Other Noteworthy Performances: Jean Arthur (You Can’t Take It with You), Bette Davis (Jezebel), Janet Gaynor (The Young in Heart), Katherine Hepburn (Bringing Up Baby), Katherine Hepburn (Holiday), Wendy Hiller (Pygmalion), Miliza Korjus (The Great Waltz), Vivien Leigh (St. Martin’s Lane), Michèle Morgan (Quai des brumes), Margaret Sullavan (Three Comrades)
It’s hard to consider the best actress of 1938 without Simone Simon entering the conversation for her melancholy, conniving, and tragic role in Jean Renoir’s La bête humaine (The Human Beast). She plays a beautiful woman (what other type could she play?) trapped in a stifling marriage desperate for a way out. Modern audiences often identify her role as an early femme fatale, but I’ve never thought that was entirely appropriate. Her motivations are more complex than later, more traditional femme fatale-types, like Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity or Joan Bennett in Scarlet Street. These women were driven by greed, but Simon’s Severine is more complex. She’s trapped by violence and jealousy, and tries to use the only tool she has to escape: her sexuality.
Severine is married to Roubaud (Fernand Ledoux), a slightly pudgy, plain-looking railroad station master. We can’t help but wonder why she married the man – she certainly could have attracted a younger, better looking man. And Roubaud isn’t poor, but as station master he isn’t rich either. While we are tangentially aware of these discrepancies, Roubaud is consumed by them, acutely aware that Severine could have done much better – and still can.
When Roubaud discovers that Severine’s godfather M. Grandmorin seduced her, he flies into a jealous rage and forces her to help him kill Grandmorin. From the time they kill the old man, Severine withdraws even further from her husband. She is now pointedly aware of how violent he truly is and knows it is only a matter of time before Roubaud’s jealousy and guilt will overcome him, and he will murder her as well.
She finds solace and hope in a dangerous relationship with Lantier (Jean Gabin), a locomotive engineer and a friend of her husband. They fall in love and, eventually, Severine urges him to help her kill Roubaud before he can get to them. This is when Severine’s motives get cloudy and highlight the mastery of Simon’s performance. Does she really love Lantier, or is she an opportunist, using his affections to get rid of her husband? Simon plays the part with a deep sincerity that compels us to accept her emotions as genuine. She isn’t cruel or evil; she wants to save herself – nothing terrible about that.
Ironically, despite Jean Gabin’s hypnotic screen presence, Simon’s most powerful scenes are played opposite Fernand Ledoux as Roubaud. In them we see that she truly loved her husband despite (or maybe because of) his jealousy, but all affection dies when he kills Grandmorin.
Simone Simon commands the screen, juggling Severine’s contradictory traits – her vulnerability and strength, her nativity and intelligence – in ways only an actual person could. . Simon is crafty in this part, but never gimmicky. We’re never able to quite put our fingers on what drives Severine; every time we think we’ve got it, she does something to undermine our satisfactory explanation. The ambiguity with which Simon approaches Severine is an intelligent acknowledgement that we are complex animals and no matter how much we try, we will never be able to fully understand another person’s motivations, especially those secret, dark ones that lead to murder. It’s a masterful job.