Although French producers didn't usually wield the power that Hollywood executives had at the same time, they weren't totally hands off. Initially, Renoir wanted to cast Catherine Hessling, his then wife and star of his silent film Nana (1926), as the female lead. Producer Roger Richebé refused and insisted on relative newcomer Janie Marèse to play the treacherous Lulu. Renoir had to work with her to make her rather refined accent match her character's low class background. He suggested she imitate Maurice Chevalier.
After shooting was complete, Richebé took the film away from Renoir and assigned Hungarian director Paul Fejos to edit. Unhappy with his edit, Richebé then gave it to the film's sound editor Denise Batcheff. Unable to get a satisfactory cut, Richebé was finally persuaded to allow Renoir back into the studio from which he had banned him, some sources say thanks to the influence of a friend who had put money into the production.
Renoir had a particular interest in having this film presented at its best. Sound had recently come to France, and producers were eager to make the most of the large number of stage actors available at the time. According to Richard Roud in his introduction to Rediscovering French Film, to show producers he was capable of working in the new medium, Renoir quickly made a Feydeau farce, On Purge Bébé (1931), taking the daring and sensational step of recording the sound of a flushing toilet.
In La Chienne, he took innovation even further, refusing to shoot his Montmartre street scenes in a studio or use simulated effects. The result was the first sound film in France to be shot and recorded live in real locations. He also contributed to what Roud called "one of the glories of the French cinema," the use of music, not just as background but as a narrative device. Most notably, a murder in an upper-story Montmartre room takes place predominantly off screen, accompanied by the uninterrupted strains of a singer and musician on the street below.
Shooting this way proved to be far more costly and time-consuming than the Feydeau quickie, and Richebé, who hated the finished product, continued to try to suppress exhibition. But critics were stunned, the film was a financial success and Renoir acknowledged it as a turning point in his career: "I believe that in it, I came near to the style that I call poetic realism." (Jean Renoir, My Life and My Films).
By Renoir's own admission, his ambitious dreams for this production were at least in part to blame for his contentious relationship with Richebé:
"I must admit that I was ruthless and unbearable. I made the film as I wanted, without the slightest regard for the wishes of the producer. I never showed him a single page of my shooting script or a word of the dialogue, and I arranged it so the rushes would remain unavailable until the film was completed. That was when the scandal broke." (December 1938 issue of Le Point)According to Renoir, Richebé had expected "a vaudeville" instead of this downbeat story of infidelity, betrayal and murder, albeit one with some black humor. Because it was initially played up in publicity as a comedy, the film's first screening in Nancy was a disaster. After Renoir insisted all future promotions reflect the true tone, the film opened in Paris and did well.
This confusion of mood was actually addressed by the director in the picture's opening sequence, a puppet show in which three puppets argue over the introduction of the story. One calls it a social drama that proves vice doesn't go unpunished, another calls it a comedy with a moral. The third has the last word saying it is neither comedy nor drama with no moral message and nothing to prove. The film then opens out from the puppet proscenium, one of several frames within frames by which Renoir presents the action, finally closing on this same set as the curtain comes down on the puppet show.
If the story seems familiar - henpecked husband has an affair with a duplicitous woman using him for money she can give to her pimp lover - that's because it was remade by Fritz Lang as Scarlet Street (1945), with Edward G. Robinson in the leading role originally played by Michel Simon. French director Jean-Pierre Melville later expressed interest in doing his own version, but that never happened.
The two second leads, Marèse (in only her second feature) and Georges Flamant (a Simon discovery making his debut), fell in love during filming. Not long after the picture was completed, the two were driving in the south of France when Flamant lost control of his car. Marèse was killed in the wreck, and Flamant was branded "un assassin" in the French press. The French film industry, including a furious Simon, ostracized him. It took several years for his reputation to recover, but he enjoyed a long career ending with a role in François Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959).
Director: Jean Renoir
Producers: Roger Richebé, Pierre Braunberger
Screenplay: Jean Renoir, from the novel by Georges de la Fouchardière
Cinematography: Théodore Sparkuhl
Editing: Paul Fejos, Denise Batcheff; Jean Renoir, Marguerite Renoir (both uncredited)
Art Direction: Marcel Courmes
Cast: Michel Simon (Maurice Legrand), Janie Marèse (Lulu), Georges Flamant (Dédé), Roger Gaillard (Alexis Godard), Pierre Desty (Gustave), Magdelaine Berubet (Adèle)
By Rob Nixon