Thursday, January 15, 2015

Film Review: Jean Renoir's "Boudu Saved From Drowning" (1932); An Essay by Payman Akhlaghi (2015)

Memo on Cinema: "Boudu Saved From Drowning" (Jean Renoir, 1932)
An Essay By Payman Akhlaghi (Draft 3)

(*) First published at on January 15th, 2015, under Memo on Cinema: "Boudu Saved From Drowning" (Jean Renoir, 1932).

Jean Renoir was a master of character study and human nature, but in particular, an expert in the finest nuances of the aristocracy and the rising bourgeoisie, their contradictions, mores, and morals -- as a single viewing of his 1932 film "Boudu Saved From Drowning"  would attest. (Boudu sauvé des eaux; French; ca. 85 mins.) The precision of his behavioral observations and the succinctness of his language could rival those of Hitchcock and Fritz Lang; the fluidity of his character development and final rendition might at times surpass them both.

Five years before "The Grand Illusion" and seven years before "Rules of the Game", "Boudu..." bears for me many elements of Renoir's mature style: a smoothly developing script, in this case adapted from a play; a delicate balance between the words and images, with traces of both the theater and the silent film vocabulary; the seeds of his later "montage within the frame" via the performance, with minimal or no camera movements; experiments with montage and perspective(§);  the casual lingering of the words and action into a fade out to end a scene, a unique touch of this director; subtlety and sophistication of the humor; a rather straightforward sexuality depicted with self-restraint; and a fine ear for the music, mostly diegetic (source music) -- whether it's an orchestral song to set the tone of the film over the opening credits (non-diegetic), or a solo flute played by a neighbor, a piano played by amateur fingers, a street organ played on the pavement, a marching band gathered on the street, or an ensemble in the park, playing an arrangement of the Blue Danube Waltz toward the end of the film.(±)

Thematically, the farce develops out of a psychological study of a small middle-class family cell, whose feeble order is disturbed when they save and adopt a desperate homeless man with badly underdeveloped mind and manners. It's clear, however, that the setting is meant as a microcosm of the contemporary society at large. And yet, a short enigmatic prelude introduced by the card "Boudu" offers more interpretive possibilities, as it blurs established class and persona distinctions to reveal the underlying natures of the personalities that are likely hidden to themselves.

The prelude is a theatrical silent scene of love between Lestingois and his maid, dressed in a mythological costumes -- a Faun and a Nymph -- which then dissolves into a confession of the love affair between the married shopkeeper and the maid, in their modern settings. The strong association of the mythological element with the sound of flute -- a probable reference to Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" -- is consistently reminded throughout the film as a neighbor practices his instrument at various hours. It's safe to presume that Boudu -- likely short for "bon dieu!", i.e. "good God!" -- notwithstanding their many differences, is offered as the untamed, unrefined, uncultured aspect of Lestingois, that is, his suppressed libidinous Id, which for awhile comes to the surface of his conscious life and personality to stir and reinvigorate a long settled ennui. At the same time, on the macro level, the solidity of the line drawn between the bourgeoisie and lower classes is brought into question.

Through the laughs, sympathetic sighs, and its many surprises, we may ask whether human nature is indeed more malleable or flexible than suggested by the surface of the story; or that Renoir and his playwright René Fauchois are right in their elitist aristocratic judgment of the classes, and personas; that a "bum" with fine clothes and a bulk of money is still a "bum" -- or that at the least, his old habits may die hard; that the bourgeoisie of the time, as genuinely kind and cultured as they come in the film, suffered from a hypocrisy rooted in values, norms and habits which contradicted the human nature, and at any rate, their social setting. Whatever our answers, they won't take away from the convincing and coherent drama at hand; from its deep optimism about, human goodness, innocence, and naivete; and from its appreciation of the more fundamental elements of human condition.

(§) I cite two salient examples of such early experiments with montage. Lestingois first spots Boudu about to commit suicide via a telescope he usually holds to peep on women from the window of his house. The camera pans and follows Boudu from afar until he jumps off of the bridge. The sense of distance from the action intensifies Lesingois's desire to help and foments the ensuing bond between the two men more convincingly.

Second, a carefully planned scene warrants attention (ca. min. 38), when a track shot follows the maid from the breakfast table toward the kitchen. We follow her afar from the other wing of the house, and we approach her through an opposing window across the patio. The camera then jumps to behind her, as she calls out to a neighbor on the ground for a match box. Instead of a now customary subjective view shot, we jump downstairs to see the elderly neighbor through a window, looking up at the maid, but in the wrong direction, left to right. Thus, an otherwise most clear definition of the spatial relations of the house is summarily disrupted; and this author finds the disorientation too curious and interesting to dismiss it as a mere slip by the master filmmaker.

(±) The music is credited as follows:
Générique, Danube bleu, Fin: Rafaël; Flute: J. Bouze; Orphéon: Edouard Dumoulin.

(*) "Boudu Saved From Drowning" is released by the Criterion Collection, and it's currently available on Hulu.
(*) Some dates, names and titles were checked against IMDB and Wikipedia.
(*) The author is a musician by inclination and education.
(*) The above was an original commentary.
(*) On my weblog:

© 2015, Payman Akhalghi. All rights reserved.

(*) Payman Akhlaghi is a composer, pianist and piano teacher based in Los Angeles. His repertoire covers Classical music, as well as Persian (Iranian) Music, Pop Music, and Film Music. For information on the lessons in the Greater Los Angeles area, including Beverly Hills, West Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Encino, Brentwood, etc. please call: 310-208-2927. Thank you.

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