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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
After a series of movies during the silent era, La Chienne (1931) was Jean Renoir's first sound picture. It tells the story of Maurice Legrand, a naive man who falls in love with a prostitute and subsequently has his financial resources extorted from him by the prostitute and her pimp. La Chienne is an interesting early look at thematic concerns and stylistic devices which Renoir would return to in his later films, and a great picture in its own right.
The film follows Maurice Legrand (Michel Simon), a weak man who takes disrespect from both his wife and the co-workers at his job. One night while walking home from work, Legrand encounters the character Lulu (Janie Mereze) being beaten in the street. He intervenes and walks Lulu home, becoming smitten with her during their first interaction. Unbeknownst to Maurice, however, Lulu is actually in cahoots with her pimp boyfriend Dede (the man who was beating her earlier in the film), merely playing up her romance with Legrand so he'll give her money and paintings which her and Dede will later re-sell at a higher price.
Like many early talkie films, the acting and dialogue comes across a bit stiff and impersonal - Renoir still working in silent mode and yet to fully accommodate changes in cinema technology. That being said, the production value is excellent, the film filled with the soft focus photography and fluid camera movements that would later become Renoir's staple. The film's greatest strength lies in Renoir's humanity for his characters; as a puppet show at the beginning suggests, in this story of a man putting his love in the wrong place and getting used there are no heroes and villains, only people, people with their own histories, own potential for good and bad, and own self-interest. This element of the film makes it feel grounded in real life and provides it with a strong authenticity.
In summary, La Chienne is a great early piece by Renoir which serves as a precursor to his later films with its similar thematic concerns and style. If you are looking for an entry point into Renoir's body of work or have seen the director's more famous films (Grand Illusion, Rules of the Game) and want to backtrack to get to know his oeuvre more intimately, I would highly recommend it. It is the film that kicked off a decade-long winning streak for the French auteur, but taken on its own it's also just a fine piece of cinema.
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