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Boudu Saved From Drowning: The Criterion Collection

In his book My and Life and My Films, Jean Renoir spends little time talking about his 1932 film Boudu Saved From Drowning. Mostly he praises star Michel Simon — Renoir said of the film "When I see Boudu, I forget that I made the film, I forget what happened, I see only one thing: A great actor on the screen." And in the introduction included on the DVD, Renoir also defers to Simon. There are a couple of good reasons for this — the most important being that Simon helped launch Renoir's film career. Having worked in movies since 1924, it was Renoir's collaboration with Simon in 1931 with On purge bébé that netted him an important box office success. The two followed it with La Chienne, which was also a hit. But another reason why Renoir may have looked on Boudu as lesser title is that it was received coolly upon release — and it wasn't seen in America until 1967. Boudu, while still being masterful, gives off the appearance of being a slight work, a light bedroom farce about the class system, and it plays on the notion of false piety taken to an absurd degree. But it's Simon's performance as the unrestrained Boudu that elevates the picture's status, transforming it into a minor classic.

Simon stars as the titular character, the Parisian tramp Priapus Boudu, who decides to jump into the River Seine after his dog leaves him. He's saved by Edouard Lestingois (Charles Granval), who sees himself as a charitable and good man, even though he's carrying on an affair with his maid Anne Marie (Severine Lerczinska). After getting Boudu breathing (for which Boudu is supremely ungrateful), Edouard takes the man in, gives him a suit, and tries to take care of him, much like a pet. But Boudu invites chaos in whatever he does, and he quickly makes a mess of the Lestingois house, while also getting in the way of Edouard's affair by sleeping in the path to Anne Marie's bedroom. Edouard is revealed to be a man of surfaces, a bookseller more interested in appearances than meaning, and he arrives at the conclusion that "one should really only come to the aid of one's equals." But as Edouard and his wife (Marcelle Hainia) are ready to kick Boudu out, the cuckolder becomes the cuckolded when Boudu bluntly seduces Edouard's wife, allowing Boudu further stay. Eventually the Lestingois house's affairs are revealed, but Boudu finds that he has a winning lottery ticket, and he seems ready to set things right by marrying Anne Marie. But middle class complacency has no appeal for Priapus Boudu, and he quickly abandons his wedding to continue his untamed life.

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Though based on the play by Rene Fouchois (who disowned the film adaptation upon release but later came to appreciate it) and made by one of the greatest directors of all time, Boudu Saved from Drowning belongs to Michel Simon. That said, it's impossible to overlook Jean Renoir's deft touch throughout. A tale of suicide, poverty, and infidelity, Boudu takes a talented filmmaker to give the story the right balance of whimsy while remaining, in essence, an acute class commentary. As someone with a fine appreciation of the work of Charlie Chaplin, Renoir recognizes here how to make this thoroughly absurd character likable with his Id-like behavior, and he moves the plot along swiftly. Nonetheless, the picture be little more than a footnote if not for Simon — who earned the role of a lifetime. As Boudu, he walks as if always drunk, and yet he is always active, often doing handstands or other playful activities. It is such a thorough and inspired character that he becomes the very definition of a free spirit (Renoir later suggested that Boudu was the precursor to the hippie), which places his voracious appetites in context — his character is named Priapus (the Greek god of procreation) for a reason. Without such a dynamic leading performance, we might get something like Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Paul Mazursky's 1986 reworking of Renoir's film. It's good for what it is, that being a dated '80s comedy. But even someone as talented as Nick Nolte cannot hope to match Simon's inspired lunacy, nor could Gerard Depardieu in the 2005 remake Boudu. It's why Renoir always deferred to Simon when talking about the film: He knew the picture's success could be attributed to his star, and not himself.

The Criterion Collection presents Boudu Saved from Drowning in a good full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) with the original monaural French audio (DD 1.0) and English subtitles — for a 1932 film, the source-print is in reasonably good shape thanks to a digital restoration, although it's not pristine. The main menu offers the Jean Renoir introduction (3 min.), wherein he praises Michel Simon. In the supplements section, the first piece is "Jean Renoir & Michel Simon," (6 min.), an excerpt from the 1967 episode of the French show "Cineastes de notre temps" from the episode "Portrait de Simon ou la direction," which was directed by Jacques Rivette. Next up is an interview with Jean Pierre Gorin (12 min.), who co-directed Tout Va Bien with Jean-Luc Godard — he provides a studied appreciation of Boudu with an emphasis on Renoir's technique and the film's class consciousness. "Eric Rohmer & Jean Douchet" (31 min.) offers an episode of "Aller au Cinema" spent with the two writer-directors discussing Boudu's political elements. Finally there is an interactive map of Paris in the 1930s, with notes on the film's locations. Keep-case.

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