Based on the same novel, this film and Fritz Lang's magnificent SCARLET STREET are almost identical in terms of plot. A painfully shy and friendless office cashier, Maurice Legrand (brutally ironic name), lives with his shrewish wife, and paints cathartically in his spare time. After an office party one night, he comes across a young brute hitting a woman. They are actually lovers, pimp Dede and employee Lulu, but contrive a scheme to have Legrand pay for a well-appointed apartment while Lulu pretends to be his lover. To pay for this he robs his employer, and when this runs out, the lovers fob off his paintings as Lulu's. They are a success and earn her fame and fortune.
Legrand is paralysed by life with his intolerable wife, whose sublime military dead husband is repeatedly extolled to Legrand's detriment. One day, however, he comes across this very much alive paragon of virtue, a blackmailing tramp who feigned his death to escape the same wife. Legrand sees an opportunity to at last divest himself of her, and, on the pretext of stealing her money, reunite the happy couple. Delighted, he packs up, and heads for his young mistress, who, unsurprisingly, lies in bed with her lover.
As the subject matter are almost (thought, crucially, not totally) identical, the difference between the two films must be sought in approach, style, emphasis and omission. Lang's 1945 film owes much to the contemporary film noir cycle, as well as the subversive male melodrama. SCARLET STREET is much more about the price of humanity and expression under capitalism, the alienation of both the worker and the artist from his work, as well as the suffocating nature of American respectability.
STREET has been accused of being a compromised essay in guilt, but it is not remorse that torments Chris Cross for the rest of his life, so much as his failure to escape his initial hell on earth; his blind adhesion to a false escape that taunts him even after it has been removed. Lang's style is perfectly suited to this interpretation, harsh, austere, geometric, entrapping his characters in formal grids, both interior and exterior, fixing them with pitiless irony when they seem most free.
This is alien to Renoir's reputation for a warm, humanistic temperament, and his film is much brighter and more playful, although, in the early 1930s, we have many of noir's central tenets - the weak man brought down by a femme fatale; the inevitability of Fate expressed through plot; the use of interiors, framing and shadows to visualise the mindset of the trapped protagonist.
But Renoir's attitude to all this is not altogether serious. There is a structural affirmation of play that seems to reject the film's literal aspirations. For instance, CHIENNE opens with three Punch and Judy-type puppets fighting over what kind of film this is. While their struggle enacts the events of the film, it also ridicules it; and their final conclusion is that the film has no moral and isn't about anything.
In a very real sense, it isn't; it's about the destruction of values and morals. Lulu and Dede betray certain moral codes in manipulating Legrand; the courts emasculate themselves by executing an innocent (of murder anyway) man; Legrand escapes his shrewish wife, his oppressive job and lives the blissful, almost communal life of a tramp (which, as has been pointed out, looks ahead to Renoir's next masterpiece, BOUDU SAUVE DES EAUX), reward for theft and murder.
Renoir achieves this amorality with a tacitness that is startling in retrospect. Although he is constantly ironising throughout the film - often the performers begin performing (see Legrand revealing her 'dead' husband to his wife); the studied use of frames, mirrors, paintings, windows etc. continually draw attention to the constructed nature of the film - his critique of the bourgeois is more generous than Lang's, its oppression less a living thing than lived in.
Legrand's predicament is expressed in his being made crouch at home and work by vast bourgeois accoutrements, constantly bumping into, and being dwarfed by, things. By tiny details, such as a neighbour hanging out washing, or a child playing a piano, Renoir points to another world outside this torrid prison. This is typical of his method - his privileging of deep space asks us to look and imagine beyond, to interpret what we see and look for alternatives.
This is most brilliantly illustrated at the moment of the film's climax, when Legrand discovers his betrayal. Instead of resorting to heated close-ups, hysterical music, meaningful shadows, Renoir quietly takes his camera outside of the scene, moves it slowly around the apartment until, non-dramatically, we see its components through a curtained window. We are reefed out of the drama, shown that it is a drama, that there are other realities, namely that of the camera, and our own, and asked to ruminate thereon.
This is not to suggest that CHIENNE is a chilly formal excercise. Renoir loves people too much for it to be that, but asks us to look at what shapes people and their decisions. If he's not quite as sympathetic to his villains as Lang, he places much emphasis on class, and Lulu's showing her friend her new apartment with its bathroom is very touching and highly revealing. Likewise, Renoir doesn't make as much play with Legrand's paintings as Lang - they are less expressions of his diseased unhappiness for a start - but puts them into a wider context of framing and perspective (it's ironic that austere formalist Lang should seem more humanistic than humanistic Renoir).
The murder scene is a genuine masterpiece, weaving together all the different themes of sexual unhappiness, betrayal, the public and private space (the murder is intercut with a beautifully nostalgic busking session on the street), art as expression and concealment. The whole sequence - from murder to Dede's discovery of the body - is a model of Renoir's method, formally precise, yet powerfully emotional.