Boudu is often described as the defiant triumph of anarchism over respectability. He is clearly someone marooned in the confines of the Lestingois’ book-lined apartment, someone who cannot exist within the narrow spaces of domestic life. Only at the start and the end, when Boudu wanders through parks and the countryside, is he satisfied. His final embrace of the hobo lifestyle and his renouncing of his newfound wealth suggest the earthy pleasures of freedom are a worthwhile alternative to the stultifying conventions of the middle-class affluent elite. The justly celebrated scene, in which Boudu spits into Balzac’s La Physiologie du Mariage (after being told he shouldn’t spit on the floor) symbolises the stark divergence between his values and those of Lestingois.
The performance of Michel Simon as Boudu remains one of cinema’s most compelling. Renoir once called the film a ‘free exercise around an actor’; Simon/Boudu is the gravitational force around which the rest of the cast revolve and collide. Simon had already played Boudu on stage, and had a background as a vaudeville comedian, and so his performance appears larger than life. His gestures, tics, vocal inflections, and sheer inability to manoeuvre himself around the Lestingois apartment provide the film’s comic heft. Simon’s physical presence adds to this comic imbalance. He is in perpetual motion, invading personal space, banging into walls, doors and furniture, allegorising, through this sustained set of corporeal gestures, the film’s culture-clash dynamic. Boudu is an alien, parachuted into the heart of culture, modernity, and sophistication – a Paris bookshop – who then proceeds to destroy the veneer of conformity and civilisation from within. Richard Boston writes that Boudu is ‘a marginal … anarchic, chaotic, and finally, a fool … these agents of chaos act out our secret desires. If we see a big bum we might want to kick it: Chaplin does kick it … Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, Boudu, and Hulot are the enemies of conformity, of what can be regulated. They are the awkward squad.’ (Boston 1992: 46).
No amount of civilising works; a trip to the barbers, or a bath, or a set of new clothes are futile gestures. A lottery win and a new bride are disposable attachments that signal conformity. Free from these artificial conventions, Boudu simply floats off, leaving as abruptly as he arrived. This mythologising of the tramp figure in 1930s French cinema was part of a conscious attempt to create an archetype separated from the world of money, social conventions and strictures, and morally dubious characters. The tramp is not just a figure of purity and innocence – his oppositional status to the bankers, financiers, and, more generally, the bourgeoisie, makes ‘his conscious rejection of the capitalist world a noble and heroic act’.4
So, what starts as a standard class comedy – petit bourgeois paternalism collides with anti-social hoboism – develops into a fraught and fascinating relationship between Boudu and Lestingois. Christopher Faulkner notes Boudu ‘exteriorizes something that is in Lestingois himself, that the bookseller has summoned him up from the dark reaches of the personal and social unconscious’. 5 The film’s opening sequence sees Lestingois dressed as Pan, chasing the nymph Anne-Marie around an artificial forest set. As a sexual reverie, the scene indicates Lestingois’s own sublimated desires to escape the shackles of desexualised social structures. Boudu’s arrival – and the sexual havoc he triggers – releases Lestingois’s own primal urges. In this sense, Boudu is subversive and dangerous, especially after he returns from the barber’s with a new appearance. Armed with ‘the manners of Caliban and the logic of Gracie Allen’, 6 Boudu ‘becomes’ Lestingois: he looks after the bookshop in Lestingois’ absence (dismissing a customer who wants a copy of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal/The Flowers of Evil with ‘This isn’t a flower shop’) and replaces the husband in the marital bed after his seduction of Mme. Lestingois. By marrying Lestingois’ mistress, Boudu completes the ultimate displacement between the two men.
While the final sequences of Boudu establish ‘the community of the open road as the locus of true happiness’, 7 it is Lestingois who gets to hold both women under his arms, corroborating a particular kind of ménage-à-trois, as optimistically proposed by Renoir. Renoir, like Boudu, takes great joy in this exercise of épater la bourgeoisie. Like a distaff version of El angel exterminador/The Exterminating Angel (1962), Lestingois never seems able to make Boudu leave, and perhaps for good reason. Indeed, for all the film’s opposition between bourgeois values and lower-class vulgarity, and its satirical swipes at Lestingois’s mission civilisatrice, perhaps the real moral to this story is to be swept up by joyful amorality. Beneath the farce, lies Renoir’s typical non-judgemental depiction of the human condition – Lestingois may adhere to social status, but, as Renoir’s Octave reminds us in The Rules of the Game, ‘everyone has their reasons’.
1. Boudu Saved from Drowning has been remade twice – in America, as Down and Out in Beverley Hills in 1986 by Paul Mazursky, starring Nick Nolte as Boudu, and, back in France, in 2005, with Gerard Dépardieu in the title role.
2. Pauline Kael, ‘Boudu Saved from Drowning’, 5001 Nights at the Movies, New York and London, Marion Boyars, 1993, p. 72.
3. Richard Abel, ‘Collapsing Columns: Mise en scène in Boudu’, Jump Cut, 5, 1975, pp. 20–2, reprinted at www.ejumpcut.org/archive/ onlinessays/JC05folder/MiseSceneBoudu.html (accessed 10 May 2012).
4. Colin Crisp, Genre, Myth, and Convention in the French Cinema, 1929–1939, Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press, 2002, p. 76.
5. Christopher Faulkner, ‘Boudu Saved from Drowning: Tramping in the City’, The Criterion Collection, www.criterion.com/current/posts/380-boudu-saved-from-drowning-tramping-inthe-city (accessed 10 May 2012).
6. Matthew Kennedy, ‘Renoir on the Seine’, Bright Lights Film Journal, www.brightlightsfilm.com/50/boudu.php (accessed 10 May 2012).
7. Crisp, p. 77.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: France. Production Company: Les Établissements Jacques Haïk, Les Productions Michel Simon and Crédit Cinématographique Français (CCF). Director: Jean Renoir. Screenwriter: Renoir and Albert Valentin (uncredited, from a René Fauchois play). Music: Jean Boulze and Edouard Dumoulin. Cinematographer: Georges Asselin. Production Designer: Jean Castanyer. Editors: Marguerite Renoir and Suzanne de Troye. Cast: Michel Simon (Boudu), Charles Granval (Lestingois), Marcelle Hainia (Emma Lestingois), Sévérine Lerczinska (Anne-Marie, the maid).]
Richard Boston, Boudu Saved from Drowning, London, BFI Classics, 1992.
Christopher Faulkner, The Social Cinema of Jean Renoir, Princeton, NJ and Guildford, Princeton University Press, 1986.
Martin O’Shaughnessy, Jean Renoir, Manchester and New York, Manchester University Press, 2000.
Alexander Sesonske, Jean Renoir: the French Films, 1924–1939, Cambridge, MA and London, Harvard University Press, 1980.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.