The Tramp: Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932)

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 ChienneBoudu 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.

Life is Beautiful: La Chienne (1931)

May 9, 2017

CHIENNE, LA (1931)

The characters in La Chienne (1931) do not learn or grow, but remain indelibly themselves. Each act of pettiness, adultery or murder is a logical extension of personality, fated in DNA.  It is the earliest of director Jean Renoir’s canonical works, bitterly funny and desperately sad, which unravels a love triangle in which all three members cling to unsustainable illusions. A mild-mannered cashier (Michel Simon) and brutish pimp (Georges Flamant) both project their dreams of escape onto a no-nonsense prostitute (Janie Marèse), who is unwilling to satisfy their divergent desires (the cashier asks for love, the pimp money – neither ask what she wants). None are capable of enough empathy to consider the other’s position, so they continue in mutual incomprehension, and on to frustration and violence. Renoir bookends the film with a puppet show, framing the trio as marionettes not in control of their destiny, tugged along by their natures. While this leads them to tragedy, it also provides them with a radical kind of freedom, the sloughing off of all control.  

This is the third part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, 16 of which are streaming on FilmStruck. The first entry on The Whirlpool of Fate is here. The second entry on Nana is here.

According to Renoir, he was only allowed to make La Chienne, his second sound film, after he could prove that he could work quickly and under budget. So he was assigned to adapt the Georges Feydeau comedy On purge bébé (1931), which he wrote, directed and edited in three weeks. His producers Pierre Braunberger and Roger Richebé formed the production company Les Etablissements Braunberger-Roger Richebé in 1930. Braunberger was a longtime friend who had worked with Renoir since Whirlpool of Fate in 1925. It was reportedly Richebé who asked Renoir to use On purge bébé as a test for La Chienne, though Renoir biographer Pascal Merigeau could not find anything to support Renoir and Branuberger’s claims to that effect. In any case On purge bébé was made very quickly, but though Renoir dismisses it as a commercial job, it is really quite funny, especially if you are interested in Michel Simon reaction shots after he accidentally swallows some laxatives. And it is here he begins his collaboration with sound engineer Joseph de Bretagne, which continued through The Golden Coach in 1952. Renoir was insistent in recording sound live instead of in post, and On purge bébé was infamous for its toilet flushing sound. Renoir wrote: “In my concern for realism, I used the flush of a real toilet in the studio. The result produced the sound of a cataract that thrilled the production representatives and elevated me to the level of a great man.”

CHIENNE, LA (1931)

Les Etablissements Braunberger-Roger Richebé announced that they acquired the rights to Georges de La Fouchardiere’s La Chienne on April 11, 1931. Renoir adapted the script himself and directed the film. There is some question as to whether the film was reedited by the producers, but Renoir claimed he got the cut he wanted, and Merigeau concluded that it “was probably edited by Renoir and Marguerite [Renoir], then by Denis Batcheff under the direction of Paul Fejos.” The film concerns Maurice Legrand (Simon), a passive weak-chinned cashier at a women’s hosiery factory who paints as a hobby. A masterfully fastidious performance by Simon, his Maurice is little more than a recessive nasal murmur, a man who speaks not to be heard but to get quicker into silences. He is married to Adèle (Madeleine Berubet), a demanding shrew who is endlessly comparing Maurice to her first husband, who died in WWI. Coming home from an office party, Maurice stumbles into a spat between Lulu (Marèse) and her pimp Dédé (Flamant). (In a tragic footnote, soon after filming Marèse would die in a crash, in a car that Flamant was driving.) Thinking that he is being gallant, he knocks Dédé over and escorts Lulu home. To seem more interesting, Maurice tells Lulu that he is a painter. Dédé encourages Lulu to cultivate that relationship and leech him of money, thinking he is a famous artist in America. Needing some quick cash, Dédé steals a couple of unsigned canvases and invents an artist to assign it to: “Clara Wood.” Clara Wood becomes an in-demand artist, and Lulu takes on the role. Maurice is flattered that his art is getting attention, and pleased it’s generating income for Lulu. Temporarily, all parties get their ego stroked. But then Maurice miraculously is freed of his marital bonds, and sheepishly asks Lulu to marry him. She can playact no longer, and laughs in his face. It is the end of their “selfless” performances, and the reveal of their truest selves.

CHIENNE, LA (1931)

The Guignol puppet at the beginning of the film declares, “The play we shall perform is neither drama nor comedy. It contains no moral message, and has nothing to prove. The characters are neither heroes nor villains. They’re plain folk like you or me,” implicating the viewer in the tonal shifts to come, for the film is focalized through Maurice, a typically sympathetic lead character. But as the film progresses he reveals depths of insecurity beyond even Dédé, a man who slaps Lulu around out of boredom. But the wonder of the film is that it never sits in judgment; even the most heinous actions occur due to the convergence of personality and circumstance, and Renoir’s camera keeps its distance, peeking through curtains or café windows. This framing is remote, almost aloof. As Bazin wrote, “There is a deliberate attempt here to use a frame within the frame to underline the importance of all that lies beyond the screen.” As this petty drama unfolds, there are others behind and at all sides of the camera, just out of view.

The last few sequences evade language, and invite cliché. They take place years later, with Maurice reduced to vagrancy and homelessness, and yet still capable of his pinched smile. He wishes for his own death and yet opines that “life is beautiful” as one of his old “Clara Wood” canvases is sold to a wealthy buyer. The ending is brutally ironic and entirely sincere. Maurice has erased himself from society while his work is sold under an imaginary name. But he gets a tip for opening a car door, enough to buy a hot meal, and that, at least temporarily, is a beautiful thing.


November 8, 2016

POISON, LA (1951)

When inspiration failed Francois Truffaut, he would look at a 1957 photo of Sacha Guitry sitting on his deathbed, working on a moviola. Truffaut said looking at the image made him “recover my good mood, bravery, and every courage in the world.” An indefatigable playwright, performer, and filmmaker, Guitry was a model of a complete director for Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, who advocated for Guitry’s work in the early years of Cahiers du Cinema. Godard included Guitry in a “gang of four” French filmmakers (along with Pagnol, Cocteau and Duras) who demonstrated a “grandeur and power” which enabled him and the other New Wave filmmakers to believe in cinema as an art form (Guitry appears multiple times in Godard’s Histoire du Cinema). Like Orson Welles (another Guitry fan), Guitry was raised in the theater, and used his command of theatrical effects to experimental uses on film, especially in his teasing, self-reflexive use of voice-over. Though there was a flurry of appreciations when Criterion released their essential box set in 2010, he has never gained the same level of recognition in the States as his peers. One of his late masterpieces, La Poison (1951), is available for streaming on FilmStruck – it was previously unavailable in any format in the U.S. A gleefully black comedy about dueling spouses who both dream of killing the other, it features a savagely funny performance by Michel Simon as a self-justifying murderer.

POISON, LA (1951)

The film’s opening credits are an elaborate Guitry performance in which the director walks from set-to-set introducing the actors, and explaining why they were ideal for their role. Dressed to the nines in a pinstripe suit and fedora, and smoking a cigarette–he begins the film speaking to Michel Simon: “Since you kindly asked me for a dedication, here it is. Michel Simon, this film offers me one of my greatest joys from the theater, because I can’t keep from calling it theater. You’d never acted for me before. You’re exceptional, even unique. Between the moments where you’re you and when you start to act, it’s impossible to find the bridge. It’s the same when you stop acting and become yourself to such a degree that there’s no reason to stop shooting. You belong among the greats: Frederic Lemaitre, Sarah Bernhardt, my father, Zacconi, and Chaliapin.” He goes on to Simon, who sits nervously next to him absorbing the compliments. This is an extraordinary opening– the director reviewing his own movie before you’ve had the chance to see it! Welles said that these elements were the inspiration for his essay films, and their fourth-wall breaking informality and shocking disregard for tradition are both bracing and often very funny.

For after his homage to Simon, he tours the rest of the cast and crew, charming the pants of his composers, carpenters, stars and anyone else who happened to be around (“If you had less talent, I’d still be your friend.”). He even thanks voice actors over the phone (“We only hear you in the film, so we won’t see you in the credits.”) and the sound engineer (“You recorded everything, so add my gratitude to it.”). By the time he’s finished joking around with his whole crew nearly seven minutes have past. The credits are a short film unto themselves, a marvel of self-reflexive sweet talking that emphasizes the artificiality and communality of the filmmaking process.

POISON, LA (1951)

La Poison was the 23rd feature Guitry directed, and that after a prolific career in theater, having written 128 plays, starting in 1918. His father Lucien was considered to be one of the finest stage actors of fin de siécle France, and Sacha traveled with the theater, and sat at the knee of Maupassant, Octave Mirbeau, Anatole France, Sarah Bernhardt and an endless cast of theater folk. He grew up in the theater, it was the air he breathed. As in the notes he read to Michel Simon, he still considered his films to be part of his theatrical life. Dave Kehr wrote that he only started in the film business to preserve the history of his theatrical productions, he was convinced by his then-wife Jacqueline Delubac that film would “allow him to preserve stage productions that would otherwise be lost.” And within four years of entering the movie business (1934 – 1938) he directed twelve films.

La Poison is about the battling Braconniers, a doubly exhausted small-town couple whose lives were constructed around avoiding each other as much as possible. Paul (Michel Simon) confesses to the local vicar that he has fantasized about killing her. His wife Blandine (Germaine Reuver) buys rat poison and stashes it up high in a cupboard for future use. One evening, with Blandine passed out on dinner wine, Paul hears a radio interview with defense lawyer Aubanel (Jean Debucourt), famous for 100 straight acquittals, claiming his sympathy for wife and husband killers. Paul immediately makes up an excuse to go to Paris to meet his new hero, and falsely claims to have already killed Blandine, just to hear how he should react should he ever go through with it. Emboldened by his new high-powered knowledge, Paul attempts to kill his wife in a manner that will guarantee his acquittal. That is, unless Blandine can poison him first

POISON, LA (1951)

The town is desperate for any attention that will attract business (local leaders earlier asked the vicar to fake a miracle for publicity), and the trial becomes a circus of self-promotion and capitalist enterprise. Their house becomes a true crime museum, while Aubanel becomes wary of the monsters his little publicity stunt created. Michel Simon plays Paul as an amiable sad sack given license by the law to become a loudmouthed demagogue. Paul takes up his defense, often drowning out Aubanel, by running down his wife’s looks and telling the court his murder was a preventive one. The whole film feels like an anticipation of Trumpism. Apologies to Alec Baldwin, but after watching La Poison Michel Simon is the only actor who could have done justice to Trump’s media-friendly fool, a jester who believes unthinkingly in his own infallibility. Simon’s entreaty to the court, a harrumphingly hilarious and horrifying justification of murder, is remarkably similar to the offhanded misogyny of Trump’s debate performances.

Unlike those lumbering debates, however, the movie moves with aplomb (it’s a speedy 85 minutes), and Guitry does remarkable things with sound. One of the protagonists is the radio. In this town of gossips and eavesdroppers, one neighbor mistakes a radio play argument for one between Paul and Blandine. He stands next the shutters, aghast at the violently flung insults. Soon he spreads the word that they are in a murderous rage, when in fact they are having their wordless blackout drunk dinner as per usual. So the neighborhood grapevine is spreading lines which turn out to be true – as after Paul hears Aubanel’s interview he stages what he believes to be a perfect murder. Later on during the trial, the local children begin mockingly re-enacting Paul and Blandine’s crimes, the murder now entering local folklore. So what started as a radio play ends as a children’s farce, all playing off of the fungible morality displayed by all members of this modern French society. From Aubanel on down, everyone is in it for themselves. As Truffaut put it in his introduction to Guitry’s memoir Le Cinema et Moi, his characters display “a morality which doesn’t offer itself as such but which consists simply in protecting oneself from the moralities of others.” In La Poison morality is a weapon that turns a sleepy small town against itself.