"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

December 30, 2011

"Boudu Saved From Drowning" (1932) by Renoir (Film review)

In his work made in the 1930s, the legendary French cineast Jean Renoir usually expresses his concern about the large class differences in his country. Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) addresses that problem at its very start, when the tramp Boudu looses his black dog, asks help from a policeman and instead is chased away with the threat of prison. An elegant bourgeois lady who makes the same request only seconds later, gets immediate assistance from three constables. This is indeed typical “class justice.” Later, when the tramp tries to kill himself out of sadness for the loss of his dog by jumping into the Seine, he is saved by the kind bourgeois bookseller Lestingois, who invites him into his home for recuperation, and then we get the class struggle on a higher level, between Boudu and the Lestingois household that is thrown into utter chaos by this asocial guest. Indeed, one couldn't be less bourgeois than Boudu!

But the film goes much deeper than only antagonism between social classes. This is a film about total freedom in the sense of Chinese Daoist philosophy, incorporated in the tramp Boudu, played by Michel Simon, who also in real life had Boudu-like qualities. Boudu is almost animal-like, he lives completely outside society. He is untrammeled by any concerns, going his way in total freedom. Or, in the Buddhist sense, he is wholly free from attachments - except to his dog. Being free, he doesn't know love or gratitude. Not bound by any conventions, he is brutally honest: when told not to spit on the floor, but use a handkerchief, he retorts that putting a dirty handkerchief in your pocket is even more unhygienic - in the end he uses the pages of an antiquarian book to get rid of his spit. He is also a "natural man," who even in the bookseller's house prefers to sleep on the floor. He never washes, so you can smell him through the screen. Although a hairdresser later in the film changes his appearance, making even Madame fall in love with him, his character remains the same. He wins a fortune in the lottery and gets to marry the bookseller's maid, but neither money nor marriage have any meaning for him. He has by chance drifted into the bookseller's family, and finally will leave it in the same way, floating down the river from where he came, returning to his life as tramp as easily as changing his clothes. Boudu's freedom is so immense that it is almost frightening.

This simple but meaningful story plays out against the backdrop of charming footage of Paris, the Seine, the Bois the Boulogne and the Marne in the early 1930s, filmed in the long tracking shots that were Renoir's trademark. Boudu is truly Renoir's first masterpiece.

Boudu Saved from Drowning is available in the Criterion Collection.
(Revised August 2014)