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.