- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 24, 2005

Jean Renoir’s 1932 comedy “Boudu Saved From Drowning,” now available in a DVD edition from the Criterion Collection, derived from a popular play of the period. To be more precise, it trifled with the source material in ways that have proved durably astute and entertaining.

The project reunited Mr. Renoir with actor Michel Simon, who had played the masochistic dramatic lead in their first talkie, “La Chienne,” a year earlier. The new film, designed to showcase Mr. Simon as an incorrigible Parisian tramp, made a point of opening up its source material to cityscapes — the Bois du Bologne, the Seine, street traffic. Mr. Renoir finessed this shift with a leisurely assurance that grows more evocative and precious as the movie ages.

He also offended the playwright, Rene Fauchois, at the outset by discarding scenes that no longer served a structure that preferred smooth navigation between exteriors and interiors.

Even the sets seem to accommodate more freedom of camera movement and sound recording than one associates with the period while authenticating the domesticity of a portly, middle-aged bookseller named Edouard Lestingois, perfectly embodied by Charles Granval, who reprised his stage role. Defying contours that suggest an overstuffed sofa, Lestingois rises to the heroic opportunity of dashing from his shop to rescue Boudu, a stranger, from a suicidal leap into the Seine.

Lestingois proceeds to shelter the survivor, whose unruly nature and habits prove burdensome even to a generous benefactor — so generous that he entrusts Boudu with what proves to be a winning lottery ticket. The windfall sets the stage for a respectable transformation that Mr. Renoir blithely, but justifiably, torpedoes in the concluding episodes.

The Boudu of the play did, in fact, reform. The filmmakers perceived the advantages of protecting his initial identity as a scrounger, ingrate and sneak. Among other forms of mischief, Boudu finds it irresistible to jeopardize hospitality by seducing the shopkeeper’s fastidious but susceptible wife, Emma (Marcelle Hainia), and his adoring live-in mistress, Anne Marie (Severine Lerczinska), the young housekeeper.

In one of the supplementary clips collected for this edition, a 1967 television appearance by Mr. Simon and Mr. Renoir, they recall that Boudu’s lechery didn’t scandalize the moviegoing public of 1932, but his slovenliness did.

There was so much outrage at the comic spectacle of Mr. Simon eating sardines with his fingers, spitting on the carpet and (worst of all) wiping fingers smudged with shoe polish on Mrs. Lestingois’ satin bedspread and slip that the police were called out to quell indignant uproars at some first-run theaters. As Mr. Renoir recalled in his memoirs, the film “succeeded beyond our hopes, the public reaction being a mixture of laughter and fury.”

Revived by film societies after World War II, the movie took another two decades to reach art houses in the United States. By that time, it was absurdly easy to peg Boudu as a prototypical hippie, a lineage Mr. Renoir cheerfully embraced.

The role flatters Mr. Simon’s shambling, semi-animalistic aptitude far more when Boudu remains bearded and unrepentant. At one juncture, the gruff and mocking Boudu agrees to a trip to the barber and returns with a clean-shaven face and wavy perm that have a curiously foppish impact, as if inspired by a caricature of Oscar Wilde.

Charlie Chaplin’s resourceful, yearning tramp was a temperamental opposite; he would have welcomed good fortune in most guises and already knew how to mimic the manners appropriate to gentility. “Boudu” must have seemed quite a novelty the year after “City Lights”: a bum who was happier without visible means of improvement or security.

“Boudu” remains a classic comedy on an eternally useful theme: “No good deed goes unpunished.” It was updated effectively 20 years ago. Paul Mazursky, whose esteem for “Jules and Jim” had led to the fiasco “Willie and Phil” in 1980, rebounded cleverly a few years later with “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” his homage to “Boudu.”

I also commend the DVD extra that preserves French film critic Jean Douchet and future director Eric Rohmer in an extended TV discussion of “Boudu” and Jean Renoir’s career. They sit side by side in theater seats and sustain some genuinely sophisticated discourse.

Mr. Douchet smokes like a chimney while Mr. Rohmer’s ardor and sincerity are filtered through a droopy, lopsided mustache and a comparably off-center Van Dyke. I found them an irresistible highbrow act and trust that similar specimens from their show, “At the Movies,” will be raided for other French classics that rate the Criterion Collection.

TITLE: “Boudu Saved From Drowning”

RATING: No MPAA rating (Originally released in 1932, decades before the advent of a ratings system; elements of sexual innuendo)

CREDITS: Directed by Jean Renoir. Screenplay by Mr. Renoir and Albert Valentin, based on a play by Rene Fauchois. Cinematography by Marcel Lucien and Georges Asselin. Sets by Jean Castanier and Hugues Laurent. Sound recording by Igor Kalinowski. In French with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 84 minutes

DVD EDITION: The Criterion Collection

WEB SITE: www.criterionco.com

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