A meek and unassuming office clerk, Maurice Legrand (Michel Simon), declines an invitation from his goading co-workers to turn the evening’s dinner banquet festivities into a night of carousing, citing his need to be home before his wife’s preset midnight curfew. On the way home, he encounters a physical altercation between a wanton young woman named Lucienne Pelletier, nicknamed Lulu (Janie Marese), and her inebriated lover, Dédé, and instinctively comes to the aid of the abused woman, agreeing to hire a taxicab in order to escort the couple home. Quick to note Legrand’s formal attire, Dédé, in turn, instructs Lulu to seduce the unsuspecting old man in order to extract money from him. Later in the evening, Legrand arrives home and stumbles on a painting easel that he has precariously staged as part of his makeshift studio in the cluttered apartment. He is immediately castigated by his domineering wife, Adele (Magdeleine Bérubet), for waking her from her sleep with his expensive and time-consuming hobby, countering that her rugged and courageous first husband, Sergeant Alexis Godard (Roger Gaillard) – a war casualty – would never have undertaken such a dainty and fastidious pastime, and threatens to sell his canvasses to a junk dealer. A month later, Lulu is seen providing a tour through her comfortable new living accommodations, auspiciously appointed with Legrand’s banished paintings, to a friend named Yvonne (Mlle Doryans) as she rationalizes her reluctant acceptance of the unsavory proposition from her romantic benefactor – a renowned, but married, artist. Dédé further magnifies the reputation of Legrand’s artwork when, unable to settle gambling debts, he uses the unsigned paintings to raise money from an art gallery under the pretense of representing a fictitious international artist named Clara Wood, adding Lulu’s signature to fetch a better price. However, struggling under the increasing financial burden of Lulu and Dédé’s parasitic existence and incessant demands to accelerate artwork production, Legrand resorts to increasingly desperate measures in an attempt to retain his façade of independence and mild-mannered respectability.
Jean Renoir creates an incisive, provocative, and excoriating commentary on human behavior, class structure, and social conduct in La Chienne. Using repeated imagery of mirrors and reflections, Renoir visually underscores the self-entrapping pattern of hypocrisy, treachery, and co-dependency inherent in exploitive human relationships: Adele’s flaunted placement of her earned monthly dividends inside a mirrored wardrobe; the shot of a shaving Legrand that pans to the image of the opened wardrobe as he pilfers money; Legrand’s painting of a self-portrait that is captured through his studied reflection in front of a mirror. The characters’ interdependence is also revealed through Legrand’s tolerated habitation in Adele’s apartment that is paralleled in his extramarital domestic arrangement with Lulu, and is, in turn, repeated through episodes of Dédé’s financial demands of Lulu. From the jocular, argumentative, and dichotomous Punch and Judy puppetry prologue that alternately introduces the film as a serious social drama, a comedy of manners, and a slice-of-life observation, La Chienne captures the moral ambiguity and underlying inequity of culturally entrenched social customs and rationalized human cruelty.
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