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Boudu Saved from Drowning (Criterion Collection)
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After well-to-do bookseller Edouard Lestingois (Charles Granval) rescues a tramp from a suicidal plunge into the Seine, his family adopts the bum and dedicates itself to reforming him. The irrepressible Boudu (Michel Simon) shows his gratitude by shaking the household to its foundations, challenging the hidebound principles of his hosts and seducing them with his anarchic charm. With Boudu Saved from Drowning, legendary director Jean Renoir takes advantage of a host of Parisian locations and a brilliant performance by Simon to create an effervescent satire of bourgeois complacency.
Long before there were hippies, there was, sublimely, Boudu. In 1932 director Jean Renoir and French star Michel Simon, fresh from their early-sound triumph La Chienne, decided to re-team in adapting a stage farce about a derelict rescued from the river by a bookseller and groomed for bourgeois society. The bookseller's idea proves to be disastrous, though working through all the possibilities for disruption and catastrophe is a slow-gathering and hilarious process. Simon always seemed as much force of nature as mere actor, and his and Renoir's inspiration is to make Boudu the vagabond not a satyr or opportunist or noble savage or de facto sociopolitical anarchist, but simply an oversized manchild with no more guile or conscious agenda than the shaggy dog whose sudden defection led him to throw himself into the Seine. If his insistence on leaving a downy-soft bed to sleep in the hall happens to block the door to the maid's room, where his benefactor Lestingois is wont to sneak after the wife's asleep, well, Boudu doesn't really plan it that way. And if he leaves a wet lugie between the pages of a first-edition Balzac, well, they asked him not to spit on the floor, after all!
We can see that the original farce (by René Fauchois) was probably pretty funny to begin with, but Renoir makes of it much, much more. Boudu Saved from Drowning--arguably the first French New Wave film, nearly 30 years before there was a New Wave--is one of those cardinal works in which we can see, and experience anew, a great filmmaker inventing the cinema. Without jettisoning the formal qualities of the theatrical farce, Renoir opens his film to light, fresh air, and the teeming multifariousness of Parisian street life; the denizens of the city become unwitting extras in the movie as Boudu first shambles, then prances, among them. The deep-focus camerawork is exhilarating, but even the gregarious roughness of the production feels right, indeed essential. "I believe that perfection is even dangerous," Renoir remarked of his own movie. "If a film is perfect, the public has nothing to add.... The audience should always be trying to finish a picture, ... fill in the holes which we didn't fill." Collaborating on Boudu is a glorious experience. --Richard T. Jameson
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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.
Boudu is an anarchic force of nature, stuffing his sardine dinner into his mouth with his hands and spitting his wine onto the floor. For Lestingois, who at first is pleased with himself for his heroism and with taking in such a specimen of the lower class, life becomes complicated and frustrating. He enjoys his trysts with the maid, Anne-Marie, but he recognizes he's getting a bit old. "She's charming," he says, "but last night I fell asleep before I could join her. No doubt about it, I'm growing old. My pipes are weary, and soon some shepherd will lure her with his youthful flute." Boudu, however, soon wearies of sleeping in a bed and takes to sleeping in the hall, next to Anne-Marie's door. "I get bored all alone in my room," Anne Marie tells Lestingois. "I'm not exactly jumping for joy in my room, either," he says. "Are you sorry you saved him?" she asks. "At night, I am."
Madame Lestingois, however, once Boudu is convinced to get a haircut and wear a proper suit, may not be quite the piece of ice she appears to be. When Boudu has the opportunity to closely inspect a small birthmark on Madame Lestingois' chest, well, it's not long before Madame Lestingois hears trumpets playing.
Boudu remains the same, wrapped up in his own world and with his own behavior, refusing a favor, turning back an innocent inquiry, tickling the bottom of Anne Marie, enjoying Madame Lestingois, making himself obliviously at home with Edouard Lestingois. He's a natural force that can't be controlled and, for some, barely endured. By the end of the movie it appears, however, that a lottery ticket and the prospect of lustful marriage to Anne Marie may finally tame Boudu. "For once, both modern morals and the laws of nature are satisfied," says a member of the wedding party. Fortunately, a lily floating on the river and a bad sense of balance bring Boudu back the life he had. He may have been saved from drowning at the start of the movie, but he's saved from bourgeois respectability at the end.
This is a marvelously sophisticated and warm comedy. Everybody has their foibles exposed and no one really gets hurt. Michel Simon as Boudu is simply unique. "I watch Boudu often," says Jean Renoir in a filmed introduction to the movie, "not because I revel in contemplation of my past work, but simply because of Michel Simon." Charles Granval as Lestingois is just about as good.
The Criterion DVD presentation is first rate. There are several extras which are interesting and informative, including an interview made 35 years later with Renoir and Simon discussing the movie.
Boudu is pure id (imagine Walt Whitman on a three-day bender), but he has no real malice toward anyone. Lestingois, the good citizen who takes him in, is driven by a sincere but utterly self-serving sense of compassion. He thinks he can bring this wild animal into his house and groom and curry him until he personifies the bookseller's own generosity. And he believes he can do this without any noticeable disruption in his own carefully ordered universe. Result: Boudu dutifully applies black polish to his shoes, then wipes off the excess with the aid of a white bedspread. At every turn, china shop meets bull. It's lovely.
Boudo is a comical Caliban, a wild "Neanderthal" as one of the film's characters calls him, who serves as a countervailing force to everything that the middle class calls "civilization." He eats when he wants, sleeps where he wants, wears what he wants, he has no sense of property or propriety, and feels neither gratitude nor obligation when given a handout. He's very much like an animal: embodied, appetitive, and clueless about what's respectable and what's not.
But Boudu performs an important function in the film: he reveals the pretensions and hypocrisy of so-called respectable middle class. They sneak around in their adulterous affairs. Boudu's lust is open and unconcealed. They sell their souls for money and prestige. Boudu couldn't care less. They mouth platitudes about helping their fellow man, but only if the fellow man they're helping is polite and clean and well-trained. "Boudu Saved from Drowning" is a wonderful expose of the thinness of the veneer we call "social propriety."
Just three hilarious moments from the film:
Edouard Lestingois (Charles Granval), the bookseller who saves Boudu from the Seine and then embarks on a crusade to civilize him, washes his hands of his uncooth guest when he discovers that Boudu has spit in a copy of Balzac's The Physiology of Marriage. "I care less than nothing for someone who would desecrate this book!" he exclaims. "One should only come to the aid of one's equals!" Yet Lestingois, who seems so concerned about a book on marriage, has no qualms about cheating on his wife.
A little girl gives street tramp Boudu 5 francs. Several moments later, an obviously wealthy dandy passing by fruitlessly searches his pockets for change to give Boudu. Boudu gives him the 5 franc note, telling him to get himself something to eat. The gesture is absolutely without guile or sarcasm, which is what makes it so hilarious.
Tramp Boudu loses his dog and asks a park cop for help finding him. The cop shoos him away. Moments later a well-dressed society woman comes running up to the same cop complaining that her 10,000 franc dog has disappeared. Immediately a sizeable portion of the Paris constabulary are on the case.
In an interview with Simon and Renois included on the Criterion disk, the two men remember that the film was met with outrage when it was released in 1932, and theaters showing it were even closed down by the Paris authorites. Apparently the film hit exactly the bourgeois nerve at which it was aimed. It still does today.
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