“La Bete Humaine”, by Jean Renoir is a grim and macabre noirish film about people doomed by childhood, genetics, or just plain star-crossed fate to destroy and defile the things they love and care for the most.
Roubaud is an ostensibly normal trains-station master, married to Séverine a beautiful woman of questionable virtue. Lantier is an engineer on a Locomotive who is occasionally seized by fits of manic rage which he believes come from his fathers and grandfathers history of alcoholism.
Only the roar of the trains calm Lantier’s inexplicable rages. Roubaud seems to love his wife, and due to a complaint from a wealthy patron asks her to see if she can have her wealthy land-baron godfather named Grandmorin, smooth things over.
Séverine agrees, but after a stray joke about how it’s possible that he could be her father, is forced to confess to having long ago been the old man’s mistress.
This drives Roubaud to decide to kill Grandmorin, and forcing Séverine to help, so that they may be “bonded” together anew and forever. They commit the murder on an all but empty train, all but empty save for Lantier.
When the cops question Lantier however, he says he saw no one. To “win him over”, Séverine begins an affair with him. Here’s where things got complicated.
There are many ways to view “La Bete Humaine” from this point on in the film. Séverine may be incapable of love as she says due to being a teenage mistress to her godfather (or possibly real father), and intends only to use Lantier to get rid of Roubaud whose become a melancholy gambling louse since the murder. The picture perfect femme fatale.
It’s also possible that though she has never loved anyone prior to Lantier, that her feelings for him genuine, and that she sincerely sees no way for them to be together while she remains married.
Roubaud’s absence from the later half of the film, his diminishing importance and only referential presence, would seem to argue in favor of Séverine as manipulator. After the murder he seems unconcerned with Séverine affairs, as if avenging his/her honor removed any desire he had to preserve it thereafter.
Lantier’s violent actions are equally mysterious; either he is destroying what he cannot have, because he cannot have it, or destroying what he wants most deeply for reasons beyond his control. Is it the “drunkards in his blood” that eventually triumph over him, or do his own resentments and fears over this specific situation get the better of him?
The trains connect all the characters together, but the trains also have no resting place, they are in constant motion save for the occasional breakdown. They could symbolize the alienation of the characters from the natural world around them, or from normal healthy relationships which travel makes tenous.
The trains mostly serve director Jean Renoir, in setting the tone for the brisk pace of the film and providing opportunities for excellent cinematography.
Their use as symbols is less fruitful than the questions of the motivations of the characters who inhabit and surround them.
Though it’s arguable that no one truly loves anyone else in this film, I believe I will remember "La Bete Humaine" (the Human Beast) as a love story more than a noir or crime thriller. That is to say I side with team-Séverine was being genuine with Lantier.
It’s only after we’ve been made to feel for the characters and to truly and fully hope with them that they may escape their predicaments, that the full force of the tragedy can take effect.
Roubaud destroys his relationship with his wife, which we discover only later was not ideal when the film began, but certainly not in smolders as it is later. Séverine has many opportunities to leave and start again herself. The trains are always coming and going. Why does she remain where she is most miserable?
As for Lantier why does he do what he does with regard to Séverine, and why does he hold back earlier in the film?
Was he afraid she would leave him after he became useless?
Early traumas come back to haunt our two desperate lovers, who though connected to the constantly coming and going trains and their illusion of freedom, are permanently attached to their rails of their own destinies and mangled desires. For better in the short term, and worse in the long.