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Cashier Maurice Legrand is married to Adele, a terror. By chance, he meets Lucienne, "Lulu", and makes her his mistress. He thinks he finally met love, but Lulu is nothing but a streetwalker, in love with Dede, her pimp. She only accepts Legrand to satisfy Dede's needs of money. Written by
The film opens with Guignol theater à la "Punch and Judy", the first hand-puppet presents a tale of social relevance, the second interrupts him by stating that this is a story making a moral statement about men's behavior but they're all contradicted by the third one, the master of ceremonies who insists that there's no hero, no villain in this story, it's just a sordid "love" triangle involving a "He", a "She" and "The Other Guy": a streetwalker named Lulu (Janie Marese), her boyfriend-pimp Dédé (George Flamand) and Maurice Legrand, the sucker, played by Michel Simon. What a gallery painted in black and white and infinite shades of human complexity by the great Jean Renoir, son of painter and impressionist pioneer Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
Maybe like his father, Renoir cared more for 'impressions' than actual realities, there are no villains not because they don't exist but because the perception is so fuzzy in the first place and the roles are switched as the plot moves forward, Legrand is a meek bookkeeper and Sunday painter of intellectual superiority but mocked by his peers and constantly bullied by his wife, a nagging and controlling shrew reminding him everyday that he's not the soldier hero her late husband was. Legrand has surrendered to mediocrity until he fell in love with Lulu, a light of hope. He took her as a muse while she was a leech, sucking out his love, dignity and money for her domineering pimp. Not personal but strictly business, unless by 'personal' we mean that she did it because she loved Dédé. That everyone is driven either by money or lust foreshadows the dark shortcomings of the film, the notion that everything has a price, and they'll all pay for their actions.
But again, there's no morale. This is just entertainment, a story starting upon the little theater of Paris, like so many others, we're not here to judge anyone but to witness the flow of events that will cause many people to act one against another acting according to their inclination toward greed and lust. This is the year 1931 and while not a revolutionary story, under the confident directing of Jean Renoir, you come to question why it is Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" that is regarded as such a revolutionary film, even Welles would give Renoir the credit he deserves. The French director emphasized that "noir" syllabus in his name, with a main character who's resigned to a life of relative weakness to such a point it could almost pass as courage or wisdom, and that strength could only be expressed in awkward and disastrous ways.
Played by Janie Merese, Lulu is the pioneering femme fatale, a speaking version of the Woman from the City in Murnau's "Sunrise". But Renoir, almost defensively, claimed that all he wanted to do was to explore a film about a Parisian streetwalker, a job as respectable as any other because he was always fascinated by prostitutes, in a sort of naturalistic move à la Zola. And he also wanted a vehicle for Michel Simon who was then the rising star of French cinema. By making "The Bitch", he struck the two birds with the same stone and made a masterpiece for the ages, that would later be adapted by Fritz Lang in "Scarlett Street" with Edward G. Robinson.
But while Lang accentuated the pathos, Renoir conceals the darkness and keeps a certain distance toward the characters, as if he didn't want to overplay the feelings, there's not much pathos in the film, there's even a fair share of comedic moments, as if the whole thing was just tale of tragicomic intensity. He knew the acting of Michel Simon would carry enough emotions not to insist upon them and for his first major talking film, he wanted enough material to explore the actor's versatility. It is ironic that their following collaboration would explore the other side of the coin. Indeed, as Boudu, he'll play a larger-than-life optimistic man who rises above his modest condition because he's just too self-confident.That's the power of Michel Simon who defines the most extreme sides of cinema and can take you from pathetic to sympathetic in a blink of his deformed eyes.
I must admit I enjoyed Boudu a little more maybe because cinema, for his spectacular debut, needed such grandstanding characterizations, of histrionic waves but "The Bitch" is a superior film, technically and visually. Maybe it is too dark and modern for its own good, no matter how hard Renoir tries to tone it down. Or maybe the knowledge of the tragedy that surrounded the film created an unpleasant bias. Janie Marese died the night of the premiere, in a car accident. In real life, Simon loved the actress who loved Flamand, as lousy a driver as a boyfriend in the film, he wanted to drive his first car and impress his sweetheart, talk about reality being stranger and crueler than fiction.
Michel Simon later fainted in the actress' funeral, threatening to kill Renoir because he "killed" her. That's how much passion was injected in the film, the people were liars but they were sincere.What a tragic irony that fate revealed itself as ugly and twisted and wicked as the story, working like an antidote against criticism. These things do happen after all and life came to the rescue and give it a taste of tragic credibility, besides cinematic prestige.
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