Bright Lights Film Journal

Renoir on the Seine: Boudu Saved from Drowning on DVD

Criterion’s Renoir-fest continues with this classic

Criterion has already remastered Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion(1938) and The Rules of the Game (1939), so the release of Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), another examination of civilization’s foibles, is not a surprise. Its arrival is no less joyful, however, for Boudu is both more elusive and more accessible than either of those two more loudly heralded classics.

Renoir plops Boudu Saved from Drowning right in the middle of Paris, thereby confronting the very heart of French culture and presumption. Stocky, lecherous Edouard Lestingois (Charles Granval) is the prototypical bourgeois gentleman: a bookseller who’s erudite, socially adept, and morally certain. His apartment is overfilled with his prissy wife (Marcelle Hainia) and their spunky maid (Séverine Lerczinska), who is also his mistress. In a parallel storyline that will soon intersect with Lestingois, we see Boudu (Michel Simon) as a wild-maned urban derelict overcome by grief at the disappearance of his dog. When he jumps off the Pont des Arts into the Seine, Lestingois rescues him in a fit of heroism. From there, Boudu Saved from Drowning becomes a story of transfiguration, and of upended expectations, jabbing satire, sweet humanism, and delicious ambiguity.

It is too easy to call Boudu Saved from Drowning a straightforward assault on the bourgeoisie. Lestingois may be a hypocrite, but his dedication to Boudu suggests a decent man in search of meaning in his life through good samaritanship. More predictably, the veneer of social propriety effortlessly peels away in the Lestingois household soon after Boudu arrives. But Boudu can’t be pegged easily as a catalyst for anarchy over social complacency. He is a man (beast?) unattached to convention, instinctual, all natural, and as rendered by Simon, spectacularly foul. His hygienic neglect fairly wafting off the screen, Boudu lives by his own sense of order. He pours wine on the tablecloth to bring out the salt, and spits in a copy of Balzac’s Physiology of Marriage because he was told it is rude to spit on the floor. (Granval’s exasperated response to this is a priceless character detail.) Boudu has the manners of Caliban and the logic of Gracie Allen.

Boudu remains outside our reach of understanding and unsettling to all. Some degree of sympathy inevitably goes to Lestingois. That critical point of view gives the viewer the uneasy but vivifying self-reflection that is the raison d’etre of so much great art. Renoir doesn’t want to merely comment on French temperament. He wants to get into our heads and scramble our assumptions on how social relations are conducted. Lestingois early on calls Boudu the “perfect tramp,” but Boudu fails that assessment. He does not alleviate the privileged man’s guilt with any fantasy of the grateful, redemptive pauper. Lestingois’ generosity is met with increased demands for food, clothing, money, and material comfort. But in yet another twist, Boudu is revealed as anything but a vagabond opportunist.

Boudu Saved from Drowning is loose, leisurely, and nearly improvisational in its tone. One sees in Renoir a director who did not get showy, especially if his actors were courting inspiration. The result is a movie filled with spontaneity, of life unfolding. Boudu offers glorious deep-focus photography, forcing the background of Paris into the foreground action. The city becomes a breathing, almost noisome thing, as essential to the movie as any human character.

Boudu‘s extras are not as abundant as they are in many other Criterion releases, but they are laudable nonetheless. There are scholarly appreciations and an affectionate if superficial 1967 dialogue between Simon and Renoir on the making of Boudu. More useful to the non-Francophile is a self-guided map and tour of Parisian arrondissements, noting that they diminish in social cache as they spiral outward. The insight is critical to a fuller appreciation of the movie’s use of Paris.

The story, based on a play by René Fauchois, is so good that it was bound to be Americanized. Sure enough, Paul Mazursky took Boudu and turned it into Down and Out in Beverly Hills(1986). The idea had promise, but the result was a diminishment. Exquisite human observations were morphed into gaseous farce. The point is lost when Jerry the tramp (Nick Nolte) gets a makeover to look like any other Coppertoned nouveau-riche toad motoring through the Hills of Beverly. The other characters were similarly cartoonified. There is a sensitive, mascara-wearing son, an anorexic daughter, and the screeching talents of Richard Dreyfuss, Bette Midler, and Little Richard. Their yearning to be repaired by latter-day shaman-healer Jerry is grossly overstated. American filmmakers rarely take a hard gaze inward, and Mazursky here is no exception. He added whorish racial stereotypes to his stewpot, stirred in lots of pop music, and voila. Down and Out in Beverly Hills was a big, fat hit. Today it is painful to watch. Stick with the original.