Everyone has his reasons, Jean Renoir used to say, and his generosity of spirit is what elevates his films so high in the estimation of successive generations of film-goers. Just occasionally, however, one has to ask whether Hitler had his reasons too. “If every way of life can be defended,” the critic Robin Wood has commented, “then nothing need be changed.”
Renoir, however, did not become the father-figure of the French New Wave for his human warmth and moderation. And it was Boudu Saved from Drowning rather than the more famous La Grande Illusion and The Rules of the Game, great classics though they are, that convinced the young new-wave bloods that here was a man who deserved to be followed.
Boudu (Michel Simon) is a terminally scruffy tramp who is saved from drowning in the Seine by an antiquarian bookseller (Charles Granval). Apparently, the man was fed up with life and intending suicide. And now he insists that his rescuer must take responsibility for him.
Brought back to the bookseller’s bourgeois household, he behaves exactly as nature rather than propriety demands. The family are shocked but patronisingly amused at first, even when Boudu spits on the antiquarian’s beloved editions of Balzac. He does so not out of spite but simply because you spit when you want to spit. But when Boudu seduces first the wife and then the maid, we begin to understand that the two worlds of the middle class and the outsider are colliding with fateful results.
Eventually, the tramp, who has never kissed anybody before except his dog, marries the pretty maid but, accidently this time and probably the worse for drink, falls in the river after the ceremony. Suddenly discovering his liberty again, he is off to pastures new.
The film was based on a play in which Boudu finally accepts his responsibilities. But Renoir wanted a joyful paean to freedom and anarchy, to be contrasted with the plodding pursuit of material comforts the bookseller’s family is engaged in. And so the film looks even more appropriate now than it ever did, right down to the military bugle sounding as Boudu beds the bookseller’s wife.
What the New Wavers liked, apart from the subversive nature of the material, and what may seem to us old hat by now, is that everything was shot on location in Paris and its quays; the book seller’s stuffy household and the then-beautiful suburban countryside are evoked with great eloquence and skill. And if Renoir seems to like everybody, especially Boudu, can one really cavil?
Simon, given as much freedom as possible by his director, manages to seem charming even when behaving like a complete slob. And here a few doubts surface in this delicious film. For instance, how threatening is Boudu in reality? And should we be laughing when he virtually rapes the bookseller’s wife? The scene is played as farce and so works all right. But could it be played as such now? Renoir, however, was a master who seemed incapable of making a bad film but was modest enough to admit his own flaws. His total lack of cynicism or even pessimism is what attracts people to his films today. That and the kind of fluency of utterance that makes you totally unaware of his film-making technique, which always manages not only to show you what goes on within the frame but also to suggest the world beyond it.
Renoir is considered one of the greatest film-makers of all time, largely because he could so clearly convey his humanity and warmth through his films. But he wasn’t simply loveable. Like his painter father, he expressed far more than at first meets the eye.