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Thursday, 4 February 2010

Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932)

Director: Jean Renoir
Star: Michel Simon
One of those intriguing world movie titles that I've seen mentioned often, I was surprised to find that I'd seen a Hollywood remake of this film, namely Down and Out in Beverly Hills, made in 1986 by Paul Mazursky with Nick Nolte being rescued from drowning by Bette Midler and Richard Dreyfuss. This original French version, made half a century earlier by Jean Renoir, features Michel Simon in the role that later went to Nick Nolte, with Marcelle Hainia and Charles Granval as his benefactors, Édouard and Emma Lestingois, who are antiquarian booksellers on the embankment of the Seine in Paris.

Boudu is a tramp with a bushy beard who we first meet apparently checking his dog for fleas in the park. When it runs off he's unable to find it, but nobody is willing to help him search: the passers by ignore him or actively avoid his presence; and even the cop that he finds standing around just tries to run him off too. However when a lady of breeding explains to the very same cop that she's lost her dog too, a pekinese worth ten thousand francs, he's more than happy to help her. In fact one cop promptly becomes three, and passers by in rich vehicles stop to help out too. Such is the power of wealth.

A little later, Édouard Lestingois, who is watching the young ladies out of his window with a telescope, sees Boudu too, climbing over the railing to throw himself into the Seine. Whether he's upset at seeing a man trying to kill himself or because he's never seen such a perfect tramp we really aren't told, but he rushes out and dives in to save him, becoming a hero in the process to the many people watching. Given that Boudu wants to go right back to the river, once he realises he isn't dead, they have to keep him there for a little while and if you've seen the remake you won't be too surprised at the rest of the story. In fact you be mostly surprised at how little attempt is made to change the characters over the course of the story.

You might expect from a story where people of two utterly different classes are thrust together that life changing decisions will be prompted, but that's surprisingly missing here, at least in the more overt sense you might get from Hollywood. Renoir was far more subtle than that, as epitomised by a later film he made called The Rules of the Game, one that is frequently referenced as the greatest film ever made. It's undeniably great but it's also so subtle that many just don't get it at all; while I'm perhaps getting there after a couple of viewings, I still much prefer other Jean Renoir movies. This film is subtle too, as while Boudu undeniably influences the Lestingois household through his presence, the changes he causes are mostly ones that don't happen before the film ends. There are no specific outlook changing moments here, except perhaps an accidental discovery which would have happened anyway.
What we really see here are two things. One is Michel Simon, who is more of a force of nature than an actor as Boudu, apparently utterly unable to be still or to be ignored. Boudu staggers around as if he's drunk, regardless what he's been drinking, his energy running rampant and apparently raging for release when within the confines of a building. Simon was only 5'10" but he feels so much taller here, as if he's the biggest thing around but still not big enough to contain his energy. He knew the role well, having played it on stage. I've seen Simon before, in Marcel Carné's Port of Shadows and as one of the judges in The Passion of Joan of Arc, but he's notched up a few other world classics, including Renoir's La chienne and Jean Vigo's L'atalante, to name but two. Renoir ascribed most of the success of this film to him.

The other is the fact that it's Lestingois who wants to have that energy. While he despises Boudu for his savagery, stooping as low on the heretical scale as to spit in Balzac's Physiology of Marriage, he really admires him for his magnetic power. Lestingois spends as much of his time as he can watching young ladies and is apparently having an affair with his maid Anne-Marie, but we never actually see this, merely hear about him falling asleep first or getting interrupted before anything can happen. What's utterly apparent is the intent and it's Boudu who turns that into action. Charles Granval, from the Comédie Française, is excellent as this grounding for the entire story, and I'm sad that I've only ever seen him once before, in the joyous Pépé le Moko.

Technically I'm in two minds about the film. Renoir was a filmmaker who could astound us with shots of utter beauty and there are a few attempts at that here, but nothing that stands up to my memory of The River, Grand Illusion or The Woman on the Beach. I got the impression that what Renoir tried to do with some shots here was stunning but the equipment he had to work with wasn't always up to what he wanted. It appears I'm not the only one in two minds about the film. Movieline rated highly enough to include it in their list of the 100 Best Foreign Films of all time, but for The Times it didn't even make their list of the Best 100 French Films. It's an excellent film but it feels like the least of the seven Renoirs I've seen thus far.

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