Thursday, June 16, 2011

Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932)

It seems to be a common theme during whatever period you look at in cinema history that whenever you may think American films may be drab, predictable, or overall lacking that something extra that gives a film substance, simply avert your attention to what is being produced in Europe. In 1932 we find two minds of the screen come together and provide a vastly different film. Different not in quality, cinematography, art direction, or politics, but rather a different type of acting. Michel Simon would portray many characters in his long career on the big screen including the judge in The Passion of Joan of Arc, but here he would bring one of the most unique character portrayals in Boudu Saved From Drowning. His acting as a Parisian tramp would be so strikingly different, yet at the same time be so familiar that it would be remembered throughout time despite the film being such a small, humble production. We have seen tramps through cinema (i.e. Chaplin, Lloyd, the Marx Bros., Keaton), but it would be mainly the work of one man in one film that would almost redefine acting with such a role.


Boudu Saved From Drowning is French picture set in beautiful Paris about a bourgeois bookseller and his attempt to civilize a homeless man he saved from committing suicide, only to be met with the troubles of the tramp who does not care for the life of such privilege, nearly tearing his savior's home apart. Boudu (Michel Simon) is a homeless man whose life is not based on the wealth or merits which seems to be all the normal Parisians care about. He only cares about his happiness, and when he feels he could never be happy he decides to jump into the river only to be saved by the local bookstore owner Edouard Lestingois. Edouard believes that with his kindness and money he can make a decent man out of Boudu. So here we have one that believes his deeds and wealth can help make a man great  juxtaposed against that of a man that is not worried about things or proper manners, but only the simple happiness of one's self. Boudu actions send troubles through Edouard's house disturbing his wife, Emma, and his maid/secret mistress, Anne Marie. Boudu's actions cause a massive issue ruining many rooms and objects in the house before he discovers that he won the lottery. Just when Boudu appears to be coming around with his new wealth and even marrying Anne Marie, he is lost in the river and returns to the ways of a tramp, where his life is content.

The picture itself, filmed between the two World Wars, gives a wonderful look at the simple life in Paris before the massive changes brought on by the twentieth century. Michel Simon gives perhaps one of most unique character performances seen to that date. Boudu is a bumbling, stumbling, dirty, smelly, and slurring character that only cares about himself, nearly destroying the civilization that is Edouard's home. The movie is purely enjoyable because of Simon's work as Boudu. It is hard to describe his portrail to a contemporary audience, because in time we see this style of acting and character come along more often with the progression of cinema. But if I were to make a parallel to the stunning originality of Simon in this picture it would be likened to that of the work of Johnny Depp with his portrayal of Capt. Jack Sparrow in Pirate of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Depp's mannerisms and stylings of the character that is Jack Sparrow would be so different and fresh in 2003, something not thought of before for character as a pirate. This can be said in the same way when it comes to Simon's playing of Boudu. It is so different from let's say a Chaplin tramp. Chaplin, arguably the most popular star in movie history during his time, had his tramp be silly but carried a huge heart. Boudu doesn't have heart, nor common decency, but it is strange that you cannot help but watch this character and almost root for the man even if he near destroys everything, including the bedsheets with shoe polish. Boudu is one of a kind.

You might be thinking not much credit is being given here to director Jean Renoir, for he is the architect of the film. True, Renoir does a very good job with this picture. It is shot, edited, and presented very nicely, but even he could not take credit from true artist of the film. Simon found the play which the film would be based on and handed it to Renoir, whom he work with recently with on another film. Renoir would adapt it to the screen, but it would be the acting of Simon that gives the story life. Renoir would even say years after making the film that he would watch the picture from time to time, viewing it as if he did not make it for he loved watching the genius that was Michel Simon on the screen. Renoir was a fine veteran director, having produced many films well into the silent era. His finest French film would come in 1937 with Grand Illusion, which would be the first foreign film nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards. His career would have him eventually move to America where he would continue to make films and become a naturalized citizen.

Michel Simon was a Swedish born actor whose skill was rather different because he himself was different. Never happy with the wealthier classes of people, he found joys in the lower classes and carried on with a different air about him. His ways were erratic and took pride in being different from others. His ways took him from being a boxer, a clown, an anarchist, a frequent of prostitutes, and a man rather open about his sexuality. We see that there is much of Simon in Boudu and much of Boudu in Simon. You can say that Boudu Saved Form Drowning is perhaps the definning movie of his career as well characterized portrait of his life.

Boudu Saved From Drowning would be a film of controversy, even in Europe. Boudu's actions destroying the ideals of normal society by throwing objects, eating sardines with his hands, and ruining fine items with shoe polish would send audiences into fits. How could such a man get away with these uncivilized actions without being killed by the owner of the house? It may not seem like much to us today, but it bothered people then. On some occasions police were called to theaters of people who were crazed by the unruly actions they saw on screen. The funny thing is that the film was talking about these very people that were getting so upset. Boudu was sending a message to the bourgeois, pointing out the superficiality of that class. Despite the noise it would make with some audiences, the picture would be taken well. The film would be rediscovered by later generations in Europe and America in the 1960s garnering Simon and status of an acting hero of all time. It was in the 60s that America film students were starting to blossom, rediscovering the richness of classic pictures such as Boudu Saved From Drowning and it was this generation that would produce some of film's greatest filmmakers including Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Scorsese, and De Palma. That generation would continue to inspire new filmmakers. In fact the film would one day remade in America as Paul Mazursky's Down and Out in Beverly Hills, starring Nick Nolte in the Boudu role, supported by Bette Midler and Richard Dreyfuss. This silly comedy would perform well in the box office with the help of star cast.

So we can see how a film would be made a success simply by the gifts of a single man. Simon would be defined by a career of work in France, but it is hard to see anything being as profound in nature as Boudu for him. It would not be the only time we would see such a unique character in film history, but it reminds us that at times we must in different places to find these gems. Boudu Saved From Drowning is a fun film where nothing is resolved. No one changes and no one prospers. It starts and ends with a few things happening in the middle, but after all that we are were we started, having learned nothing in the process. It is difficult to describe it. but somehow it makes for an interesting film that is enjoyable to watch.

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