This is not a comedy and not a tragedy; there are no heroes and villains, just people: The man, the woman and the other guy.
This is what the puppets at the opening of “La Chienne” tell us about this movie.
Maybe that is so. I prefer other titles: The miserable man, the stupid woman and the asshole.
With such titles it is pretty clear that this is not the happiest of movies and the fate of these people is not kind.
The problem with the movie’s own labels for the characters is that it equalizes them and that seems not fair. Legrand, the man (Michel Simon), is the character I root for. He is a character I can sympathize with because I can share many of his emotions even if he is not particularly likeable. He is the quiet guy. The one who stand back and let life trample him. He is nice to people and honestly believe that if you treat people nicely they will be nice and fair in return. For Legrand however nobody treats him nicely, not his colleagues, not his monster of a wife and certainly not the two other character of the triangle. He finds his solace in his painting, probably not least because his wife hates those paintings. In every other way he is a prisoner in his own life. Until he meets the girl.
Lulu, the girl (Janie Marèze), is hopelessly in love with Dede despite the abuse she suffers from him. She craves him and does everything he asks of her which primarily is to “take care” of other men for his financial gain. He is a pimp and she is a prostitute, except that she does it out of love for Dede. When Legrand thinks he is saving her from Dede and falls in love with her she becomes his lover because Dede orders her to and sees Legrands genuine affection for her as him being an easy mark. Legrand treats her nicely yet it is he she scorns while Dede treats her badly yet it is he she wants. Add on top of it her general attitude which is slow witted and her ambitions which actually match Legrand quite well and you can only reach the conclusion that she does not know what is good for her, that she is, well, simply stupid.
Dede, the other guy (Georges Flamant), is a thoroughly unsympathetic person. He is a pimp, a parasite who lives from other peoples work and trust but only to his own gain. He is obsessed with being the tough guy with all the smart tricks and attitude and is thus not so different from the concurrent American gangster of movies like “Public Enemy” or “Little Cesar”, except there is no inherent fascination with his type in the movie. As a viewer we utterly despise him and that makes Lulu’s infatuation with him so much more tragic and idiotic. I am not saying the film is unbelievable in postulating this relationship, I am sure there are plenty of such relationships out there. Indeed it is part of the entire myth of women swarming over men who look smart and strong, but treat them badly and love them so much more for it, while the ones who treat them nicely are perceived as weak and pathetic. No, the story here is not unbelievable, it just makes us despise her as we despise Dede for not recognizing him for the bad person he is and that he will her nothing good. Dede takes the money Lulu gets from Legrand, he takes the paintings Legrand gave her and sells them. He even creates the fictional painter Clara Wood and claims it is Lulu, but none of the money goes back to Lulu and certainly not Legrand. While Legrand is sucked dry and Lulu is being scorned, slapped and coerced Dede is buying expensive cars and flashy suits and mingles with the rich and influential.
One can easily claim that they all deserve their misfortune, but while Dede gets it through his bad character and Lulu gets it through her stupidity Legrand gets it through misery. That makes a difference. When he meets Lulu he wakes up from the living grave he has been enduring and blossoms late in life. Now he finally tastes something of what it is like to be alive. It is so sweet this new life that he cannot see that Lulu is just exploiting him and when his wife’s real husband shows up he grabs the opportunity to cut the lines to his old life. In a later age he would simply have gotten a divorce, but alas, this is 1931. For Legrand it is a monstrous disappointment to realize that he has been fooled, that all this was just a dream. He simply refuses to believe it. I must say that I do not understand why he kills her, that is taking it a bit far and not really in his character, but it allows Dede to be caught and convicted for it and it allows for Lulu’s punishment for being the bitch (La Chienne) and finally explain why Legrand sinks so deep that he does not build a new life based on his paintings but becomes a hobo roaming the streets at the bottom of society, poor, broken but happy and free.
While I am uncertain of the ending I tend to like this one. It is deep and sad but also very strong. The characters are very clearly defined but not as unrealistic caricatures. Especially Michel Simon is outstanding. Seeing him also in “Boudu saved from drowning” and L’Atalanta” is difficult to believe this is the same person. He is so internal, self-effacing and hunched that he is practically the opposites of those other characters. Only when we finally see him as a hobo in the end has he become Boudu.
I often have a problem with French actors playing smartasses and tough. It just does not work for me. That probably just adds to my impression of Dede as a pathetic crook. His sweet talking and mannerism makes me want to puke and comes out not smart and strong at all. But then again that may be the intention.
Renoir loved to crucify the bourgeoisie and celebrate freedom, but sometimes I think he just likes to torment his characters, King Vidor style.