Jean Renoir is a name you either know from his films or have almost certainly encountered from current directors discussing inspirations. La Chienne or The Bitch is the first inclusion of Renoir’s work, his second sound feature, and an indispensable glimpse at a blossoming French perspective.
In his own words ‘A director only makes one film in his life. Then he breaks it into pieces and makes it again’. An intriguing insight, but despite a universal angle which is applicable to many directors, both current and legendary, Renoir’s definition is most indicative of himself. An anatomy of his films is difficult because each picture is only one limb of a body. Renoir is best understood after a complete absorption of his work and a common thread distinguished. But perhaps The Bitch will be kinder due to being so early in Renoir’s career.
The opening of The Bitch unveils a Punch and Judy show in which the bickering marionettes cannot decide what exactly the film is about. In the end, one puppet succeeds by killing the others and explaining that the following narrative is without moral or intent, without good or evil characters, but simply humans.
But can we believe this puppet? Deception is rife throughout the picture, misdeeds and underhanded ways dominate the lives of each character from Legrand to Lulu. There is some truth to what the puppet narrates, no one is evil, each deceives for their own subjective view of ‘good’. Legrand deceives his wife for passion, Lulu tricks Legrand for love, Legrand’s wife is indeed tricked by her former husband for a shot at happiness. Bad is not truly applicable even in the most obvious of situations.
Take the death of Lulu. Murdered at the hands of Legrand, but Dede is put on trial. He is sentenced to death and executed. Dede is by no means moral, he is a pimp, a con artist and a manipulator, but he is innocent of this particular crime. Legrand has been mortified, degraded and tricked, but he is a murderer. Paradoxes of this kind are the intriguing centres of Renoir’s work, a drama infused with archaic noir, but there is more grey than black and white.
The Bitch can be taken in part as the third in a trilogy. The Red, White and Blue femme fatales of cinema. The White innocent purity of The Docks of New York. The cool Blue seductiveness of the Blue Angel and the Red hot passion of The Bitch. Lulu is the central axis which brings each character to their end, a classic femme fatale before the term was even invented.
However, the title should not necessarily pertain only to Lulu. The greatest bitch of all is life itself. Cruel twists and turns of fate initiate many of the unfortunate sequences, Legrand discovering his art is being sold under a fake name, finding Dede in bed with Lulu, bumping in to his wife’s revenant husband. Renoir uses chance as the villain, alleviating his characters of the label, and by keeping this consistent, he avoids what would otherwise be unbelievable instances.
Much is written on Renoir’s critique of society, the bourgeois, the classes, the hierarchies. I do not believe this is so here. The Bitch is a young artist finding his way in meaning and in construction, a simple tale of humans and their degradation through very human flaws. The construction holds fleeting moments of Renoir’s visual intricacies to later characterise his work, but it appears an echo of an upbringing by a master artist’s talent for greatness in a single frame, rather than his own stamp.
Nevertheless, The Bitch is a glimpse at the formidable filmmaking talent of France and an intriguing root of film noir long before the diaspora of foreign talent to Hollywood. The Bitch is a spark that promises a fire to sweep and singe a reputation in to film history.
The murder. A wronged man, a hysterical femme fatale, a gleaming knife. Our camera eyes drifts from this horrendous crime to an admiring crowd enjoying a buskers song. As Legrand appears, the music becomes tormenting.