Renoir once said ‘A director only makes one film in his life. Then he breaks it into pieces and makes it again’. The Bitch was a jigsaw puzzle comprised of cold blue class cynicism, red hot infidelity, and shameful shades of black moral turpitude. Boudu Saved From Drowning is a assembled from these pieces, but arranged in a lighter picture.
Renoir’s story picks up in the last spot he left Legrand in The Bitch, except Michel Simon is no ragged socialite, but a filthy, ill mannered tramp named Boudu. Tired with life and ill fortune, the tramp decides to end his misery by drowning in the Seine river. This attempt is thwarted by idealistic bookseller Eduoard Lestingois (Charles Granval) who welcomes Boudu into his household and soon learns the meaning of the age old proverb ‘No Good Deed Goes Unpunished’.
The clash of two opposing societies forms the meat of Renoir’s satire. Boudu is a force of nature turning the house (literally) upside down, whilst Lestingois is a product of Human Order and attempts to reinstate the vagrant into society. Brief moments suggest Lestingois attempts are not in vain; Boudu twirls his catweazle whiskers in the style of an aristocratic portrait, he dons a suit, eventually shaves and wins great fortune.
However, the fate of Boudu is foreshadowed early in the film as Lestingois gives a philosophy student a free copy of Voltaire’s Candide, an apt reflection of Renoir’s tale. Candide is the story of a quixotic young man suffering the realities of life. Boudu begins at the bottom, already suffering at the hands of a wretched world, but climbs the social ladder after a twist of fate. But upon reaching the summit, Boudu discovers a stifling world and reaches the same uncomfortable epiphany as Candide before his escape -‘if this is the best of all possible worlds, what must the others be like?’.
The attractive quality of Renoir’s films are the richer subtext beyond the facade of visuals and story. In one scene, two men help carry the drenched Boudu into Lestingois’ home. After slapping the poor vagabond back to life, they commend the Lestingois bravery and compassion. But when the bookseller suggests pooling together money to further help the poor man, the well wishers escape before Lestingois can hold out his hand.
On a purely cinematic experience, Boudu unfolds like a diluted Rene Claire piece, earnest in a desire to express an important philosophy but not free enough to truly enjoy its comedy centre. But at 85 minutes long, Boudu Saved From Drowning wanders in, turns the house upside down, drunkenly shouts ‘Beware The Higher Classes!’ and bumbles away without overstaying its welcome.
Lestingois attempts to peacefully read one of his many beautiful first editions. This is only an ‘attempt’ because Boudu is scrounging around, a restless and mangy creature spitting on the floor. The bookseller sternly tells Boudu to stop being so disgusting! The tramp concedes, allows Lestingois to turn away, and then grabs a copy of Blazac and spits.