[This post is prompted by The Oldest Established Really Important Film Club, which will be spotlighting a different blogger-selected film every month. This month's film was chosen by Rick of Coosa Creek Cinema. Visit his site to see his thoughts on the film and to join the main discussion.]
Boudu Saved From Drowning is Jean Renoir's sardonic, wryly comic take on the antagonism between bourgeois values and lower-class crudity. The title figure, Boudu (Michel Simon), is an oafish beggar, an outrageously whiskered tramp who stomps heedlessly over the supposed dignity and sophistication of middle-class respectability. When the bourgeois book store owner Lestingois (Charles Granval) saves Boudu from drowning in the river, he becomes the tramp's benefactor, feeding and clothing Boudu and giving him a place to sleep indefinitely. Lestingois is portrayed as a decent man in many ways, good-hearted and generous, willing to do good deeds for their own sake: he gives away books to young students, recognizing their romantic, poetic spirit from his own youth, and his rescue of Boudu is not motivated by the awards and kudos heaped on him by his neighbors, with which he seems mildly uncomfortable. At the same time, however, Lestingois is an avatar of bourgeois pretensions and affectations. He has a piano in his house, despite the fact that no one plays it, because respectable families simply must have one, and he carries on an affair with his plump, giggly maid Anne Marie (Sévérine Lerczinska) because his standoffish wife Emma (Marcelle Hainia) no longer interests him.
When Boudu enters this house, he completely disrupts the family's familiar routines, which had settled into a comfortable way of life. Boudu has no inclination for social graces, and never so much as thanks his benefactor for saving his life, or for the attention, gifts and food lavished on him since the rescue. Instead, the tramp runs roughshod over everything in the house, crudely defacing and mocking any hints of respectability that he comes in contact with. Boudu simply doesn't see the point of the routines and polished surfaces of bourgeois life. Confronted with a tie, he asks what it's for, and Lestingois has to admit that it's not really "for" anything, that it's not necessary at all, it's just "a piece of cloth one wears around the neck." Boudu shows the same disinclination towards learning about cleanliness. He eats messily and spills things everywhere, but sees no need to clean. When he spills wine on the table and Emma sprinkles salt on the stain to soak up the wine, he responds by pouring more wine on top of it — to soak up the salt, of course. The purpose of the fundamentals of middle class life eludes him: he eats when he's hungry, wears clothes that simply cover him in the most basic way, and doesn't really care about much of anything, besides the black dog who wanders away at the beginning of the film, initially upsetting Boudu enough to trigger a suicide attempt but then seemingly forgotten soon after.
What's interesting about Renoir's film is how thoroughly it destabilizes questions of audience sympathy, completely disrupting any attempts to figure out where the film's own sympathies might lie. Lestingois is a harmless, kindly if somewhat silly old man, an adulterer with literary pretensions who enjoys making florid, stylized declarations of love to his frivolous maid. Lestingois might be a representative of the bourgeois but he's a surprisingly sympathetic one, just as Boudu is a surprisingly unsympathetic lower-class bum; this is no simplistic social commentary piece. It's undeniable that Boudu is crass and ungrateful and often downright rotten, willfully making a mess of his host's home by wiping shoe polish on his bed and flooding his kitchen. He's also, in his treatment of women, similar to Lestingois in his flirtatiousness, and in other ways even more despicable than his host, who at worst is a dirty old man. Boudu, on the other hand, is a rapist, assaulting Lestingois' wife at one point, though Renoir makes the scene especially distasteful when, afterward, he shows the woman getting up from the bed with a big smile on her face, having at some point given in and enjoyed the rape. At the same time, Simon's performance goes a long way towards ensuring that Boudu, even at his most destructive and hateful, is at heart a lovable tramp, funny and playful and light-hearted. It's a masterful comic performance, whether in the broad gestures (the way he rolls his eyes with pleasure when eating or hitting on a girl) or the subtler touches (the stiff-kneed walk that's his closest approximation of formality).
Boudu's roughness and casual disregard for conventions finds its aesthetic equivalent in Renoir's rough, ragged visual sensibility. Renoir's images here are rarely conventional, but instead seem to have been improvised on the fly. Figures shift unpredictably in and out of focus, and the occasional coordinated camera move seems strangely at odds with the prosaic, shabby quality of the images. At one point, the camera pans across the Lestingois home, catching from a distance the action happening in rooms faintly visible down long corridors: first, Boudu and the family eating dinner, then following the maid from room to room as she putters around at her work, finally coming forward to meet the camera at the last room along the tracking shot's path. It all seems somehow accidental, the edges intentionally left frayed, glimpses of events caught haphazardly even within the context of camera moves that must have been elaborately timed and planned out. Renoir finds himself, aesthetically, somewhere between the bourgeois respectability of Lestingois and the rough carelessness of Boudu, going to great lengths in order to appear not to care. There's something endearing about the looseness of Renoir's aesthetic, which in its own way is as playful and sprightly as Simon's performance.
The film's theme of bourgeois respectability being upturned culminates in the final scene, when Boudu literally overturns an entire boat full of fancily dressed wedding guests, then proceeds to calmly, lazily swim away from his own wedding. Not only does this put a new perspective on Boudu's earlier "drowning" — he could swim all along? — but it is his flight from the threat of becoming bourgeois himself, of settling down into a loveless marriage, a copy of Lestingois' own. Boudu earlier spit into the pages of a book about marriage, so it's not so surprising that he should flee from this ultimate signifier of respectability. He's content in his tramp's rags, lying in the grass chomping on a crust of bread he's begged from strangers. Renoir's film spends its final moments with the contented Boudu on the riverbank, then tracks back along the river to find the bourgeois, soaking wet and distressed, huddled together looking miserable in the wake of Boudu's devastation. This is, in its odd way, Renoir's happy ending, embracing the anarchy of Boudu, the unfocused destructiveness that causes him to leave a messy trail of filth and garbage everywhere he goes.