Boudu Saved From Drowning

April 1, 2011 by Simon Kinnear in Retro with 2 Comments

No April Fool from me.  In fact, just the opposite: a comedy that’s still as fresh as a daisy despite being nearly 80 years old.  Better, still it’s out on DVD or Blu-ray next Monday.

Boudu Saved From Drowning
(Jean Renoir, Fr, 1932)

…but who’s going to save his rescuer? With its humour on the exact cusp of joviality and cynicism, Renoir’s farce is close to fable

Boudu was saved from drowning nearly 80 years ago, but still there are ripples spreading outward from the action. Yes, of course it inspired the inevitable Hollywood remake (Down And Out in Beverley Hills), but the DNA of the film is in every culture-clash comedy since. Renoir might be mining a seam that Charlie Chaplin had prospected for years, but it’s his refined conflation of farce and social satire, the collision of impish devilment with bourgeois complacency, that provides the longevity.

It’s a film that, with classic Gallic nerve, quotes Balzac and Voltaire only to assert that all the schooling in the world can’t atone for a calamitous lack of common sense. Bookseller M. Lestingois believes himself to be the height of sophistication, giving books away free to students and justifying an affair with his maid through well-chosen epigrams. He means well…but good intentions go hand-in-hand with intellectual narcissism and a priggish self-belief that unravels when he makes his biggest act of ‘benevolence’ yet by rescuing a drowning tramp.

Renoir takes his time setting up the titular event, allowing us to see long before M. Lestingois meets him that Boudu doesn’t really need saving. The tramp a free spirit, upset only by the loss of his dog, but otherwise carefree and sprightly; there’s no way a personality this buoyant could drown. Brought into the house, he’s plied with food, clothes and indulgence, but responds to middle-class life in the same scavenger’s laissez-faire as being in a park. Boudu is utterly without manners or style, sporting an unkempt beard and the sloping walk of a sarcastic monkey…so it’s not exactly surprising when Lestingois’ attempts to domesticate him will fall on deaf ears. Asked not to spit on the floor, he spits in a book; told to polish his shoes, he destroys two entire rooms in the process.

Renoir’s relaxed style suits Boudu brilliantly, from his off-the-cuff location filming (garnering a huge, probably real, crowd as extras for the Seine rescue) to the fluid camerawork wandering around the labyrinth of the house’s set. There are no shackles here, all the better to let loose one of cinema’s most authentic madmen – Michel Simon’s Boudu, a cross between Chaplin, Jacques Tati’s Hulot and Henry VIII. Simon’s eyes do extraordinary things, furtive, quizzical looks and painful looking eye rolls when he eats. It’s a performance of pure id, wild and brilliant.

Only when ordered to tidy himself up at the barber’s does Boudu fit it, returning with the ridiculously coiffured ’do of a dandy. But ‘fitting in’ in this context means seducing Lestingois’ wife by force to instigate the discreet charm of a four-way love-in. A crueller director (Luis Bunuel, for one) would have ended it there, a statement of the thin line separation civilisation from the wild. But Renoir’s wry humanism can’t resist allowing events to turn full circle for a gorgeous, strangely uplifting demonstration of chacun ses gouts.

Thanks to Park Circus for the preview disc.  Boudu Saved From Drowning is released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday, 4th April

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  1. Jack GrahamApr 2, 2011 at 12:04 pmReply

    A lovely review of one of my favourite films.

  2. AnonymousAug 20, 2011 at 1:42 amReply

    When Boudu "takes" Mme. Lestingois while the marching band approaches, it found an echo in "Young Frankenstein", when the Monster takes the Baron's Intended, and she breaks out in song.

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