Simone Simon (La bête humaine) – Best Actress of 1938

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.

Simone Simon as the mysterious Severine with Fernand Ledoux as her jealous husband

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.

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5 Comments

Filed under 1938, Yearly Best Performances

5 responses to “Simone Simon (La bête humaine) – Best Actress of 1938

  1. I clearly need to see more 1930s French films, Jason – hoping to do that during 2011. Must admit I haven’t seen Simone Simon’s performance in this, though she was great in ‘Cat People’, which I saw probably 30 years ago and still remember vividly. Out of your other choices, I love Bette Davis’ performance in ‘Jezebel’ – a film I was lucky enough to see on the big screen during her centenary celebrations – and also Katharine Hepburn in ‘Holiday’. I’ve never been a big fan of the film of ‘Pygmalion’ as it seems so stilted, but maybe I should give it another try.

    • Oh Judy no! Don’t do it! Pygmalion is a pretty rotten movie. “Stilted” is a nice word for it, though I enjoyed Hiller and Howard in it (one of the few roles I really like Leslie Howard in). So there’s no reason to put yourself through the torture of that one again. There are plenty of great movies that need to be seen.

      I will always recommend getting out and seeing more movies of any place or time, but France in the 1930s produced a slew of worthwhile movies. Unfortunately, something I don’t think I make clear in this essay, La bete humaine is not one of my favorite Renoir movies. I find it somewhat contrived, especially the stuff about Gabin’s rages, a clear holdover from Zola’s nineteenth century sensibilities about crime as a product of alcoholic heredity. But, as I say, Simon is wonderful. Well worth watching just for her, Jean Gabin, and Fernand Ledoux.

      I think my runner up would be Bette Davis in Jezebel. That was one of the best performances of her career and she had lots of those.

      • Ah, so it isn’t just me on ‘Pygmalion’, then. I’m not usually keen on Leslie Howard either, must admit. Thanks for the further thoughts on La bete humaine – still one I’d like to see before too long, anyway. Agreed on Davis in ‘Jezebel’ – it’s a role which allows her to show her full range.

  2. I must dissent with you on “Pygmallion” and I assure the dissent is a very strong one. Allan is also a big fan. It’s a great film for a number of reasons. I also love LA BETE HUMAINE, so this is just one of those days my friend! Ha! But now the good news.

    Another great choice, and essay. Our Cat Girl was magnificent here. Can’t argue with the terrific runner-up choices, and I will add only a few here.

    My own choices:

    Best Actress: Margaret Sullavan (Three Comrades)

    Runners-Up additions:

    Annabella (Hotel du Nord)
    Fay Bainter (White Banners)
    Katherine Hepburn (Holiday)
    Odette Joyeux (Entrees des Artistes)
    Hedy Lamarr (Algiers)
    Margaret Lockwood (Bank Holiday)
    Norma Shearer (Marie Antoinette)

    • Margaret Sullavan is a fine choice. She was great in Three Comrades. The only addition to my list I can’t agree with is Norma Shearer. I think we’ve had this conversation before, but I’ve never been a big fan of her mannered, overly-theatrical style. There are only a few of her performances that I like and, unfortunately, Marie Antoinette is not one of them. This seems to be a post full of disagreements for us, but I know you have good taste so I can’t fault you for some minor slip ups. 🙂

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