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THE LOWER DEPTHS

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Jean Gabin, Suzy Prim, Junie Astor, Louis Jouvet, Vladimir Sokoloff; Toshiro Mifune, Isuzu Yamada, Kyoko Kagawa, Koji Mitsui, Ganjiro Nakamura, Bokuzen Hidari
Directors: Jean Renoir and Akira Kurosawa
Audio: French and Japanese monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, full-frame 1.33:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: Renoir introduction, Kurosawa documentary, cast biographies, commentary track, booklet essays
Length: 89 minutes, 125 minutes
Release Date: June 22, 2004

"Goodness is the most precious of treasures.  That has nothing to do with what you owe me."

Films   *** 1/2 (Renoir)

            **** (Kurosawa)

In 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.

First 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.

In 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).

The 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.

This 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.

The Lower Depths 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 houses.

Each 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.

While 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.

However, 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.

The Lower Depths, 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.

Japanese 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.

Kurosawa's 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).

One 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.

From 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Ultimately, 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 their lives.

The Lower Depths 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.

Thus, 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.

Renoir 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)

            *** (Kurosawa)

Renoir's 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.

Kurosawa''s 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.

Audio **

Jean 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 1930's.

Akira 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.

Features ****

"I'm just a pebble by the river.  I'm been worn down so long, now I'm nice and smooth."

This 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.

Kurosawa's 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.

Included 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 attention, too.

Next, 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.

Lastly, 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.

BONUS TRIVIA: Maksim Gorki, who died mysteriously in 1936, was rumored to have been killed under orders from Stalin.

Summary:

This excellent Criterion release offers two classic films for the price of one!  Jean Renoir and Akira Kurosawa, two of the greatest directors in film history, offer differing but masterfully-rendered tellings of the Russian play.  Obviously, this Criterion release is a must-have for fans of either of these two great directors!