May 16, 2017
“From Boudu I have learned that one of the attitudes to take toward society is to loathe it.” – Michel Simon
In Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932) Michel Simon plays a bearded bum who has lost interest in humanity. Boudu would prefer to stroll in the park with his dog or drown at the bottom of the Seine than re-enter the world of neckties and table manners and responsibility. But he is dragged into it by a bourgeois bookseller who hopes to “save” him from his “plight.” But instead of praise Boudu brings chaos, destabilizing the household from within. Simon closely collaborated with director Jean Renoir on the production, and it is a tour de force performance, with Simon a loose-limbed satyr, extending his gangly frame in all the wrong directions so as to most annoy his hosts. It is something of a thematic sequel to La Chienne (1931), which Renoir and Simon completed the previous year and which I wrote about last week. They both center Simon as a sympathetic monster, one who commits despicable acts but only because they are being true to themselves. It is Boudu’s nature to drift, so if he is not allowed to drown in the undercurrent, he will coast above it, roiling all the lives he touches along the way.
Boudu Saved From Drowning was the first production for Les Productions Michel Simon, which the actor created in January of 1932, having hopes of many collaborations with Renoir. At the time the director said, as quoted in Pascal Merigeau’s Jean Renoir: A Biography: “We have a superb understanding of each other; he hates the outrageous complications of the world of film as much as I do…and we really want to remain independent. We have the capital, the screenplays, and we know what we want. You know what a wonderful comic actor Simon is; so we’re going to make a comedy every year.” It turned out that Boudu was the first and last film for the company.
The film was based on a play by René Fauchois that debuted in 1919, though Simon had performed as Boudu in the 1925 revival. Renoir deviated wildly from the original, retaining only the first two acts, and, as Merigeau reports, adding a prologue and epilogue. Fauchois was so enraged by Renoir’s changes that he rushed a new stage version of the play, with an added fourth act, that premiered while the film was still in theaters. The biggest difference in the productions is the fate of Boudu. Fauchois’s original has him successfully saved by the bookseller, married to his maid and a new member of the middle class. Renoir’s Boudu rejects this life, opting for a radical, disruptive freedom.
As with La Chienne, Boudu opens with theatrical artifice – that of a satyr and nymph playacting in front of a drop cloth. He pursues and she resists, until he pulls her in for a kiss, the camera pulls back, and there is a dissolve to the spiral staircase of the Lestringuez residence. There is a pan left to the window, where round bookshop owner Edouard (Charles Granval) is trilling sweet nothings and pawing at his mistress (and maid) Chloë (Sévérine Lerczinska) before his wife Emma (Marcelle Hainia) sarcastically enters. The household is now associated with stagecraft and fakery, while Boudu is introduced in nature, lazing under a tree while his dog plays in a pond (water imagery surrounds Boudu throughout). When his dog wanders off, Boudu disconsolately goes out on a search. But no one is willing to help a bum, as cops and civilians run away at the sight of him. He wanders the background of shots as a rich lady gets the attention of the whole park with a story of her missing pekingese. Experimenting with deep focus, Renoir and his DP Georges Asselin often isolate Boudu in the distance, a tiny figure hiding behind trees or propping himself up in a door frame. The closer to the front of the frame he is, the more trouble he causes. It is technically brilliant but registers casually, offhand. André Bazin wrote that, “One of the most paradoxically appealing aspects of Jean Renoir’s work is that everything in it is so casual. He is the only film maker in the world who can afford to treat the cinema with such apparent offhandedness. … If one had to describe the art of Renoir in a word, one could define it as an aesthetic of discrepancy.”
Still hurting from the loss of a dog, or for other reasons never stated, Boudu wanders to a bridge and jumps off. Across the street Edouard is watching ladies with his telescope and witnesses the suicide attempt. Shocked into action, he rushes to the scene and dives to rescue Boudu from the water. Edouard becomes something of a local hero, Boudu’s rescue representative of the right mindedness of the bourgeoisie. But Boudu had no interest in being rescued – he’d either die or float downriver, and either outcome would be OK with him. Instead he’s stuck at the Lestringuez home as a charity case, a way for the family to feel good about themselves, and justify the morality of the middle class. He is a totem of their sensitivity.
In return Boudu proves his unsuitability for civilized life, spreading shoe polish over the bed linens, flooding the kitchen, and in the ultimate outrage, spitting in a volume of Balzac. Boudu is a monster and a man of principle. He doesn’t grow or change or learn a thing over the course of the film’s running time, but remains irrepressibly himself, destroying property and blithely telling uncomfortable truths. He also seduces Chl0ë AND Emma, but the artistically minded Edouard doesn’t mind that intrusion too much, he seems to take it as a compliment. And sex, which has become business to Chloë and infrequent for Emma, becomes a source of pleasure again for both of them. In fact the Lestringuez family is not wrecked by Boudu’s depredations, but awakened by them. Boudu trashing their place makes them drop their artificial posing and look at each other truthfully, at least for a little while.
Boudu returns to nature, first flinging off his fitted suit and putting on the tattered clothes of a scarecrow, and then flinging his fedora into the Marne River. Then the camera detaches itself from Boudu’s POV, a privileged moment of documentary. The last we see him, Boudu lies back in the grass and looks at the sky. But the camera pans and follows the trajectory of his hat, floating down the river. We see the activity of the waterway, rowers practicing, the current flowing and the particular haze surrounding a blade of grass. Bazin puts it better than I can:
“What moves us is not the fact that this countryside is once again Boudu’s domain, but that the banks of the Marne, in all the richness of their detail, are intrinsically beautiful. At the end of the pan, the camera picks up a bit of grass where, in close-up, one can see distinctly the white dust that the heat and the wind have lifted from the path. One can almost feel it between one’s fingers. Boudu is going to stir it up with his foot. If I were deprived of the pleasure of seeing Boudu again for the rest of my days, I would never forget that grass, that dust, and their relationship to the liberty of a tramp.”
This is the fourth part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, 16 of which are streaming on FilmStruck. The first entry on Whirlpool of Fate (1925) is here. The second entry on Nana (1926) is here. The third entry on La Chienne (1931) is here.