THE LOWER DEPTHS
Review by Ed Nguyen
Jean Gabin, Suzy Prim, Junie Astor, Louis Jouvet, Vladimir Sokoloff; Toshiro
Mifune, Isuzu Yamada, Kyoko Kagawa, Koji Mitsui, Ganjiro Nakamura, Bokuzen
Directors: Jean Renoir and Akira Kurosawa
Audio: French and Japanese monaural
Video: Black & white, full-frame 1.33:1
Features: Renoir introduction, Kurosawa documentary, cast biographies, commentary track, booklet essays
Length: 89 minutes, 125 minutes
Release Date: June 22, 2004
is the most precious of treasures. That
has nothing to do with what you owe me."
Films *** 1/2 (Renoir)
the Russian play Na dne, life is
depicted in grim and harsh detail for the desperate souls and derelicts of the
Russian flophouses. The characters
are gamblers or thieves or loose women, all operating under a false sense of
morality or hope. They are a fallen
people, existing but not truly living in the lower depths of society.
produced in Russia in 1902, the play criticized the imbalance of the social
hierarchy of Imperial Russia. The
play's author was Maksim Gorki, regarded as one of the finest Russian
playwrights of the 20th century for his realistic portrayals of oppression and
poverty in his works. Even so, Na
dne was considered scandalous in Russia at the time, but despite the
homeland objections, the play became a worldwide sensation, particularly in
Japan, where it remained popular even a half-century later.
the 1930's, the play was first brought to the attention of French filmmaker Jean
Renoir. At the time, France, being
fearful of the rise of Nazi Germany, was sympathetic to the Soviet plight.
The liberal leanings of the French Popular Front were heard throughout
the country, and such an atmosphere made the people receptive to works of
theater from the Russian mainland. Consequently,
Renoir was approached by Russian producer Alexander Kamenka to direct a film
version of Na dne.
The result was Renoir's Les Bas-fonds
(The Lower Depths, 1936).
Renoir film retained much of the play's storyline, although the director
introduced several key changes. The
setting was shifted to the riverbanks of France, and the story was given a more
optimistic outlook. The
Lower Depths was also to be a starring vehicle for Jean Gabin and Louis
Jouvet. Gabin would play Pépel, a
robber with little hope of a future but who nevertheless dreams of someday
leaving the flophouse he inhabits. Jouvet,
on the other hand, would play a baron living in luxury until his vice of
gambling destroyed the fabric of his aristocratic lifestyle.
Together, the lives of the thief and the gambler would intertwine
significantly in Renoir's film.
important relation, however, was not present in the original play.
In fact, Renoir had considerably expanded the relation between the thief
and the baron, centralizing it as the core of his film.
Other scenes in the film would also no longer restricted to the dreary,
run-down houses of the poor but would drift to stately mansions, outdoor cafes,
and even a luxurious gambling hall. The
overall effect was to lighten the story's tone, making it more palatable and
hopeful to Parisian audiences.
has two main storylines - the friendship between Pépel and the Baron, and the
love triangle between Pépel and two sisters.
One sister is Vassilissa, the possessive wife of Pépel's fence and
landlord, Kostylyov; their adulterous but destructive affair would disintegrate
even as the film commences. The
other sister is Natasha, upon whom Pépel now dotes.
This shifting of Pépel's affections creates inevitable tension, as all
the characters live within the same small district of poor shops and tenement
character seeks solace from the despair of the real world in his or her own
fashion. One prostitute finds a
trace of hope in the pages of her romance novel, while another character plays
frivolous tunes on his accordion. A
former actor recites monologues from past plays, but the majority of the lodgers
find escape in drink or in the cards. It
is into this world that the Baron descends, having lost his worldly possessions
through gambling himself.
the romantic central hero of the story is clearly Pépel, it is perhaps the
Baron who is the most sympathetic character. No man is ever quite as free as one who has lost everything.
That is now the Baron's lot in life, and he finds greater happiness and
contentment in poverty than he ever possessed in riches.
Lying lazily on a meadow one day, he remarks, "Once you told me how
nice it was to doze in the grass. I
didn't really believe you then, but I do now."
The light tone of the film thus suits the transformation in the Baron's
outlook upon life and works well in the bonding between Pépel and the Baron.
this same light tone ultimately undermines the film's dramatic impact.
The pathos and despair of the Russian play is watered-down into a
melodramatic love triangle between Pépel, Vassilissa, and Natasha.
The bright, cheerfully-lit scenes in such locales as outdoor concerts or
expensive restaurants also serve only to further dilute the sense of desperate
poverty without escape.
then, is a product of its times. Filmed
in an uncertain pre-war environment, the film is optimistic and hopeful,
suggesting that the means for a better existence are always present, no matter
how dire the circumstances. It is
also a visually impressive film, with elegant tracking shots, frame composition,
and close-ups. Yet for all the
masterful directorial gestures by Renoir, his film ultimately proves less
compelling than the next cinematic version of Gorki's play, which would appear
two decades later.
filmmaker Akira Kurosawa had long admired the Russian playwright Maksim Gorki,
in whose plays and themes he found much relevance for historical Japan and its
society. By the 1950's, he had
already seen Renoir's The Lower Depths,
and being quite at ease with adaptations of theatrical plays (as would be
evident in such later Shakespearean films as Ran
or Throne of Blood), Kurosawa decided
to re-interpret the Gorki play himself. Unlike
Renoir's version, Kurosawa's film would be more faithful to the text of the
Russian play and would be more of an ensemble piece than a starring vehicle.
Donzoko (The Lower Depths, 1957) assembled together some of the finest
Japanese actors of the day, many of whom maintained long associations with
Kurosawa throughout their careers. Toshiro
Mifune, Kurosawa's favorite actor and who ultimately appeared in sixteen of the
director's films, played the role of the thief (the Pépel character in Renoir's
film). Isuzu Yamada, one of the
great actresses of the Noh Theater acting style, played Osugi, the thief's
ex-lover. Kyoko Kagawa, the
youngest cast member, portrayed Okayo, her sister.
Kurosawa's film did not feature an equivalence to the Baron character,
although elements of this character could be seen in the gambler Yoshisaburo
(Koji Mitsui) and a fallen samurai (Minoru Chiaki).
character not seen in the Renoir film but who plays a vital role in the Kurosawa
version is that of Kahei, the pilgrim (Bokuzen Hidari).
This character, an old man who wanders into the midst of this small,
outcast society, offers an outsider's view of these characters' world.
He is able to see things clearly through eyes weathered by years of
wisdom. Audiences will identify
most strongly with him, for we, too, are voyeurs, peering into this world of
despair. Kahei thus provides a
voice for the viewing audience as well as a core of morality within the film.
the very first resonant tones of temple gongs in the film's opening credits,
viewers will immediately sense a darker, more somber tone in this version of The
Lower Depths. While Renoir's
film romanticized the notion of poverty, the denizens of Kurosawa's film live in
dire conditions, surrounded by rotting wooden planks, with debris tossed them
regularly from the upper city.
film is set in mid-nineteenth century Edo, when large portions of the urban
populace lived in such adverse conditions.
In this disintegrated, fragmented society, these people were the
outcasts, the floating weeds of society. They
inhabited the dilapidated tenement houses of the city, crumbling huts where
dirty straw served as the carpeting or ragged cloths served as doors.
Unlike the Renoir film, Kurosawa affixes his characters to this setting
and never shifts away.
basic story of the film remains similar to that of Renoir's version.
There is still a tense love triangle between the thief and the two
sisters, although this is merely one of several storylines in the film.
A sub-plot involving a dying wife, barely present in Renoir's film, is
given more prominence, with greater repercussion, in Kurosawa's film.
The prostitute's role is more fleshed out as well and provides one of the
film's more poignant scenes as she reminisces about a past romance.
Kurosawa's film is pessimistic, a reflection perhaps of post-war Japanese
sentiments. As an ensemble piece,
it is a true masterwork. No single
character or storyline is allowed to dominate over another. While the film is more loosely structured than Renoir's
tightly-plotted, audience-friendly film, Kurosawa's film is the more dramatic
and intense, for its characters are better developed and more sympathetic.
The film flows along slowly and naturally, like the unfolding of a
monotonous series of unremarkable days in the lives of the characters.
In this world, even the simplest of events, whether it be the arrival or
departure of a tenant, is magnified. It
is the only way for these characters to bare the isolation and stagnation of
closes with a surreal dance (not dissimilar in tone to the concluding danse
macabre of The Seventh Seal). The
characters finally choose to ignore their pains just briefly and to celebrate an
evening's rain. How ironic it is
then that the film should end abruptly when one character commits suicide - his
demise is seen as an inconvenience, almost as a spiteful way to force the
celebration to an end. In
Kurosawa's film, there is no true escape from the lower depths, no hopeful
ending. Only death can offer peace
or final happiness for these people.
two decidedly different cinematic visions of the play have been presented by two
master directors. Ultimately, which
film is better? The Renoir film has
more "plot" and narrative drive, plus it is more cinematic in the use
of fluid camerawork and frame compositions.
The frequent shifts in locales also makes the film quite a pleasing and
pretty one to watch. Kurosawa's
film, on the other hand, is situated entirely within the decrepit, rotting slums
of the lower city. The tone is
darker and decidedly more grim. The
storyline is more diffused, without a central character, but is more faithful to
Gorki's play. Kurosawa's camerawork
is extremely subtle and focused, as though the director were challenging himself
to create tension within a nearly claustrophobic set (similar to Hitchcock's Rear
Window). So, any debate regarding which film is better essentially
breaks down to one factor - each individual viewer's own preference for either
stylistic flourishes or for dramatic substance.
and Kurosawa would finally meet face-to-face in the 1970's in the twilight of
their years. It was an amicable
encounter at an awards ceremony, in which both directors expressed admiration
for the other's life work. In
regards to their respective renditions of The
Lower Depths, Renoir paid Kurosawa the highest compliment.
After finally seeing Kurosawa's version, he remarked, "That is a
much more important film than mine."
Video ** 1/2 (Renoir)
The Lower Depths is presented in its
original black & white, 1.33:1 full-screen aspect ratio.
The transfer was created from a 35mm composite print, which is a source
of some problems. In general,
the video quality is quite sharp with excellent contrast levels; images
tend to be very clear and well-delineated.
However, the composite nature of the print means that some scenes have a
decidedly grainy texture, while others are marred by scratches or minor
degradation of the film stock itself. In
addition, the video image flickers intermittently, and the frame tends to jitter
frequently during the early proceedings, making viewings a bit of an eye strain. The frame speed also seems oddly off at times, with action
that occasionally appears vaguely slower than usual. In short, the film, while still in relatively good shape,
looks its age.
The Lower Depths is presented in its
original black & white, 1.33:1 full-screen aspect ratio.
The transfer was also created from a 35mm composite print.
Although the print has some minor scratches, the image is quite stable,
with solid contrast levels and excellent details.
Being a relatively newer film, it looks better than the Renoir film but
still shows the inevitable wear-and-tear of aging.
Renoir's The Lower Depths is presented
in its original French monaural. The
dynamic range of the soundtrack is limited, with a slight background hiss and
occasional pop. There is no bass to
speak of, and the overall sound is as might be expected for a film from the
Kurosawa's The Lower Depths is
presented in its original Japanese monaural.
It too has a somewhat limited dynamic range, and there is a soft but
audible hiss of background noise. Dialogue
is always clear and is directed towards the center channel speaker.
Overall, neither of these two audio tracks will tax the abilities of
current home sound systems, but as the films are generally dialogue-driven, the
audio tracks are adequate.
just a pebble by the river. I'm
been worn down so long, now I'm nice and smooth."
two-disc DVD release from Criterion offers both versions of The
Lower Depths on individual discs. Disc
One contains the Jean Renoir version, complete with a six-minute introduction to
the film by the director himself. Renoir
describes his attempt to preserve the spirit of the original Russian story while
relocating it to the shores of the Marne River.
While Renoir's version is admittedly very different from Gorki's original
text, the Russian playwright had approved of the French director's screenplay,
which Renoir happily recounts here. Renoir also acknowledges his co-writers on the screenplay as
well as the actors in the film.
The Lower Depths can be found on Disc
Two. It is accompanied by a
commentary track from Donald Richie, a film historian specializing in Japanese
cinema. Richie discusses the film's
actors and their individual stage or film experience. He also focuses upon the film's fine ensemble work.
Some history about the original play is also provided for viewers
interested in the original source material.
from the Toho Masterworks series Akira
Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create is a documentary (33 min.) about the
making of The Lower Depths.
Made in the mid-1990's, this documentary brings together remaining
members of the crew and cast, including Kurosawa, to relate their experiences
from the film's production. There is a discussion about the film's stellar cast and
mishaps during rehearsals or shootings. The
set design of the detailed Edo-style tenement house is given particular
biographies and photographs for eleven of the main actors of Kurosawa's film are
included. Considering the film's
large cast, this is quite a valuable section over which to peruse prior to
watching the film.
there is an unusual 20-page booklet included with this DVD set.
Half the pages are upside-down and correspond to one version of the film.
Flip the booklet around, and the remaining pages focus on the other
version. Overall, there are two
essays inside the booklet as well as the usual information about the films'
casts and DVD chapter stops. Alexander
Sesonske, a film historian on Jean Renoir, writes about the French director's
version, while Keiko McDonald and Thomas Rimer, both professors of Japanese
cinema and literature, collaborate on an essay about Kurosawa's version.
TRIVIA: Maksim Gorki, who died mysteriously in 1936, was rumored to have been
killed under orders from Stalin.