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Lower Depths - Criterion Collection, The

The Criterion Collection // Unrated // June 22, 2004
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by John Sinnott | posted June 16, 2004 | E-mail the Author
The Movies:

Criterion, a company that's always on the cutting edge, has recently stared releasing DVD sets that contain two or more related films.  Not related by actor or director, but by the source material.  The first such set was The Killers which had three films all based on the Hemingway short story.  Criterion has also released the Yasujiro Ozu's 1934 classic A Story of Floating Weeds along with the remake he did in 1959, Floating Weeds.  They have followed this up with their most powerful combination yet: The Lower Depths.  This DVD set has interpretations of Maxim Gorky's play of the same name by two of the cinema's most talented directors:  Jean Renoir and Akira Kurosawa.  Both of these films have similar settings and stories, of course, but the style and emphasis is quite different.  These directors have created two very different films.  It is a sublime pleasure to be able to view these two excellent films back to back.

The Lower Depths (1936):

Jean Renoir's film is set in a flophouse in Paris.  This is where the dregs of society come when they have nowhere farther to fall.  The house is owned by Kostylev (Vladimir Sokoloff,) a petty man who only thinks of the money he can get from his down and out borders.  He keeps them in constant debt, raising their rents on a whim.  Living in the squalid house are a prostitute, a cobbler, an alcoholic actor and a petty thief Pepel (Jean Gabin.)  Pepel fences his stolen goods to Kostylev while also having an affair with the landlord's cruel wife Vassilissa (Suzy Prim.)  Things are complicated by the fact that thief has eyes for Vassilissa's sister, the hard working and pure Natasha (Junie Astor.)

One night when Pepel is burglarizing a home, the owner returns unexpectedly.  It is the Baron (Louis Jouvet) who has lost his fortune gambling.  He is in a suicidal mood and notices Pepel when he finds that his gun is missing.  The two men are entirely different.  Pepel is poor and struggling and the baron is used to luxury and a life of ease.  But the two find that they share a common thread and spend the night talking.  In the morning Pepel returns to his flophouse, while the Baron has all of his possessions seized.

Pepel and the Baron are soon to meet again.  The nobleman unexpectedly turns up at Kostylev's boarding house, having nowhere else to go.

Things are not going well for Kostylev though.  His friend, a police inspector (André Gabriello,) has come to warn him that the police are about to search his house.  All the stolen goods that Kostylev has bought will be discovered and he'll end up in jail.  There is nothing the inspector can do, or so he claims.  But Vassilissa has noticed how the inspector looks at her attractive sister, and suggests that Natasha would be flattered to marry him.  The corrupt official decides that if that can be arranged, he could ensure that the house was left alone.

Meanwhile Pepel's friendship with the Baron has changed him.  He no longer wants to be on the wrong side of the law.  He wants to turn over a new leaf and become an honest citizen, and marry Natasha.  But when he hears that Kostylev is trying to marry off Natasha to protect his own skin, he becomes enraged, which leads to the climactic last act of the movie.

This was an excellent film.  Though Renoir's treatment strays from the Gorky play somewhat, it is still a beautiful film.  Gabin does an outstanding job, as usual, as the thief who tries to change his life, while Prim was great as the greedy and jealous wife.  The only actor who didn't do a good job was Junie Astor who came across as flat and lifeless.  She seemed to sleepwalk through the film.

Renoir's direction was up to his usual high standards.  The black and white images that he creates are beautiful in their composition and framing.  The rough textures of the flophouse and the deep shadows create the feeling of poverty and hopelessness.  Renoir also came up with an interesting angle to examine.  By expand the interaction between Pepel and the Baron from the play (their meeting at the Baron's house and many of their conversations do not appear in the original work) Renoir was able to focus not only on who was living in this deep poverty, but how they came to this, and what they could do to escape.
The Lower Depths (1957):

Akira Kurosawa filmed his version of the Gorky play in 1957, but moved the time and location to the Edo period in Japan.  In a decrepit shack several people rent the room to sleep and share in each other's misery:  A prostitute spends her time crying over a fictional lost love, one resident claims to have been an important member of the Shogun's staff, an alcoholic actor regales the people with tales of his adventures on the stage, and a tinker works and works while ignoring his wife who is dying.

As with the Renoir movie, there is the love triangle with a thief (Toshirô Mifune,) the landlord's mean wife Osugi (Isuzu Yamada,) and her gentle sister Okayo (Kyôko Kagawa.)  But into this group comes a stranger.  An old man (Bokuzen Hidari) who is traveling through decides to rest for some time in the hovel.  He is a kind and thoughtful man, something that the residents haven't seen for a long time.  He listens to the harlot's imaginary story of the man who loved her and her great sacrifice, and gives the drunken actor hope that he can stop drinking and regain his prominence on the stage.   He even stops the thief from doing something that he would have regretted.  But these people don't have the chance to escape like they did in the Renoir movie.  They are fated to live out their existence in this wretched hovel.
No one does historical Japanese movies as well as Akira Kurosawa.  He has a great eye for detail and makes the sets feel like they are old.  The house that is the main set feels cold and damp, and is covered in filth and dirt.  The toothless actors and threadbare costumes create the very believable illusion that you are looking at the Japan of 150 years ago.

This movie is much simpler than the other version.  There really isn't much of a plot.  It is more of a slice-of-life look at a group of poor wretches.  Much more time is spent getting to know the inhabitants of the flophouse and what their existence is like.  The movie focuses on how these forgotten members of society get through the day, often by convincing themselves that their dreams can come true or deluding themselves that they were once important and respected.  While the film isn't cheerful, it's not depressing either.  Though the characters have no hope of a better life, they don't know that, and they don't stop dreaming of something better.

This movie's strength comes from the stellar performances that the cast gives.  All of the cast give outstanding performances, and when they are playing opposite the incredibly talented Toshirô Mifune, that is saying a lot.  Even the smallest parts are played with honesty and care.  A truly spectaular group of actors.
There are some major differences between these two films.  The French movie is much more optimistic and cheerful, while the Japanese version is very pessimistic and claustrophobic.  Kurosawa's movie takes place on only a couple of sets, in and around the flophouse while Renoir has many locations for the action, opening up his film and giving it a lighter feel.

The Renoir movie also has more of a plot.  Teh movie is following the story of a few people and how they handle their problems.  Gabin and Jouvet are clearly the stars of the picture, and they have more screen time than anyone else.  Kurosawa's movie is truly an ensemble piece.  There really isn't one character that stands out from the rest.  Even Toshirô Mifune's role isn't much larger than the others.  The focus in the Japanese movie is the people themselves rather than their troubles.  And that is the main difference between these two excellent films:  Renoir was more concerned about how one moved in and out of the lowest rung of society, while Kurosawa's work was focused on the lives of the people who found themselves there.

While I enjoyed Kurosawa's movie a little more, both movies are very, very good in their own right.  But when viewed together these two films complement each other very well and create an amazing package.  This is a set that belongs in every film lover's library.

The DVDs:


Both movies were presented in their original language with a mono soundtrack.  There were optional English subtitles.  Both films had some hiss associated with the soundtracks, a little bit more on the Japanese film than the French one, but this is to be expected with films this old.  While there wasn't a lot of dynamic range in either movie, they both sounded very good, probably better than when they were first released.


The two movies were both presented in their original aspect ratio of 1.33:1.  The video quality was very good on both films.  The Kurosawa movie had some grain to it, and the contrast wasn't a little soft.  But the picture had good definition and a wide range of gray tones.  There was some print damage in a few places, very light emulsion damage in one area and some assorted spots that weren't removed.  Even with these minor defects this is a nice looking movie.

The Renoir film looked even better than the Kurosawa movie.  There was excellent detail and the print had almost no defects.  The contrast and brightness was excellent.  A great looking film, especially when you consider how old it is.

The Extras:

The only bonus material the Renoir disc had was a six-minute intro to the film by the director himself.  This was interesting to see, although there are some spoilers contained in it.  You might want to save this for after the film.

The Kurosawa disc had a couple of nice extras.  First was a commentary by Japanese film expert Donald Richie.  He talks about the form and themes of the movie, along with the illusion vs. reality motif that Kurosawa used in many of his films.  At parts I thought the movie was a little overanalyzed and that Richie was reading things into the movie that weren't really there, but it was still a very good commentary track.

The other extra on this disc, one that I was excited to see, is Akira Kurosawa:  It is Wonderful to Create.  This is a 33-minute documentary about the famous director in which the making of The Lower Depths is discussed.  There are interviews with actress Kyôko Kagawa and production designer Yoshirô Muraki as well as the director himself.  This is a wonderful extra to have included on this DVD.

Final Thoughts:

Both of these films are very, very good.  Renoir and Kurosawa are two of the greatest directors in the history of cinema, and these are good examples of their work.  To have them both movies in one case is a film lover's dream.  Criterion has made another excellent DVD set by restoring these films and including some wonderful extras.  It doesn't get much better than this.  This set easily belongs in the DVDTalk Collector's Series.

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