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Film / La Bête Humaine

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La Bête Humaine (The Human Beast) is a 1938 film directed by Jean Renoir, starring Jean Gabin and Simone Simon. It adapts the novel of the same name by Émile Zola.

Lantier (Gabin) is a railroad engineer who drives a train between Paris and Le Havre. He's a taciturn fellow who is well-liked by his fellow railroad men. He is very fond of his train engine, which he gives a woman's name, "Lison." He is not as close with any real women, for a very good reason. Lantier has a teeny-tiny little problem: moments of physical intimacy with women can cause him to slip into a fugue state—a "haze"—in which he is subject to murderous fits. This is established in an early scene where Lantier is canoodling with a young woman, only to slip into one of his hazes and start strangling her; her life is saved only by the whistle of an oncoming train which snaps Lantier out of it. Unlike your average Norman Bates-style psycho, Lantier is aware of this itty-bitty problem and thus spends most of his time with his train.

Meanwhile, Le Havre station master Roubeau and his wife Severine (Simone Simon) have less psychotic but still very real problems. Roubeau, balding and pot-bellied, is prone to moments of violent jealousy over his young, gorgeous wife. When Roubeau finds out that Severine was once the mistress of rich railroad baron Grandmorin, he snaps. He forces Severine to lure Grandmorin onto a train, where Roubeau stabs him to death.

The horror of watching Grandmorin murdered extinguishes any feelings Severine might have had for her husband. Now she wants out of the marriage and, knowing what kind of a jealous psycho her husband is, she looks for a lover who will kill her husband and free her. She makes what, unbeknownst to her, is the worst choice possible: Lantier.

Remade in Hollywood in 1954 as Human Desire, directed by Fritz Lang.


  • Creator Cameo: Jean Renoir often took small parts in his own movies, here appearing as Cabuche, the dimwitted track man who's arrested for Grandmorin's murder.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Severine was sexually abused by her godfather Grandmorin (her mother was in service at Grandmorin's place).
  • Dies Wide Open: Poor Severine, after Lantier snaps and stabs her to death.
  • Dirty Old Man: Grandmorin. He forced Severine to become his mistress when she was quite young and raped Louisette, Cabuche's friend, who died of it. It's implied he abused more girls, but his status made him a Villain with Good Publicity and the judge won't listen to Cabuche's accusations.
  • Downer Ending: Severine is stabbed to death by her unstable boyfriend. Soon after coming back to his senses, Lantier kills himself. Roubeau gets away with murder.
  • Driven to Suicide: Back in possession of his senses, and aware of what he's done, Lantier kills himself by flinging himself off the train.
  • Film Noir: Considered an early precursor of film noir, with adultery, a violently jealous husband, a faithless wife, and an Anti-Hero who has an affair with the faithless wife.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Roubeau's violent jealousy leads to all the tragedies that follow.
  • High-Class Glass: The rich guy in the opening scene, who tries to push Roubeau around about a berth on the train, is marked off as a rich guy by the high class glass he's wearing.
  • Idiot Ball: The first thing Cabuche does, when the police tell him that Grandmorin was murdered, is to say "He sure had it coming!"
  • Karma Houdini: Roubeau gets away with killing Grandmorin, as well as beating his wife.
    • Then again, he has nothing left to live for, as his guilt destroyed his moral character.
  • Murdering the Hypotenuse: Lantier and Severine tried to murder Roubeau but Lantier couldn't bring himself to do it.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Roubeau fines a passenger who behaved obnoxiously to a woman passenger. The man threatens to report him and Roubeau finds out the man has connections to his company's directors. So he asks his wife, despite her reluctance, to go talk back to her godfather the baron who also has connections with the directors - and she lets slip something that makes him understand what the baron had been doing with her, making him plot the baron's murder.
  • Plucky Comic Relief: Pecqueux, Lantier's fireman on the train. He likes to talk about stuff like how he has love children scattered everywhere, and would be happy to impregnate either his wife or his mistress.
  • Romantic Rain: Pouring rain as Lantier and Severine meet in a railroad shack for a tryst.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: in the original novel, Lantier dies in a train accident, destroying his train engine Lison. Here he jumps from the Lison to his death but Pecqueux saves the engine.
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Roubeau is a dumpy middle-aged guy with a combover, married to the luscious young Severine. He doesn't deal with this very well.