Renoir opens La Bête Humaine with an assault to the senses, a giddy, glorious rush of momentum. A train whistle screeches, steam hisses, wheels click rhythmically, and two train engineers speed towards the station in Le Havre. No rear projection, no dialogue, no story yet. Just the essence of cinema: motion. The landscape as a blur. The exhilarating rush of mechanical movement, manmade speed.
Lest we confuse movement with freedom, however, Renoir carefully cultivates our unease and laces the sequence with subtle intimations of doom. The first, out-of-context image of the film is the fire that powers the steam engine. Licking flames plus the piercing shriek of the whistle set an appropriately hellish tone for Émile Zola’s tale of roiling, violent passions.
As the train passes through a tunnel, a cut takes us from the engineers to total enfolding darkness. We’re lost. Then, in the far off distance, we see the light that draws nearer and nearer until the black muzzle of the train bursts through the semicircle of light, looking like nothing so much as an eclipse.
Perhaps the great French director was also thinking of the words of his father when he filmed this scene. The impressionist painter Pierre Auguste Renoir felt that the modernity of the locomotive—the distances it inserted into lives, the way it transformed time and space—eroded tradition and even the wholeness of a person’s self:
“The farmer’s wife who goes to the nearest market to sell her cheese is truly herself. But when she takes an express train, she loses her identity; she becomes the anonymous creature called a passenger.” (From Renoir, My Father.)
Just as the train moves forward with a seemingly unstoppable intent, plunging the viewer in darkness, dazzling him with its celerity, the story’s central character, Jacques Lantier, is the unhappy passenger of biology-as-destiny. The film’s epigraph even announces this theme of hereditary nature as an irresistible, almost mechanical, force:
“Sometimes he keenly felt this hereditary flaw, and it came to him that he was paying the price for others… fathers, grandfathers who drank… generations of drunkards who had poisoned his blood. His skull burst under the burden, the agony of a man forced to actions that overrode his will and for reasons which had disappeared within him.” (For this very rough translation, je vous rends mes excuses…)