Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932). 84 minutes. Directed by Jean Renoir. Starring Michel Simon (as Boudu), Charles Granval (as Edouard Lestingois), Marcelle Hainia (as Emma Lestingois), Sévérine Lerczinska (as Anne Marie), Jean Gehret (as Vigour), Max Dalban (as Godin), and Jean Dasté (as student).
Pauline Kael famously described Boudu Saved from Drowning as the story of a proto-hippie whom a family of bourgeois benefactors attempts to reform. In many ways this description works. I can attest that Boudu (the proto-hippie) does bear the markers of the many individuals who continue to inhabit the counter-cultural margins of the Bay Area, where I live: a free and easy approach to sex (witness how he impulsively grabs and fondles the maid Anne Marie while he carries on an affair with the lady of the house), a lack of care for his personal appearance (the clothes full of holes and the unkempt beard and mustache), the periodic narcissism (the lack of interest in the other characters apart from what they can offer him in terms of pleasure), and his reliance on a messy-looking dog for companionship that he does not keep on a leash. It is not entirely clear how Boudu entered into this lifestyle initially, but at the film’s conclusion it is clear he has distinctly chosen to reenter it.
The movie tells the story about this man’s would-be transformation from street person to bourgeois. Boudu is an uncouth vagrant whom we first see loafing in a Parisian park, grubbily eating and stroking his messy canine. When the dog runs off, he is dejected and attempts to drown himself in the river Seine. Edouard Lestingois, a bookseller, sees Boudu jump into the river and rushes to save him. He pulls him out of the water and brings him back to his apartment. When Boudu recovers, Lestingois proposes that he live there, much to Mrs. Lestingois’ chagrin. Mr. Lestingois attempts to clean up Boudu and teach him good manners, but it is an uphill battle. Meanwhile Boudu wreaks havoc on an already faltering household. Mr. Lestingois’ marriage is in a permanent state of discontent, he is having an affair with Anne Marie, and Boudu seduces Mrs. Lestingois. Soon Mr. and Mrs. Lestingois learn of each others’ affairs. But it turns out that Anne Marie truly loves Boudu, and we also learn that Boudu has won a fortune in the lottery. In the next scene, we see his wedding to Anne Marie. Boudu, Anne Marie, and a reconciled Mr. and Mrs. Lestingois sit in a crowded boat after the nuptials, done up in wedding finery. The boat capsizes, and Boudu drifts off despite the wedding party’s cries. When he reaches land, rather than head back to the reception, he trades his wedding ensemble for the raggedy clothes of a scarecrow and resumes his former life.
Michel Simon as Boudu creates a wholly believable offbeat and eccentric character who is wild in his looks and physical movement. He manages to pull off something extremely difficult: his performance conveys unpredictability, giving us the sense that we cannot say what Boudu will do next because the character seems so fully alive, alternating capriciously between childlike bursts of determined energy and a more lackadaisical affect. He overreacts and is filled with passion, attempting to kill himself because he loses his dog, and he impulsively grabs at Anne Marie in the kitchen, eager for a kiss (and more). At the same time, he appears distracted, detached, and lethargic when he turns on the kitchen sink in one scene and walks away, allowing the water to run all over the kitchen floor, and later when he floats away from the bridal party on his wedding day, unconcerned and impassive. We might think that he would have a more definite reaction to the capsizing, swimming away decisively from the guests and towards his future, but instead he merely drifts off, carried away by the current, not fully engaged.
Boudu is, of course, also decidedly crude and destructive. Mr. Lestingois takes it upon himself to reform Boudu by teaching him to eat with dignity, spit in a handkerchief rather than on the floor, polish his shoes, wind a watch, dress smartly, and so on. The scenes where Lestingois attempts to educate Boudu are more than lessons in adult behavior: they are lessons in what it takes to survive as a member of the bourgeoisie. We may think that Lestingois is patient and kind with Boudu; he does put up with a lot, and it is only when Boudu wipes shoe polish on Mrs. Lestingois’ coverlet and negligee and spits into Mr. Lestingois’ beloved Balzac tome that his benefactor reaches the end of his wits. But there is also a slightly sinister, condescending side to what is going on as well. The movie is a sort of gentler version of the story made famous by Shakespeare in The Taming of the Shrew. There a man attempts to reform a shrewish woman by marrying her and treating her cruelly. Here Lestingois attempts to reform the counter-cultural Boudu through kind encouragement, but he similarly intends to erase a large part of what makes Boudu Boudu.
I would hesitate to say that I am pleased that Boudu escapes the middle-class training inflicted upon him by Lestingois. I did not particularly like Boudu, given his repulsive habits and lack of concern for others. But we do not have to like Boudu to be fascinated by him, nor do we have to admire his wild behavior to object to Lestingois’ project of reform. By the time we reach the movie’s final wedding sequence, Boudu is married and seemingly wholly conventional—rich, wearing a formal suit and top hat, crammed into a boat with Mr. and Mrs. Lestingois and the other revelers, with his arm draped around Anne Marie, sedate. As the final step in Lestingois’ attempt to make Boudu respectable, the wedding threatens to contain the disorder inherent in Boudu. It diminishes his quirks and puzzling behavior in a conservative act of sublimation. If the movie works, we enjoy watching those quirks come to life, so the prospect of their erasure is unappealing.
But, of course, through the restorative properties of water, the wedding party is interrupted, and we learn that those quirks have not been extinguished. The boat capsizes, and Boudu drifts away, ultimately resuming his former lifestyle. As a natural force, surrounded by trees and plant life, the river is at odds with the societal forces that have been at work on Boudu, but because the Seine runs through the city of Paris, we see in retrospect how close all of the characters are to the wildness that Boudu is so intimately connected with, in spite of their cultivation: the conventional and orderly wedding taking place along the river can be dismantled and turned to chaos through the simple overturning of a boat. Moreover, Boudu’s slow drifting away from the other characters suggests that such a regression into wildness does not take obvious effort or require exertion. In the mere act of tumbling back into the river, he loses his desire to comply with Lestingois-style strictures and discipline. In this way, the river serves as both the catalyst of his transformation into student of the bourgeoisie at the movie’s beginning and the start of a second transformation back into his counter-cultural lifestyle at the movie’s conclusion. The water purges him both times of what we might call dangerous impulses: the first time the impulse to end his life, the second time to end the life that he cultivated prior to meeting the Lestingoises.
We might be tempted to link the movie’s use of the water with an almost baptismal clarification of who and what Boudu is. Indeed, the religious undertone is not far off. I initially thought of Boudu as a kind of Eastern Orthodox Christian fool for Christ—an archetypal Christian figure in Orthodoxy who shocks and horrifies religious communities with crudeness and vulgarity. But the Orthodox fools for Christ always have at the center of their disturbing behavior a central focus and overall point to prove: they live on the fringes of society and do not conform to normal upstanding behavioral practices in order to challenge the faithful and compel them to lead righteous lives. Here Boudu is superficially reminiscent of the radical fools for Christ, but he lacks their central purpose. For Boudu, every decision comes from him and for him. The current can sweep him away in whatever direction it chooses, but ultimately his decision to go along with it pertains to his need to behave according to his devotion to his own whims, not to his devotion to others.
Much like director Jean Renoir’s other 1930s masterpieces, The Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939), Boudu Saved from Drowning conveys the director’s characteristic love of smart characters who enjoy themselves as they endlessly kill time. Seemingly random details about what characters do when they are not interacting with Boudu not only create atmosphere but share important information about the characters’ relationship to class that we might otherwise miss. Mr. Lestingois giving free books to an impoverished student as a way of peeving his wife not only develops our sense of their marital relationship but also, in the way that it undermines his business, reveals Lestingois’ own counter-cultural nature; perhaps he is not really so straightforwardly middle class as we might suspect. And of course there are the infidelity plots. Mr. Lestingois is having an affair with Anne Marie, who lives under his own roof, and Mrs. Lestingois is having an affair with Boudu, possibly also with a man who dies before the movie begins. The infidelity plots add a spirit of playfulness and irreverence to the story, making the upstandingly bourgeois Lestingois family seem not so upstanding after all. And the snippets of song that characters sing as they dust, stare out of the window, and play with household objects suggest that they share a common culture in spite of their class differences.
These details might have been dropped from a Hollywood movie made during the same period, but here they combine to make for a film that not only offers a wonderful commentary on social hierarchies but also a warm and effusive depiction of Parisian life in the 1930s. Renoir mentioned years later that he cherished the movie, especially Simon’s performance, and rewatched it often; it is not hard to see why. Boudu Saved from Drowning is one of my favorites from Renoir and one of the smartest movies about counter-culture made in any period.