By Jake Triola
Why help someone who doesn’t want it? If their life depends on it, maybe something, from somewhere, tells the apathetic, bourgeois part of our hearts that to act and, thus, make the choice to be a do-gooder, is just our duty as humans floating on a rock shrouded in mystery. Jean Renoir’s 1932 comedy, Boudu Saved from Drowning, explores, without restraint, simply every repercussion that could possibly occur from our choice.
Based on the play of the same name written by René Fauchois, it begins with its star, Boudu, played by really the only man for the part, Michel Simon, whom you’ll recognize if you’ve ever seen Jean Vigo’s sole feature and swan song, L’Atalante (1932). Reportedly a eccentric of a man—one who broke down barriers by associating with the Parisian homeless, showcasing his collection of purchased and homemade pornography, and living in the countryside of France as a bohemian with pet apes and a parrot, he embodies the anarchic spirit of the title character.
It’s no spoiler that Boudu jumps into the River Seine, looking to drown himself. When he’s rescued by Edouard Lestingois (Charles Granval), a wealthy bookseller, he’s introduced to an entirely new world. He finds out that the world on the inside is even more wacky and vane than the one which he’s seen on the streets: it’s filled with silliness exemplified by, for example, a woman who hasn’t a clue as to which end of the telescope to look through. Her husband, Boudu’s rescuer, explains to her that they have a piano because they’re “respectable people.” These people are the object of Renoir’s satire, which, as you know if you’ve seen any Renoir, is supreme if only because it is honest. These people are portrayed with humor, yes, but also with honesty. Renoir, having been raised by the renowned painter, Auguste Renoir, might very well have even empathized with these people. Criticizing that which we are close to is the best way of criticizing. In fact, we may only truly be able to criticize, at least in any effective way, that which we know in and out, and, moreover, that which we love.
What does Monsieur Boudu do upon arrival? Well, he asks for sardines and bread and butter, all the while spilling wine and bumbling about. He also makes sure to point out the absurdities of the society which he’s infiltrated. “Tie? What is it? Around my neck? For what?,” he asks his now-compatriot Monsieur Lestingois, who, admittedly, cannot answer properly. It truly is unnecessary. Finally and predictably, Boudu decides he’ll pass on the tie.
Despite all the hospitality he receives, Boudu is, nonetheless, dissatisfied. “Why didn’t you let me drown?,” he asks.
Renoir is reported to have changed the end of the film, altering Fauchois’ initial ending. What I can say about Renoir’s alterations without giving anything away is that they transmute the story to a much more cinematic state, ultimately serving to give Boudu, the character, the exit he deserves.
Perhaps Boudu can teach us to jump on any opportunity that presents itself to us. Maybe choosing to help gets us through the mystery by giving us something to do, you know, so we’re not stuck sitting around thinking about our own fate and the unfathomable nature of what’s to come. In a way, Boudu is the ultimate punk-rock movie. Boudu is all of us who have seen through that which is phony. As Camus might’ve put it, as a free man dealing with an unfree world, Boudu’s “very existence is an act of rebellion.” But I can’t bring myself to close with Camus, so I’ll say this: see the movie, and don’t hold back. Join in. Laugh along. Meet the madcaps that bookend the world in which we live.