The opening scenes of 'Boudu Saved from drowning' contrast the urbane bookseller Lestingois with the hirsute titular tramp. The former presides over a haven of super-civilisation on the banks of the Seine, surrounded by rare books, paintings, statues, the best that the best minds have thought and created. he is using the skill absorbed from this culture, however, to beguile his impressionable mistress, the young maid Anne-Marie - in this case classical rhetoric not only disguising basic natural urges, but actually replacing them, Lestingois' appetite more evident that his capabilities.
Boudu, on the other hand, is first seen in a park, caressing his dog, singing snatches of song, linked to the natural and populist. These two collide when Lestingois rescues a suicidal Boudu, and invites him into his home, where he is soon smashing plates, smearing shoe polish over the satin and spiiting in rare Balzac novels. The movement of the film seems to be towards the greater bourgeoisification of Boudu - new clothes, Samsonian hair cut, ennobling by money and marriage. But the film actually revolves around sex. The film starts with a Greek tableau of Pan chasing a nymph, cut to Lestingois and Anne-Marie. Boudu begins replacing his benefactor, not by accumulating bourgeois habits, but by displaying the sexual prowess the self-styled Priapus Lestingois lacks (the latter has no children).
70 years on, 'Boudu' remains a shockingly funny comedy, provocatively hostile to the soul-stultifying deceptions, compromises and resignations of the bourgoisie. If this makes the film sound aridly polemical, than you don't know Renoir - the slouchy, amused Lestingois is the most sympathetic character in the movie, cultured, tolerant, benevolent - his crime, if you like, it the bourgeois expectation that the rescued Boudu should be grateful and hence dependent. Even the women reveal depths beyond the initial caricatures - Mme Lestingois is given a beautiful epiphany, lying dejected on her bed, suddenly awoken by street music, taken back somewhere we've no access to. Concepts of death and rebirth, heaven and hell, destruction and continuity recur, filtered through the overarching metaphor of the river.
The film is a strange mixture of the antique and the modern. The documentary-like aspects of the film, the real-location shooting of pre-war Paris, its parks, cafes, pageants, music, rivers, boats etc., are ironically the most 'dated', in the sense that they capture a world long since vanished. The theatrical artificality of the film, by contrast, is the clue to its modernity - the division of the narrative into music-signalled acts; the farce-like plot; the complex composition of domestic and exterior space. The film's motifs revolve around spectators looking at unfolding dramas, windows framing action and dividing characters from life. There is a remarkable sequence in the park, where a plein-air location is turned into a vast, endless stage set, through which characters wander in and out. Far from restricting the cinematic quality of the film, this theatricality liberates it, opening up the rigidity of the frame, of one viewpoint, intimating whole worlds beyond it.
These tensions - between civilisation and nature, high and popular culture, sympathy and satire, ancient and modern, documentary and theatre - result in one of Renoir's, and cinema's, greatest films.