Boudu Saved From Drowning (Boudu sauvé des eaux)

Director: Jean Renoir
Screenplay: Jean Renoir & Albert Valentin (based on the play by René Fauchois)
Stars: Michel Simon (Boudu), Charles Granval (Edouard Lestingois), Marcelle Hainia (Emma Lestingois), Sévérine Lerczinska (Anne-Marie Chloe), Jean Gehret (Vigour), Max Dalban (Godin), Jean Dasté (The Student), Jane Pierson (Rose)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1932
Country: France
Boudu Saved From Drowning Criterion Collection DVD
Boudu Saved From DrowningBoudu Saved From Drowning (Boudu sauvé des eaux) was a perfectly respectable minor play about a middle-class family who redeems a homeless tramp by teaching him bourgeois civility that Jean Renoir turned into a wonderfully disreputable film about a middle-class family turned upside down by an ungrateful tramp whom they attempt and fail to civilize. It’s a perfect example of adaptation as reinvention -- taking the basic narrative and essentially inverting the lesson to be learned.

In the 1930s, Renoir was at his most political, creating a series of Leftist films that satirized middle-class values and took to task the indulgent French class system. Boudu fits right into this period, as its class-based farce and fundamental mockery of everything civilized made it so controversial that police were forced to shut it down at several theaters because the outcry from audiences was so immense. (Renoir wouldn’t get a reaction like that again until his belatedly appreciated masterpiece The Rules of the Game in 1939, which so upset the audience that one man threatened to burn down the theater.)

The great Swiss-born actor Michel Simon (who worked with Renoir on five films) plays Boudu, a homeless vagrant who decides to drown himself in the Seine after his dog runs away. The film’s early passages are all sneaky set-up, as Renoir and Simon suggest that Boudu is a sad victim of society, driven do far down on the scale of humanity that he would rather die than go on living. His attempts to locate his dog, the one creature on earth that seems to love him, is met with indifference by others around him, including a police office who gruffly rebuffs his request for help, but then turns and offers complete assistance to a wealthy woman who has lost her Pekingese, valued at 10,000 francs.

Boudu is rescued from his suicide attempt by Edouard Lestingois (Charles Granval), a comfortably well-off bookstore owner. Edouard brings Boudu back to his house and insists on helping him in every way he can -- giving him clothes and food and a place to sleep. It is at this point that Renoir springs his trap, revealing that the shaggy Boudu is not some powerless sad sack, but rather a feisty, unbridled, and ultimately lecherous free spirit who takes everything offered him and not only refuses to return gratitude, but often spits (literally and figuratively) in the faces of those who would help him.

Eating sardines with his hand, spitting in a prized copy of Balzac, and wiping his shoes on a satin bedcover, Boudu is an untamable force unto himself, a raging id bouncing off the walls of the tightly cloistered Lestingois home. Renoir contrasts Boudu’s animalistic freedom with the button-down repression of the Lestingois family, which also includes Edouard’s prissy wife Emma (Marcelle Hainia) and their young maid, Anne-Marie (Sévérine Lerczinska), with whom Edouard is having an affair. While Edouard conducts his affair discreetly and behind closed doors, thus maintaining his idea of “decorum,” Boudu revels in his randiness, shamelessly chasing both women around the house and eventually bedding one and marrying the other.

Boudu Saved From Drowning is a frequently hilarious send-up of middle-class values, albeit one that wears its message a little too loudly and proudly. Yet, that’s not an entirely fair criticism, since Renoir clearly wants the film itself to reflect Boudu’s anarchic spirit. To have taken a more discreet or subtle route with any facet of the film would have been to submit to the very bourgeois values Renoir was lampooning.

Boudu Saved From Drowning Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioFrench Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • Archival interview by Jean Renoir
  • New video interview with filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin
  • Excerpt from 1967 French TV program featuring Jean Renoir and Michel Simon
  • French TV conversation between director Eric Rohmer and critic Jean Douchet
  • Interactive map of 1930s Paris
  • Essay by Renoir scholar Christopher Faulkner
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateAugust 23, 2005

    The new high-definition digital transfer of Boudu Saved From Drowning was taken from a 35mm fine-grain master positive, and while it looks good, it certainly shows the film’s age. Despite digital clean-up, there is still quite a number of noticeable scratches, splotches, and other defects in the image, most of which is par for the course for a film that it more than 70 years old.

    The monaural soundtrack was transferred from a 35mm fine-grain optical track and a 16mm optical track print (ostensibly, the superior parts from each source were used to create the best possible overall soundtrack). The somewhat primitive nature of the original soundtrack is obvious, with jarring edits, drop-outs, and some background noise. Still, as this was an early sound film, such irregularities are to be expected and couldn’t be repaired without compromising the soundtrack as a whole.

    This DVD features several archival bits from French television, beginning with a five-minute introduction by Jean Renoir, filmed some time in the 1950s. There is also an excerpt from a 1967 episode of the French TV series Cinéastes de notre temps that features a reunion of Renoir and star Michel Simon, who is definitely looking his age. Another bit from French TV is a half-hour episode of an educational TV series called Aller au cinéma in which French New Wave director Eric Rohmer and film critic Jean Douchet discuss the film’s social implications. There is also a new video interview with filmmaker and Jean-Luc Godard collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin, in which he offers his intriguing take on the film. Lastly, there is a deeply informative interactive map of 1930s Paris, which shows each of the major locations in the film and explains via voice-over narration, archival photographs, and clips from the film its significance to both French history and the film’s meaning. For those not familiar with Paris, it offers a whole new slant on Boudu you might not have otherwise considered.

    Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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