The next film to be screened at SouthBank’s Classic Film Club (on Nov 1st) is a new print of director Jean Renoir’s second sound film (Boudu sauvé des eaux). Jean Renoir (below), the son of the famous painter Pierre-August Renoir, became a film director in the 1920s and won international success in the 1930s. Films such as Grand Illusion (1937), The Rules of the Game (1939) and The Human Beast (La Bête Humaine) (1938), are often cited by critics as among the greatest films ever made.
This film is an example of Renoir’s work before these more well-known movies were made but contains many of the features that would appear later and which contributed to his growing reputation in France. Hailed in the 1960s as a father-figure to the young Turks of the French New-Wave (Godard, Truffaut et al), Renoir is still considered a gifted film-maker whose films articulate humanity and warmth, but like his painter father, he expresses far more in his work than at first meets the eye.
Fed up with life (having lost his dog) and intending suicide, Boudu, a scruffy tramp is saved from drowning in the Seine by an antiquarian bookseller, Edouard Lestingois, whose shop is located nearby. Boudu the tramp insists that Lestingois, having saved him, is now responsibility for his upkeep. Ensconced in the comforts of Lestingois’ home, Boudu behaves as nature (rather than propriety) demands and at first it seems funny – though the chaos is an odd mixture of clownish imbecility and deliberate destruction. Is he a child or is there something more intellectual behind these antics? Left in charge of the shop, for example, Boudu ridicules a customer who asks for a copy of Baudelaire’s Les Fleur du Mal – this isn’t a florists! Lestingois’ wife and maid (with whom Lestingois is having an affair) feign patronizing amusement – but soon we begin to realize that two very different realities are colliding in this bookseller’s household.
BACKGROUND & THEMES
Based on a play in which a tramp finally accepts his responsibilities, the film adapts and alters things so that the paywright objected. Renoir wanted to make more of Boudu’s free and anarchic spirit than the pay’s simple message. These directorial ambitions are set out in a short vignette at the beginning – buit could easily have been used at the end as a coda: this comprises a classical Greek locale where a Pan-like figure (below) chases a nymph. The sweep of the camera suggests this may be the point of view of a Greek statue. But before we can wonder what this might mean, we are confronted with a tramp lolling about with his dog by some trees in a park. The juxtaposition is striking and seems quite disconnected – though it rewards later reflection.
Renoir liberally cut the play, finally keeping only half of the first two acts. To contrast with the plodding, indoor pursuit of Lestingois’ material comforts, Renoir decided to take the action out into the Paris summer of 1932. With a wry sense of humour, the film pokes fun at bourgeois values (a theme that translated well to its 1980s re-make) chiefly through the chaar=racter of Lestingois (below), whose materialist lifestyle encourages alienation from those fellow Parisians suffering on the street at the other end of his telescope. Significantly, his first glimpse of Boudu is made through the wrong end of this spy glass.
The darker side to social conditions of the time is rarely alluded to – and indeed is only hinted at in an over-heard observation, for example, when someone on the bridge observes rather indifferently that, of late, people have been throwing themselves into the Seine with some regularity. It is a casual remark that conveys perhaps Renoir’s wry sense of tragedy, but it surely nevertheless had a sobering significance during the Depression in France.
THE CHARACTER OF BOUDU
Boudu (first name, Priape) is played with great enthusiasm by Michel Simon, who was at various times a boxer, a boxing instructor, a right-wing anarchist, a frequenter of prostitutes and mixer with pimps and petty crooks. He was also extremely well read, a talented photographer, a hypochondriac, a misanthrope, the owner of a vast collection of pornography who had a reputation for unorthodox sexual behaviour – a reputation he did not bother to deny. He may therefore be seen as having a good deal of Boudu in him. Indeed Renoir later confirmed that the film “was conceived primarily to make use of the genius of Michel Simon.”
As far as Simon was concerned Boudu was a pique-assiette, a sponger and in the 1960s writer Richard Boston opportunistically suggested that he had much in common with the hippies. Film critic Pauline Kael rejected this suggestion; Boudu was a more profound figure than that. Some modern viewers find in Simon’s performance a bad example of how to act drunk but this does not do the part justice either. Boudu is what the French call a marginal; he is anarchic, chaotic, childish and a fool. And although he has sometimes been compared with Chaplin’s tramp, with Laurel and Hardy, Harpo Marx or Monsieur Hulot, he somehow evades all these comparisons for his comic behaviour is genuinely unsettling and sometimes downright disgusting. Chaplin would never, for example, hawk and spit into a copy of Zola! It is as if Boudu is saying, “Oh, you find this simply funny do you? Well how about this?”
His behaviour is in keeping with Renoir’s determination to undercut the apparently comic – and rather thin – surface of the film (and the play). Boudu, after all, would have been just one of more than ten thousand ‘clochards’ living in the city’s parks and streets and under its bridges in the early thirties. Why should they care about the likes of Lestingois and his sexual fantasies? Why should Boudu care about his wife, his books or his maid?
At a still deeper level, there is a sense in which Boudu exteriorizes something in Lestingois himself – something he has summoned involuntarily from the dark recesses of the personal and social unconscious. In short Boudu represents Lestingois’ – and also our – Freudian id … the instinctive urge and basic drive. For there is no denying that Boudu belongs to filth, to waste and is unable to be assimilated; from the beginning of the film he is like a piece of flotsam, washing up in the center of Paris from the Bois de Boulogne, at its western edge; by the end of the film he is still the same piece of rubbish being flushed out beyond the city’s outskirts, into the Marne beyond the eastern perimeter of Paris.
Because Renoir (below, in later life) changed so much of his play, René Fauchois threatened to have his name removed from the credits, but later changed his mind.
Filmed in 1932, Boudu Saved From Drowning was not released in the US until 1967, when it was widely praised. A successful American remake appeared in 1986; Down and Out in Beverly Hills starred Nick Nolte, Richard Dreyfuss and Bette Midler, hitting a nerve with its implicit criticism of empty eighties materialism.
Then there was “This is Your Lifesaver” an episode from season 2 of the cartoon TV series The Flintstones, in which Fred saves someone from drowning, but the casualty turns out to be a con man who then wreaks havoc in the Flintstone household. We should not assume that, as a counterpart to Lestingois, Fred was ever unfaithful to Wilmer though!
AS A POST-SCRIPT: After the screening, one person leaving remarked that she did not warm to the character of Boudu. I think this is the point. Renoir did not want you to like a cuddly vagrant. As Stuart Jeffries’ article on vagabonds in cinema (provoked by Lady in the Van) remarked in passing, Boudu is a “grenade rolled into [a] hidebound middle-class household, threatening to detonate all that they hold dear – money, sexual propriety, the ruthless hypocrisy masked as civilisation.”