Boudu Saved From Drowning

Sunday, 8 July 2012

A part of this view­ing listCriterion Collection Spine #305: Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved From Drowning.

I have rel­a­tively large, com­pletely per­sonal is­sues with old French com­edy. À nous la lib­erté is pretty much the only old French com­edy I’ve ever re­ally liked. I think it boils down to a feel­ing that come­dies of this stripe are con­stantly wink­ing at the viewer, nudge nudg­ing. Say NO MORE! The laugh track serves the pur­pose more sub­tly in these mod­ern times, but in Boudu we get char­ac­ters who laugh at their own jokes. Tres gauche. Not my style.

Boudu the bum is ba­si­cally the French ver­sion of Chaplin’s. A bit more too, as he’s a pretty generic holy fool and mega­phone through which Renoir mocks the bour­geoisie. And, due to its no­to­ri­ous dif­fi­cultly, the satire falls flat for me here and be­comes, as afore­men­tioned, mere mock­ery. The bour­geois men­tal­ity is bluntly served up in di­a­logue that’s ba­si­cally shit no one ever says. Perhaps the sub­ti­tling loses some nu­ance, but judg­ing by the de­lib­er­ate, blunt trauma chaos that Boudu in­flicts upon all and sundry with whom he comes into con­tact, Renoir wasn’t that con­cerned with sub­tlety in the first place.

Basically no one comes off well; even at the end of the film when Renoir could have re­deemed, and very much should have re­deemed Boudu, (at least by hav­ing his dog re­turn to him), all that oc­curs is a stum­bling exit, which, though ap­pro­pri­ate for a bum, doesn’t provide much clo­sure in any other re­gard.

La Grande Illusion

Tuesday, 3 January 2006

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #1: Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion

This movie is a pow­er­ful anti-war film that will nev­er­the­less be a bit dif­fi­cult for me to keep in con­text since its mes­sage to­day has likely changed sig­nif­i­cantly since it was first shot. At a most ba­sic level, this is a World War I prison es­cape film. At an­other level it is an il­lus­tra­tion of a par­a­digm shift: the de­struc­tion of the old world aris­toc­racy and birth of the mod­ern so­cial con­tract. Permeating all of this is the Grand Illusion it­self; that na­tion­al­ism and pa­tri­o­tism limit more than they spec­ify. This point comes across with the most ef­fi­cacy when Maréchal [Jean Gabin] and Rosenthal [Marcel Dalio] are about to cross the bor­der from Germany to Switzerland af­ter es­cap­ing from their prison camp. After Maréchal says that he can’t tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween Germany and Switzerland, Rosenthal states “Frontiers are an in­ven­tion of men. Nature doesn’t give a hoot.” Throughout the film, the ide­o­log­i­cal cre­ations of men con­sis­tently ap­pear to cause more harm than good.

This strong neg­a­tive theme is bal­anced and, I think, ul­ti­mately out­weighed by the con­sis­tently pos­i­tive be­hav­ior of un­re­stricted hu­man na­ture. This ten­sion is what keeps La Grande Illusion ap­plic­a­ble af­ter all of these years. The film was shot in 1937, on the cusp of World War II, and re­con­structed from frag­ments by Renoir af­ter the war. It was a huge hit be­fore the war, but like the liner notes for the DVD men­tion, af­ter the hor­rors of WWII it served as a re­minder that the Germans were peo­ple too.

Time and time again, be­tween Erich von Stroheim’s crip­pled Capt. von Rauffenstein and Pierre Fresnay’s Capt. de Boeldieu, be­tween the German widow Elsa [whose en­tire male fam­ily has been killed in Germany’s “great­est vic­to­ries”] and Maréchal and even be­tween the French Jew Rosenthal and Maréchal, we see peo­ple that would get along fa­mously if the war wasn’t in the way. Ironically, they’d never be to­gether in the first place with­out the war, but be­cause of it, duty be­comes in­ex­tri­ca­bly bound with re­gret. von Rauffenstein is forced to shoot de Boeldieu who is sac­ri­ficing him­self so that Maréchal and Rosenthal can es­cape. Afterward, he is wracked by re­gret that his duty made him kill a man he con­sid­ered a friend. As both an honor to de Boeldieu and pun­ish­ment to him­self, von Rauffenstein clips the flower off of his gera­nium, the only flower in the en­tire castle. [I must ad­mit that I got a bit misty right there. Erich von Stroheim is such a good ac­tor.] Similarly, Maréchal must re­turn to France and the fight­ing, leav­ing be­hind Elsa, with whom he has fal­len in love. He promises to re­turn, but in war there is slim chance he will do so.

The Grand Illusion is that there is any­thing hon­or­able about war. The only good acts oc­cur when the char­ac­ters act from their hearts, and the bad acts oc­cur when they bow to duty.