(Boudu Saved from Drowning)
Director: Jean Renoir
Production: Société Sirius; running time: 83 minutes. Released November 1932, Paris. Filmed summer 1932 in Epinay studios; exteriors filmed at Chennevières and in Paris.
Screenplay: Jean Renoir with Robert Valentin, from a work by René Fauchois; assistants to the director: Jacques Becker and Georges Darnoux; photography: Marcel Lucien; editors: Marguerite Renoir and Suzanne de Troye; sound: Igor B. Kalinowski; production design: Jean Castanier and Hugues Laurent; music: Raphael Strauss and Johann Strauss; song: "Sur les bords de la Riviera" by Leo Daniderff.
Michel Simon (
); Charles Granval (
); Marcelle Hainia (
); Séverine Lerczinska (
); Jean Dasté (
); Max Dalban (
); Jean Gehret (
); Jacques Becker (
Poet on the river bank
); Jane Pierson (
); Régine Lutèce (
Woman walking the dog
); Georges Darnoux (
Guest at the wedding
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* * *
Boudu sauvé des eaux makes abundantly clear why Jean Renoir's work was so admired by André Bazin, and why the filmmakers of the New Wave regarded him as their supreme antecedent and father-figure. Bazin's theory of realism—especially in so far as it is concerned with the preservation of the physical realities of time and space—is repeatedly exemplified by the use in Boudu of long takes, camera movement, and depth-of-field, relating action to action, character to character, foreground to background and continuously suggesting the existence of a world beyond the frame. The subversive implications of the material, the use of real locations instead of studio sets, the sense of a moral freedom combining inevitably with technical freedom, the evident love of actors and performance, and the resulting effect of spontaneity—all could add up to a model for the ambitions of the New Wave.
Leo Braudy has interpreted Renoir's work in terms of a dialectic of nature and "theatre" (the latter to be understood both literally and metaphorically), the two concepts achieving a complex interplay. Boudu works very well in this light. Indeed the film opens with a theatrical representation of nature rites (Lestingois as satyr, Anne-Marie as nymph). If Renoir shows great affection for the world of nature surrounding, and epitomized by, Boudu —the freedom of the tramp without restrictions, the play of sunlight on water, the lush fertility of the imagery of the film's final scene—he is equally charmed by the bourgeois household of the Lestingois—by the artificial birds that Anne-Marie must dust, by Lestingois's reverence for Balzac (on whose works Boudu casually spits, not with the slightest animus but simply because it is natural to spit when you feel the need). One might add that he finds the Lestingois household charming because of the lingering traces of a subjugated, sublimated nature that continue to animate it. At the same time, he sees that it is the subjugation that makes culture possible. Windows—the barrier between nature and culture but also the means of access—are a recurrent motif throughout Renoir's work. In the films of Ophuls (with whom Renoir has many points of contact while remaining so different) windows are always being closed; in those of Renoir they are always being opened. He is centrally concerned with the possibility of free access and interchange between the two worlds, the uncertainty of being crucial.
The desire to negotiate between nature and culture encounters problems which the film can't resolve, and partially evades. On the one hand, the comic mode enables Renoir to avoid confronting the psychic misery produced by bourgeois repressiveness: Madame Lestingois, in particular can only be a comic character for the film to continue to function. If her position were allowed to be explored seriously, the laughter would die immediately. The scene in which she is "liberated" by being raped by Boudu is saved from distastefulness solely by being played as farce. On the other hand, Renoir's equivocation in evaluating the bourgeois world results in some confusion over Boudu himself: does he or does he not represent a serious threat to it? The point gains force when one compares Michel Simon's characterization hero with his père Jules in Vigo's L'Atalante. Jules is at once more formidable and more consistent, and Vigo's radicalism more sharply defined. Boudu, in contrast, seems little more than a presocialized (and pre-sexual) child, essentially harmless. The sudden ascription to him of great sexual potency jars, considering that we are told earlier that he has never kissed anyone except his dog.
The film is typical of Renoir's work in its warmth, humanity, generosity; it also suggests the close relation between that generosity and impotence. If every way of life can be defended, then nothing need be changed.