Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Boudu Saved from Drowning is now shown almost exclusively in film schools, but it still
works as an amusing and slightly disturbing social fable. Its refreshing, laid back style is
unexpected in a film from 1931 and helped establish Jean Renoir as a world-class director. Michel
Simon plays a uniquely baffling character seemingly invented to tax the
patience of a middle-class Parisian do-gooder - and to make the audience question their limited
notions of charity and liberal altruism.
Parisian bookseller Edouard Lestingois (Charles Granval) is a good-natured fellow
eager to do the right thing. When he sees the bum Boudu (Michel Simon) leap into the Seine, Edouard
leaps to the rescue and puts the revived man up in his shop-apartment, against the wishes of
his spoiled wife Emma
(Marcelle Hainia) and his Maid Anne-Marie Chloe (S&eacutre;vérine Lerczinska). Boudu takes
Edouard's charity without a word of thanks and proceeds to abuse the man's hospitality in every
way possible -- interfering with business, making a mess of the kitchen, and trying to seduce the
females. Edouard has to put off his affair with Anne-Marie, as the nosy Boudu sleeps in an anteway
blocking access to her room at midnight. But Edouard continues to feed Boudu and buy him clothing,
expecting a grand rehabilition to occur at any moment.
At least part of Boudu Saved from Drowning is structured as a heavy-handed moral lesson. The
poor homeless Boudu is ignored, shunned and discriminated against by everyone he sees. We're then
introduced to a likely candidate for a good samaritan medal, a shopkeeper who immediately makes
himself responsible for the life of the large, shambling bum with the wildly unkempt hair. Other
Parisians take Boudu's attempted suicide as an opportunity for sightseeing, while Monsieur
Lestingois' neighbors applaud his heroism and virtue. They're all for getting Lestingois a medal
for civic valor, but they vanish at the first mention of helping the bum scooped from the river.
Where our expectations go wrong is in the film's impish refusal to make Boudu in the least bit
deserving, or to reward Lestingois' charity with anything but patience-trying episodes. Boudu
has no concept of gratitude and greedily eats his benefactor's food. He makes no effort to fit
in to the household, still behaving like a vagabond in the park. He offers no help but makes
messes wherever he goes. Lestingois offers more help and monetary assistance, which Boudo accepts
without grace. He offers no help even when his presence is a hardship.
Lestingois really isn't a saint; he's carrying on an affair with his maid. That has to stop because
the nosy Boudu is sure to spill the beans. But Boudo pursues the maid just as we've seen Lestingois
dreams of doing in the film's funny prologue. There's nothing subtle to the bum's advances -- at
one point he just hangs from a doorframe in front of the maid and wraps his legs around her!
The closest an American movie ever got to this show's theme is Good Sam with Gary Cooper, a
movie about a good samaritan abused and scourged by the ingrates he tries
to help. It's not completely successful, but it is kind of a reverse meditation on the Christian
value of charity.
Lestingois tries to stay true to his idea of bettering Boudu, and puts both money and considerable
patience behind the effort. His faith in the bum remains through any number of inconveniences and
possibly even through the revelation that Boudu has seduced his wife Emma -- a pretty funny scene
that almost convinces. But when Boudu uses Mlle Lestingois' pricey shawls and satin bedcovers
to wipe shoe polish off his hands, it's just too much - Edouard has limits to his tolerance, and
still values material things. A convenient plot device sends the story off to a different conclusion
at this point.
What we're more likely to think is that Boudu is a dangerous maniac, a thoughtless and selfish lout
who would be a gross liability in any situation. Lestingois might as well lavish his charity on
an animal from the zoo. A hippo is cute in its own way, but they can't be
housebroken. Today it's likely that viewers will equate Lestingois with a flighty liberal who needs
his attitudes realigned. Lestingois gives away books to deserving-looking students and feels
better for his good works. Is he just trying to compensate for his hanky panky with the maid?
And despite his disdain for medals, is his main motivation to be thought a grand and superior person?
We liberals need to remember that we're also capable of blind egotistism and vanity, even when being
Jean Renoir really excels in this picture. His relaxed and dreamy Paris is a collection of
pertinent details that now seem to have stepped out of a time machine. Lestingois observes Boudu
through a telescope and we see him in a telephoto view, walking amid real Parisians. More
importantly, Renoir finds an equally relaxed way to stage his scenes, which appear to be taking
place in natural light in crowded rooms without any usual pattern of stagey closeups, medium shots
and wide masters. We pick up the topography of Lestingois' shop-apartment only slowly. Places look
lived-in and people behave naturalistically. Stylistically, the movie is far advanced for its year.
Renoir acolyte and future filmmaker Jacques Becker
Touchez pa au grisbi) plays
a man reading in a rowboat in a picnic scene.
Criterion's disc of Boudu Saved from Drowning isn't quite as pristine as other titles from
the collection, but the 'fine grain print' source cited in the production notes is probably the best
element in existence. The picture is a tad tight on top and a trifle grainy, but nothing to cry
about. Anyone who has seen what's been available before will be thrilled. Boudo's hair evolves from
a tangled rat's nest to a wild pile of waves. Instead of a blurry mess, the foot traffic in front
of Lestingois' shop is as sharp as a tack.
The soundtrack is finally clear enough to let us appreciate the running musical motif played on a
piano (all good bourgois homes have one, even if nobody can play it), then a flute, and sung by
Jean Renoir provides one of his introductions, limiting his comments almost exclusively to actor
Michel Simon. A much later piece has Simon and Renoir reminiscing at a cafe table, and another
interview has Eric Rohmer waxing rather academic over the film. A new video sit-down with Jean-Pierre
Gorin is both thoughtful and amusing. An 'interactive map' of Paris locations is a fascinating
feature that talks about the cultural significance
of each site, as well as showing how Renoir cheated the bookstore to be where in reality there is
a large public building. Christopher Faulkner's liner notes are actually a full essay on the film.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Boudu Saved from Drowning rates:
Video: Very Good +
Supplements: Introduction by Jean Renoir, Excerpt from Cineastes de notre temps
featuring Renoir and Michel Simon, New video interview with filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin,
Archival interview with Eric Rohmer, Interactive map of 1930's Paris, featuring locations from
the film, essay by Renoir scholar Christopher Faulkner
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 10, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2005 Glenn Erickson
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