After losing his dog, the tramp Boudu tries to drown himself in the Seine. He is rescued by a Parisian bourgeois antiquarian bookseller, Lestingois. Insisting Lestingois is now responsible for his welfare Boudu is brought back to the Lestingois apartment. It is not long before Boudu’s anarchic behaviour clashes with the prim and proper lifestyle of Mme. Lestingois. Lestingois secretly longs after his maid, Anne-Marie, but Boudu sleeps in the hallway between their rooms. Boudu visits a barber, and, complete with new appearance, seduces first Mme. Lestingois, and then Anne-Marie. After the adultery is uncovered, Boudu wins the lottery. Now rich, Anne-Marie agrees to marry Boudu. As the wedding party sail down the river, Boudu capsizes the boat. The party swim to land, but Boudu drifts downstream and disappears. He exchanges his clothes with a scarecrow, and begins his life again, happily, as a tramp.
Jean Renoir’s fourth sound film, Boudu Saved from Drowning, is perhaps the best loved of his early career.1 Pauline Kael described it as ‘not only a lovely fable about a bourgeois attempt to reform an early hippy … but a photographic record of an earlier France.’ 2 Though its lightness sets it apart from the darker tones of La Chienne/Isn’t Life a Bitch? (1931) and La Nuit du Carrefour/Night at the Crossroads (1932) and later weightier political works like La Marseillaise (1936) and La Grande Illusion (1937), Boudu is nonetheless an important step in Renoir’s career: tonally, it explores a gracefully choreographed comedy of manners in order to satirise French middle-class values; politically, it mixes farce, slapstick comedy and social commentary to explore what Renoir sees as the fundamental irreconcilability between France’s different classes.
If its central theme is a well-established trope – the comic juxtaposition of opposites (in this case, the anarchy of the free spirit set against the forces of social constraint and obligation) – it is Renoir’s deployment of a range of technical innovations, and his expert marshalling of space, character and performance that mark the film as a key transitional work in early French cinema. While René Clair mixed visual humour with a dense soundscape, and Marcel Pagnol’s ‘Marseille trilogy’ used location shooting and local patois, with Boudu, Renoir incorporated the new possibilities of sound cinema, biting social comment and highly theatricalised set-ups within a documentary-style rendition of Paris. Boudu is a mise en abmye of Renoir’s entire oeuvre, as it introduces us to the ‘Renoir style’ and integrates the two key impulses of his career: ‘affection for all human beings and extreme dissatisfaction with existing social orders, especially that of the French bourgeoisie’.3
Boudu is an adaptation of René Fauchois’ 1926 play, and shows Renoir’s penchant for film adaptations (which included works by Zola, Flaubert, Simenon, Maupassant, Gorki, Godden and Feydeau). Renoir remains broadly faithful to Fauchois’ version (although his switch in focus from Lestingois to Boudu, and the new conclusion that saw Boudu reject the transformation from clochard to respected civilian did draw ire from Fauchois, and the threat of a lawsuit) and its narrative trajectory remains close to the classic French farce tradition. Renoir also added emphasis on the political implications, such as the increasing gap between rich and poor in France.
Boudu is a profoundly modern film. Its urbane structural contrasts – between interior drawing-room comedy and exterior bustle and noise of cosmopolitan Paris – showcase Renoir’s appreciation of the architectural possibilities of staging in depth, and serve as a reminder of how quickly he came to terms with the exigencies of sound synchronisation. Renoir uses location shooting and deep-focus photography, and infuses the stage-bound origins of the original with a lightness of touch and an airy, fluid approach to mise en scène that refers back to the compositional complexity of Renoir’s father, the Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The Parisian backgrounds (streets, bridges, parks, rivers) become part of the scenery where Renoir’s leisurely, semi-improvised humanistic stories unfold. His camera opens up spaces which reveal, little by little, people and events within them. Take the scene when Lestingois spies Boudu wandering the streets of Paris through his telescope – he, and we, see Michel Simon shambling along past the Left Bank bouquinistes, while real passers-by, unaware they are extras in a film, or who Simon is, simply carry on as normal. This is guerrilla-style filmmaking that predates the work of Godard and Truffaut by three decades, and this capturing of life ‘as it is’ (rather than reconstituting it in the studio, as Renoir’s contemporaries Clair, Marcel Carné and Julien Duvivier would frequently resort to) allows for a far more dynamic connection between people and landscape. Boudu is one of a number of Renoir’s protagonists who seem constantly in flux, literally moving in and out of focus. Precise social relationships, class hierarchies and differences, and the network of relationships that exist within communities can be embedded in tracking shots or deep-focus. Renoir’s later films, most notably The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936) and La régle du jeu/The Rules of the Game (1939), hone these choices, but Boudu is clearly a test case for the potential of cinema to delineate and segment space. For Renoir, using the camera to record reality in a complex and fully dimensional way was preferable to the editing and shot/counter-shot artifices of other directors.
Class injustice is never far from the surface in Boudu. Class division is there at the start when Boudu loses his dog, asks help from a policeman, and is chased away with the threat of prison. Moments later, an elegant bourgeois lady makes the same request, and three policemen rush to accommodate her. While this may feel like an easy punchline, it’s a typical Renoir gesture – the depiction of subtle social schisms and perpetual injustice. The central premise of the film is essentially a class experiment – a Pygmalion-by-theSeine. As Lestingois spots Boudu, he declares ‘Just look at that one, he’s wonderful. I’ve never seen such a perfect tramp.’ To Lestingois, Boudu is a specimen worthy of study, and he treats him like a guinea pig, replacing his shabby appearance and social incompetence with something acceptably middle class. Yet Boudu’s ‘gratitude’ for such a generous and benevolent act is to challenge the emptiness of the Lestingois’ reforming principles and then overturn the normalising trappings of this safe, conventional, book-lined society.