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BOUDU SAVED FROM DROWNING

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Michel Simon, Charles Granval, Marcelle Hainia, Séverine Lerczinska
Director: Jean Renoir
Audio: French monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, 1.33:1 aspect ratio
Studio: Criterion
Features: Jean Renoir introduction, Jean-Pierre Gorin interview, television excerpts, interactive map, essay
Length: 84 minutes
Release Date: August 23, 2005

I’ve never seen such a perfect tramp!

Film *** ½

By any standard, Jean Renoir is surely one of the greatest directors in film history.  His technical skills at crafting the remarkable visual and tonal textures of his films were legendary, and he was equally adept at narrating humanist stories.  His finest achievements, such as Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939), are regularly listed among the best films ever made, and even a lesser Renoir effort was frequently superior to most other films by his contemporaries.  No doubt some of Jean Renoir’s talent was inherited from his father, the famous French impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, but Jean Renoir ultimately surpassed even his famous father in reputation and lasting legacy.  Small wonder that this French director has influenced generations of subsequent directors.

The Jean Renoir of the early 1930’s was a young director but already the veteran filmmaker from the silent era.  His films of the 1920’s sometimes even featured his first wife, Catherine Hessling.  By 1931 though, Renoir had graduated to the new challenges of sound cinema, and with just his third “talkie,” 1932’s Boudu Saved from Drowning (Boudu sauvé des eaux), he was able to demonstrate an ability to overcome the still-crude technical limitations of early sound through clever implication of music and natural sound versus post-production sound.

Boudu Saved from Drowning starred Michel Simon, then one of France’s top actors.  Simon had worked previously with Renoir on his second sound film, La Chienne (1931), playing a tramp by the end of the film.  Boudu, being in part the story of a homeless, out-of-sorts tramp, was the natural progression from La Chienne, and in fact Simon had even recommended to Renoir the idea of a film adaptation of the Réne Fauchois stage play that would provide the foundation for Boudu.

Renoir’s re-interpretation of the stage play made many alterations to the original narrative, transforming Boudu into a satire about the socioeconomic divide, of the oppressiveness of bourgeois luxury versus the freedom of poverty.  In the story, Boudu has nothing, while his counterpart Lestingois is a well-to-do gentleman of class.  But Boudu is completely free and happy, while Lestingois is trapped by the rules of society and at times frustrated.  Indeed, when Boudu receives a golden opportunity to become a member of the bourgeoisie himself, he ultimately shuns its confines and returns to his simple roots.

Boudu Saved from Drowning opens with a brief Dionysian fantasy scene.  A lute-playing faun seduces a nymph in a parable to the respectably married bookseller Lestingois (Charles Granval) and his shameless flirtation with his maid, Anne-Marie (Séverine Lerczinska), within his neat and tidy home.  By contrast, when we first see the film’s supposedly chaotic and impoverished central character, Boudu (Michel Simon), he is wandering the scenic waters and lawns of the peaceful Bois de Boulogne, faithfully searching for his pet dog.

Lestingois has an altruistic nature and even fancies himself as a gentleman.  However, his lustful nature and apparent lack of concern for his wife’s feelings in the matters of his affairs of the heart reveal a certain degree of duplicity and a deficiency in his moral judgment.  As for Boudu, he is a crude clochard not above shining his shoes with a patron’s satin sheets, eating food with his fingers, or talking with a stuffed mouth - hardly capital offenses, these crimes of etiquette, but undoubtedly resounding affronts to polite decorum.  However, for all his clumsy manners, Boudu does not miss the forest for the trees and has a clear and penetrating outlook upon life, not only his own but of others around him.

Thus, there are implications from the start that the presumably huge class differences between Lestingois and Boudu do not necessarily represent a clash simply between a man of order and a man of chaos.  Rather, the potential for order and chaos exists in each and every person, and so Boudu Saved from Drowning reflects this continual internal struggle - the need to maintain order and structure tempered by the crude desire to follow one’s emotions without thought or question.

The society in which Lestingois and Boudu co-habituate is one of double standards.  Beneath the glitz and glamour of Paris lies the squalor and filth of a Depression-era city.  These lower depths are awash with marginalized human misery that is beneath the disinterested gaze of passing bourgeoisie or even the service of the police.

Lestingois and his wife Emma (Marcelle Hainia) reside in the Quais with its rows of bookshops along the embankment of the Seine.  From his perch, Lestingois can casually observe the activities of passing Parisians on the promenade below.  One day, he is stunned to witness a tramp leaping from the Pont des Arts bridge into the Seine below.  It is Boudu, so despondent over the loss of his only true companion, a mongrel mutt, that he has decided to drown himself.

Lestingois alone among all the witnesses reacts by running out of his shop and leaping into the Seine to rescue the tramp.  In risking his own life, Lestingois demonstrates his inherent good nature (albeit one tempered by his own character flaws).  The tramp Boudu is brought back into the shop and revived, whereupon he expresses his gratitude by immediately wracking havoc upon the seeming tranquility of the Lestingois home in the days to come.  Lestingois at first pooh-poohs Boudu’s behavior as those of a child learning to walk for the first time, while his wife Emma regards the tramp with the same manner of disgust that one might reserved for a flattened cockroach under one’s heel.  Boudu displays a decided crudeness in his manners but keenly recognizes the signs of Lestingois’ indiscretion, Emma’s superficiality, and the maid’s gold-digging fickleness.  In some of the film’s more fanciful if outlandish sequences, Boudu woos maid Anne-Marie and, when spurned, turns around and seduces the prim and proper wife Emma instead!

Boudu’s good fortunes may appear almost farcical in nature, but in fact the tramp is behaving not so very differently than has his benefactor, Lestingois.  Their only true difference is a matter of upbringing.  By the film’s end, both men have absorbed some of the strengths and foibles of each other’s character, but both men ultimately chose to remain in his respective niche of Parisian society.

Truly, Boudu works equally well as a straight-forward comedy with equal portions slapstick and verbal humor.  Here is a simple comic tale of a tramp who hilariously turns the life of his well-meaning benefactor upside-down, or perhaps here is a social commentary on class struggles and the often differing world visions of the poor versus the rich.  With the lushness of its occasional rural and pastoral settings, Boudu can even be regarded as an homage to the visual style of Renoir’s own father, who frequently depicted country picnic scenes in his paintings.

On its release, Boudu was considered rather controversial, mostly because it offended the delicate sensibilities of the middle-class citizens of Paris.  Of course, one might hypothesize that this incendiary effect was one of the goals of the film.  Perhaps Renoir as a filmmaker considered it a moral obligation to shake his audience out of their complacency and to encourage them rethink their views about French society in general.  Indeed, quite a number of Renoir’s films throughout the director’s career were often considered controversial for this very reason, and even Renoir’s greatest films were frequently censored or banned at one time or another.

Today, while the primitive technical aspects of Boudu Saved from Drowning have placed it in the shadows of Renoir’s soaring Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, this early sound film is nevertheless an excellent achievement in its own right and well-deserving of its own accolades.  After Boudu, actor Michel Simon would move on to even greater heights, appearing in Jean Vigo’s masterpiece L’Atalante (1934), a film generally regarded as one of the greatest ever made.  After Boudu, Renoir himself would move on to the poetic realism phase of his career with another great leading man in Jean Gabin (the most famous French actor of the early twentieth century).  And of course, Renoir still had quite a few masterpieces of his own yet to create!

Video **

This very old film is presented in its original black & white, full-frame format.  The transfer was made from a 35mm fine-grain print.  As an old film, Boudu really shows its age; there are plenty of scratches, specks, and other various mild print defects.  The image is occasionally soft, and the frame jitters at times.

The film does provide a brief travelogue of Paris in the early 1930’s.  Compare the incidental scenic sights in Boudu to the more extensive and busy footage of Russia in 1929’s Man with a Movie Camera or Berlin in 1927’s very metropolitan Berlin: Symphony of a Great City.

Audio * ½

The monaural audio was mastered from a 16mm optical track print and cleaned to reduce clicks, pops, hiss, and crackle.  Keep in mind that this is an extremely old foreign film from the dawn of sound cinema.

Significant use of street and natural ambient noise lends the film a documentary feel, although the primitive quality of the sound creates an occasional disconnect between the on-screen action and the soundtrack itself.  The Strauss composition “The Blue Danube” also makes an early screen appearance.

Features ** ½

There are a few short supplemental featurettes on this disc.  In a brief Jean Renoir introduction (2 min.), the director relates how he chose Boudu as his next collaboration with actor Michel Simon after making La Chienne together.  In a second interview (12 min.), filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin discusses Michel Simon’s performance as Boudu and Renoir’s techniques for photographing the actor incognito along the open avenues of Paris versus the constraints of the film’s interior sets.

There are two television excerpts.  The first one (6 min.) is from a 1967 Cinéastes de notre temps program and briefly features Renoir and Michel Simon reminiscing about Boudu.  The second excerpt (30 min.), from Aller au cinéma, features a discussion between New Wave director Eric Rohmer and critic Jean Douchet about Renoir’s shooting techniques and symbolism in Boudu.

The coolest supplemental feature is an interactive map of Paris, circa 1936, that highlights key Parisian locations depicted in the film.  Click on one of eight locations to receive a history lesson about that location, complete with relevant portraits and photographs; clips from Boudu also reveal how these sites relate to the film.  Some of the sites listed include the Louvre, the Pont des Arts, the Institut de France, Notre Dame Cathedral, and Chennevières-sur-Marne on the outskirts of Paris.

A package insert offers cast & crew information, disc information, and an essay, “Tramping in the City,” by university professor of film studies Christopher Faulkner.  This essay defines the role of the Parisian backdrop in establishing certain themes in the film and compares the film’s two central characters, Lestingois and Boudu.

Summary:

Boudu Saved from Drowning is an early sound film from acclaimed French director Jean Renoir.  It boasts one of  Michel Simon’s finest performances and also develops themes about class and societal differences that Renoir would re-visit time and again throughout his career.

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