CINÉSALON: BOUDU SAVED FROM DROWNING (BOUDU SAUVÉ DÉS EAUX) (Jean Renoir, 1932)
French Institute Alliance Française, Florence Gould Hall
55 East 59th St. between Madison & Park Aves.
Tuesday, February 4, $13, 4:00 & 7:30
After his dog runs away, a homeless tramp jumps into the Seine, only to be rescued by a bookseller who brings him home to stay with his family in Jean Renoir’s 1932 masterpiece, Boudu Saved from Drowning. Adapted by Renoir from René Fauchois’s play — the brief opening scene takes place onstage, announcing that what is to follow is essentially a fable — the depression-era social satire centers on the relationship between the wacky, unpredictable bum, Priapus Boudu (Michel Simon, who also played the lead in the play), and Edouard Lestingois (Charles Granval), a bourgeois bookstore owner cheating on his wife, Emma (Marcelle Hainia), with one of their maids, Anne-Marie (Sévérine Lerczinska). Lestingois first spots Boudu while looking through his telescope at the masses on the Pont des Arts, like a filmmaker shooting a documentary; “I’ve never seen such a perfect tramp!” he declares. (Indeed, Renoir regularly comments on the art of filmmaking in Boudu, especially with his use of music, nearly all of which is eventually revealed to be coming from natural sources.) Lestingois helps save the suicidal Boudu, nursing him quickly back to health and letting him stay at the house, much to the chagrin of his wife. Rather than being thankful, Boudu is a whirling dervish of ill manners, breaking dishes, using fancy lingerie to shine his shoes, and daring to eat sardines with his hands. Despite Boudu’s rudeness, Edouard, Emma, and Ann-Marie are all drawn to him in different ways, particularly Edouard, who dresses Boudu in his clothes as if he were a kind of doppelgänger, an alternate version with a completely different set of expectations and responsibilities. But there’s no controlling the bushy-haired Boudu, who reacts to all stimuli like a child who does whatever he wants, not caring about the consequences. One of the keys to the film is that very barrier, the question as to whether Boudu is a conniving tramp who knows exactly what he’s doing or just a pitiable poor soul with no self-control. Boudu — and, therefore, Simon, who gives a towering, spectacular performance, one of the greatest of early cinema — is part Charlie Chaplin, part Buster Keaton, part Little Rascal, and the influence of the character extends to Denis Lavant’s underground creature in Léos Carax’s Merde short in the Tokyo! omnibus and Eddie Murphy’s Billy Ray Valentine in John Landis’s Trading Places. (The film has also been remade twice; Paul Mazursky’s Down and Out in Beverly Hills stars Nick Nolte as the tramp, while Gérard Depardieu plays the role in Gérard Jugnot’s 2005 Boudu.)
Renoir, who had previously worked with Simon on La Chienne and On purge bébé, frames each shot with careful precision, from squeezing in a large group trying to help the unconscious Boudu to a more open scene in which a fancifully dressed couple is picnicking in the park, reminiscent of an Impressionist painting, calling to mind, of course, Renoir’s father, Pierre-Auguste. Indeed, the younger Renoir sets apart his interiors from his exteriors in the film quite distinctly; indoors, Boudu feels closed in, unable to sleep in a bed, while outdoors he seems much more at home. At one point he rests off the ground in the doorway to the bookstore, neither inside nor out, caught in between the two worlds. But he ultimately makes his choice, and it’s really the only one available to him. A new digital restoration of Boudu Saved from Drowning is screening February 4 at 4:00 & 7:30 as part of the FIAF CinéSalon series “Remastered & Restored: Treasures of French Cinema”; the later screening will be introduced by screenwriter and director Henry Bean (Internal Affairs, The Believer), and both shows will be followed by a wine reception. The three-month festival continues with such other recently restored French classics as Max Ophüls’s Lola Montès (introduced by Lola Montes Schnabel), Jacques Demy’s Une chambre en ville (introduced by Adam Gopnik), and Claude Chabrol’s The Color of Lies (introduced by Jacques Gamblin).