1932; adapted and directed by Jean Renoir; 84 mins
Never expect a tramp to be grateful, I think is the takeaway message from this movie. However you choose to interpret that statement depends on how you read the film, positive or negative.
The spectacularly bag-faced Michel Simon‘s force-of-nature starring role as the titular tramp is something to behold as a one-man stampede through the lives of a bourgeois Parisian bookseller and his wife, Emma and maid, Chlöe. Boudu (pronounced: Bo-doo), having been impulsively, selflessly saved by the bookseller, Lestingois, from drowning himself in the Seine, is rude and ungrateful almost as soon as he has breath with which to issue forth. He proves himself to be a wind-up merchant extraordinaire; he forces himself on the women, spits wherever, refuses to sleep in a bed, causes chaos at the dining table and gets boot polish in every nook and cranny available.
On the flipside, Lestingois is introduced to us as a letch and a moral hypocrite. He is shagging Chloe right under his wife’s very nose and as soon as he spies Boudu (through a telescope) utters the unbearably patronising line; “He is beautiful! I’ve never seen such a perfect tramp!” This snobbish trio, even the servant, seem to expect Boudu to be domesticated and to have the exact correct social values and graces, if not as soon as he is revived, then, almost overnight.
The writing, adapted from René Fauchois’ play by Renoir and an uncredited Albert Valentin, is both funny and confrontational. A fraught dinner scene in which Boudu is relentlessly mucking about is indicative of the way in which part and player are able to coalesce so perfectly with help from the dialogue. He spills some wine and Emma sprinkles salt on the resultant stain “to draw out the wine”. Boudu promptly pours more wine on the table, protesting; “It’s to draw out the salt!”
Elsewhere, the screenplay uses perfectly chosen actions and words to further it’s scorched-earth satire. Lestingois, at first, thinks Boudu is amusing and that he has found a kindred spirit but that gives way to frustration at the particular habits that irk him. If it annoys the ladies, that’s fine but spitting? And on his favourite books?! The nerve! Not only this but Boudu’s sleeping on the floor in the corridor is getting in the way of his affair! At one point, he even refers to himself as Boudu’s “godfather” because he saved him as if suggesting some sort of ownership of the soul.
What surprises most, is that you think you’re going to get a comedy of manners that is about the destruction of middle class complacency and on the surface, it does. The film makes no bones that it’s sympathies lie with Boudu. Whatever ignominies he piles on top of the Lestingois’s, you have to keep in mind his everyday humiliations in the opening scenes, in particular, the woman getting her little girl to give him 5 francs for bread.
However, the film, in it’s brilliant epilogue, leaves two questions playing around in your head: is this the first time Boudu has done this and would other tramps hate him too? In the first instance, you begin to think of Boudu as a man confusedly out of place with the world much like later, echoing movie characters such as Bobby Dupea in Five Easy Pieces and Johnny from Naked.
In the second instance, it reminds me of a contemporary piece: ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ by George Orwell, wherein Orwell worked as a scrubber in the hotels of Paris and then lived amongst the tramps of London*. It always occurred to me that the poor of Paris had a comradeship and love for one another outside of the workplace but even the average English tramp thinks he is better than the next tramp. However, when Boudu is drowning in the Seine, another tramp, completely disinterested, says; “I’ve seen so many, I don’t bother anymore”. So, maybe the tramps weren’t so much reflecting a very English attitude (although they definitely are) but the realities of that life make for an eroded conscience. Is this, to some extent or another, Boudu’s calculated revenge on society?
Whether the film still has relevance today depends on whether you’ve seen a homeless person in your town. Whether you’ve heard about one fraud and dismissed them all. But here’s the real moment of truth: would I invite Boudu into my home? The honest answer is… sadly, I think – much as it’s easy to rip on him – I’d’ve still been waiting for a Lestingois to save him.
Having only seen a couple of Jean Renoir’s films prior to this, it’s safe to say that I am now a fan. I was lucky enough to catch his 1937 WWI masterpiece, La grande illusion, at the cinema last year and it is a film that, even after 80 years, still holds up as a thrilling and powerful war film about people trapped in circumstances beyond their control. This is Renoir’s seventh feature, made in a period when he seemed to be working like the clappers. In the five years between this and Illusion, he made another seven movies!
The thing that seems to run through these works and even the much darker La bête humaine, is that he had a keen eye for who is really trapped in a civilised society. In La grande illusion, Erich Von Stroheim‘s prison commandant is, in own his way, imprisoned by his duty to his country in a time of war but the main characters, who are literally imprisoned, instinctively find a way out (SPOILERS). Lestingois did a good deed but he gets his reward. Both he and Boudu are unselfconscious but Lestingois is a twat, helplessly and heedlessly bound within his societal position as a petit-bourgeois, all-consuming male. Boudu exists entirely outside the norm. They dress him up in a respectable three-piece suit and shave him so that, in actual fact, he looks ridiculous but that assumes he even gives two shits.
*If you haven’t already – go and check it out! It’s one of the best books you’ll ever read!