Jean Renoir’s ruthless love triangle tale, his second sound film, is a true precursor to his brilliantly bitter The Rules of the Game, displaying all of the filmmaker’s visual genius and fully imbued with his profound sense of humanity. A hangdog Michel Simon cuts a tragic figure as an unhappily married cashier and amateur painter who becomes so smitten with a prostitute that he refuses to see the obvious: that she and her pimp boyfriend are taking advantage of him. Renoir’s elegant compositions and camera movements carry this twisting and turning narrative—a stinging commentary on class and sexual divides—to an unforgettably ironic conclusion.
The Criterion Collection presents Jean Renoir’s early feature film La chienne on a dual-layer Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of about 1.19:1. The new high-definition presentation comes from a 4K scan of a 35mm safety fine-grain made from the original 35mm nitrate negative.
This is a stunner of a presentation, easily one of the bigger surprises I’ve come across. It’s a very sharp looking image and shockingly clean. The film is over 85 years old but it certainly doesn’t look it in the slightest as damage is surprisingly absent, with even fine scratches—something I would have expected to be at the very least a mild concern—never seem to pop up. With the lack of even fine scratches I was figuring that maybe the image was softened a bit to hide them (thinking of Criterion’s old DVD for Twenty-Four Eyes), but looking it over it doesn’t appear this is the case: the image still retains film grain, which appears fairly fine, and details still look fairly sharp, at least as much as the source will allow. There are admittedly some very soft moments but these look more related to the source or possibly because of a soft focus and nothing to do with the transfer or encode. Overall the detail levels are very high and the clarity to be found here is simply amazing. Again, the film may be 85 years old but you’d never know it.
The digital presentation itself is also very good. Contrast levels are nicely balanced, though darker scenes can get a little dark at times and I felt some details were crushed out. The image also delivers smooth tonal shifts and rich black levels, and it retains a more than filmic look. A lot of restoration work has gone on this but this has not left behind any unnatural digital evidence. It looks natural, not processed, and almost brand new. An incredible amount of work has gone into this and it has paid off significantly.
An early sound film I was not surprised to find the audio is severely limited. It’s a very flat track, with no fidelity at all to it with a fairly tinny and muffled quality to the dialogue. Music can sound a little distorted and edgy but thankfully not overly harsh. The film was shot mostly with live audio on location, so the issue with muffled dialogue and background noise probably comes down to that, as well as the older recording equipment.
What surprised me, though, is actually how clean the track is. Despite the general limitations to the quality of the audio there isn’t any severe damage present. There can be an audible hiss in the background but it’s faint and not overpowering, and doesn’t distract.
All limitations come down to the original recording, the equipment, and the passage of time and I doubt much more could have been done to enhance that part of it. Still, despite any issues I still think the restoration work is very impressive.
Criterion has put together a rather wonderful little special edition here, first supplying an introduction by Renoir recorded in 1961. Renoir recorded a number of these for French television airings and Criterion has been pretty consistent in including them on their releases of his films. Here he reflects on his difficulties in getting into sound film (his silent were so expensive that possible investors were scared off by the fact sound films would cost even more) and that he made On purge bébé to show that he could do a sound film at a decent budget. Because of this (and that film’s success) he was able to secure financing for La chienne.
This of course all leads nicely to the next feature, his first sound film On purge bébé, presented in its entirety. Though I sort of understood the title (suggesting a need to get a child to go to the bathroom, though the English translation, according to IMDB, appears to Baby’s Laxative) I was still sort of surprised by the film’s—admittedly mild—toilet humour, and I mean that literally in a couple of cases. It’s based on a play by Georges Feydeau and I can see why the play appealed to Renoir: it is a satire on bourgeois social norms. The plot centralizes around a businessman looking to sell a large quantity of chamber pots (that he claims are indestructible) to the military, and is meeting with the minister of war (Michel Simon) that day. The first hitch to happen is that his son is unable to go to the bathroom and his wife is looking for a way to get him to take a laxative. Other complicated plot turns abound and things of course (this is a farce) don’t go as planned.
It’s cute but even at 52-minutes it’s a bit of chore, a surprise to me since I don’t recall ever feeling that way with any of the director’s other films that I’ve seen. I blame this on the talky nature of the story, which again is based on a play, and I think at this point Renoir maybe didn’t entirely understand how to shoot expository dialogue. The camera sort of sits there with a few cuts here and there, leading to a very stagey feel throughout most of it. But there are moments where Renoir uses sounds off screen, or to highlight something on screen, and it’s these moments where it feels like he’s being more experimental, testing out what sound can do, and the film becomes more interesting. It feels like he’s getting a grasp on something and that that was maybe all the film was for: as he said in his intro he made the film to prove he could do it. In his interview found elsewhere on this disc, Christopher Faulkner mentions that Renoir probably didn’t really want to make this film, and I’d actually agree since there’s a feeling of disinterest.
The film has also been fully restored, and is presented in high-definition. It has also received a thorough, impressive restoration similar to what La chienne received.
Christopher Faulkner next talks about the importance of La chienne in Renoir’s career, since it represents his full transition from silent cinema to sound. He talks about < I>On purge bébé and why Renoir did it (to prove to reluctant producers he could make an adequately budgeted sound film). From here he then talks about La chienne in a great amount of detail from production to release. He also covers the various themes and topics that come up in the film, from the presentation of illusion and reality, its comments about the art world (probably born out of the treatment of his father), it’s presentation of social classes (also present in his other films), and so forth. He also tells of some tragic events that followed the film. It’s a good scholarly addition to the set, examining this early period and how this film sets a basis that the director would build on. It runs 25-minutes.
The disc supplements then finally closes with a rather lengthy feature: a discussion between Michel Simon and Jean Renoir. Filmed in 1967 by Jacques Rivette for a 3-part television series, Jean Renoir le patron, this 95-minute episode is all about Simon and Renoir and the two simply sit there and talk about their work and sharing random musings on whatever topic just happens to come up, from who their modern audience is more than likely to be in 1967 to their mutual appreciation of Sacha Guitry. They also talk about audiences and keeping their interest and share plenty of stories about their work together, with a bit about La chienne and a few other films. Still they ultimately spend more time talking about Boudu Saved from Drowning. It’s long, and sometimes rambling, but it’s fun watching the two, who come off here as just old friends catching up.
The large fold-out insert that is included here features nice poster art presenting an illustration by Blutch, while the other side presents an essay by Ginette Vincendeau, who gives a nice analysis of the film and its characters, particularly Lulu (played by Janie Marése). It nicely caps off the strong collection of material that Criterion has gathered here.
A wonderfully put together edition with some strong, lengthy supplements and a wonderful, surprising presentation of the film. It comes very highly recommended.