavior in this sequence is notably different from the quieter pensiveness the audience is accustomed to. When he lumbers into the scene, Legrand is almost playful and flirty. Whether his inebriation is falsified or genuine, he impishly flaunts it before the austere Adèle, a transgression that is empowered by his own self-revelry at capitalizing on an opportunity to break free from the shackles of a loveless union. This decision foreshadows a forthcoming kink in the plot viewers are expecting and allows viewers to invest in potential emotional fulfillment for Legrand before Renoir deems it improbable in the succeeding sequence. Legrand’s methodical entrapment of Alexis Godard is characteristic of an underlying calculating and supercilious demeanor previously unknown to the audience, for whom Legrand has merely been a pathetic, passive gentleman with no backbone. Legrand’s entrapment of Alexis Godard is first lauded as a maneuver of genius and it is apparent that he too feels a bit self-congratulatory. Though he is later rejected by Lulu in bed with Dédé and the situation is both highly embarrassing as it is unavoidable, the smug smile of success Legrand exhibits at the end of the sequence underscores his blaring ignorance to Lulu’s true intentions. The audience’s knowledge of Legrand’s blithe unawareness and cocksure self-belief casts him in a less sympathetic light that Renoir utilizes to emphasize his point about the follies of individual people and the resultant repercussions.
In the epilogue, the major points that develop, conclude, and echo the previously mentioned sequence, allow Renoir to drive home his theme of human shortcomings that result in the disintegration of their personal relationships. At this point in the film, the audience has already witnessed Lulu’s grisly end and Dédé’s final moments of genuineness before he is publicly decapitated, but the question of how Legrand, the main character, who seamlessly transitioned from an awkward bourgeois cashier to a smooth, law-evading murderer of prostitutes, fares is still up in the air. Arguably, prior to the epilogue, and if it did not occur at all, Legrand would be the most well-off character in the sense that though he did not ultimately obtain the idyllic life he so wanted with Lulu, he largely got what he wanted when he rid himself of Adèle and managed to not be held culpable for a gory crime of passion. From a narrative standpoint, without the epilogue, the theme is less meaningful because when the final scenes deal with the murder trial and the injustices that occur within the court system, the audience has less of a desire to care about human inadequacies when humans are at the whims of forces beyond their control, such as an unjust judicial infrastructure, because it becomes more about the infrastructure’s failure in aiding or maintaining society, rather than a person’s failure within themselves that causes them to end up in an unfortunate position. Thus, Renoir includes a nifty little sequence at the very end that reunites Legrand and Alexis Godard, and for the audience, there is a sense of parallelism when in spite of years that have passed since their last meeting, it is humorously easy for the audience to realize that both have become street vagrants. The manner in which they first meet has a few similarities to the first sequence. When the two men first meet, they are antagonistic. When Alexis Godard realizes that Legrand has possibly double-crossed him, he furiously attempts to strangle the other man. Similarly in the epilogue, when Legrand realizes that the other homeless man may have stolen his money, he gruffly shouts at the other man and begins to shuffle to chase him down. As they come to the realization of who the other man is and suddenly begin to catch up and reminisce, the audience begins to realize how far both men have regressed, particularly the usually groomed and polite Legrand. The men continue speaking as they walk the streets of what is presumed to be Paris, and as they brag about what socially and morally unacceptable things they have done, all the while seemingly oblivious to their vile appearance and their uncouth verbals. It is as though Renoir is highlighting the overarching theme with his tongue firmly in his cheek; after all, Legrand and Alexis Godard seem to be rather satisfied homeless men leading their own lives, but as the audience witnesses how far Legrand has strayed from his previous existence, it’s as though he still ended up worse off than before as a result of his lack of foresight and honesty. Legrand, while a happy vagabond, is still a vagabond. (And a lonely one at that.) Renoir also repeats the idea of a device returning from the past to change the course of the future. Legrand and Alexis Godard “happen” to meet on a busy street in Paris and while both appear to be worse off, Legrand’s last spoken dialogue is “La vie est belle!” Thus, while Renoir intends for the audience to view Legrand and Alexis Godard’s existence as pitiful and wretched, he ends on a somewhat optimistic note—albeit with a hint of irony as well—much like the first sequence when Legrand is seen smiling to himself at the events unfolding before him because he intends to leave Adèle for Lulu. The epilogue also interestingly juxtaposes the rich, upper class with the poor much like the first sequence. As Legrand and Alexis Godard make their way to the window of the art gallery and look at the paintings in the window, they are woeful outsiders. This disparity is further emphasized by Renoir’s poignant last shot of Legrand’s self-portrait in a sculpted ornate frame, which passes Legrand by without even an inkling of recognition on his part. Here, Renoir hits the hardest with the theme. Because of his own decisions and misguided beliefs in himself and in others, Legrand finds all his relationships from his dry marriage with Adèle to his own connection to himself reduced to a tenuous connection with a fellow drunk homeless man. This divorce from the self is illuminated by the symbol of Legrand’s self portrait as it is driven away without any acknowledgement from its creator.
While Jean Renoir proves the theme of human imperfection as the ultimate destructor of the bonds people make throughout their lives via a gamut of parallel sequences and corresponding characters, because Renoir takes the characters of Legrand and Alexis Godard to the very end, allowing them to live their lives completely, it is a pairing that sees the theme to its final climax in which it can be applied to humanity. Within Legrand and perhaps within Alexis Godard as well, the audience can see loner that has only sought to find one true companion. But, as Renoir cautions his audience in La Chienne, things are not always as they seem, for the vices people harbor within can poison the desire for a meaningful relationship until it becomes an irreparable separateness.