#64. Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932)

Boudu Saved from Drowning belongs so much to its time and place and culture that, as a native of a different country (in a different century) I just don’t see what makes it great enough to stand among the thousand greatest. It’s clearly a well-made movie, with solid performances from all in attendance, but I just don’t understand what’s great about it. Maybe the fact that it feels so modern? So comfortable in its form? It’s hard to explain — lots of these movies of the early 1930s have a let’s-see-how-this-works quality.  Maybe that’s because of the relatively recent advent of sound?

What proved really helpful in understanding the movie’s allure, at least a little bit, is that Boudu Saved from Drowning is the first movie I’ve watched on a Criterion Collection DVD (I promise this isn’t sponsored). It comes equipped with a charming introduction from the director, Jean Renoir, in which he apologizes for talking about technical filmmaking stuff and then elaborates on some of the shooting techniques he employed in the making of Boudu, and to what effect.

Director Jean Renoir

Also, in the special features, there’s a brief conversation between Renoir and Michel Simon (Boudu). They’re a lot older. I’d guess it was shot twenty years after the movie’s release. They talk about how the movie was shut down by the Parisian police three days after its premiere. Renoir and Simon were accused of “defiling” the screen by showing a character (the eponymous) who pines for death, suicide, and eats sardines with his fingers, soaking his beard in the juices. Simon talks of how women in the audience would gasp when his character uses silk bedsheets to wipe up shoe polish.

It was a different world.

Movie’s about a homeless dude whose suicide attempt is botched by a bookstore owner, Edouard (Charles Granval). After saving Boudu from drowning, Edouard invites him to stay at the house. Gives him a new wardrobe and a haircut and every other amenity available. But Boudu is an asshole who resents everybody’s effort to be friendly. He’s also basically a rapist even though the women upon whom he forces himself end up falling in love with him. He’s a fucking twat. I can kinda see why the cops shut it down.

The great offense that ultimately sets Boudu up for eviction from Edouard’s house is that he takes up a prized edition of Balzac and spits in the pages (although I think there’s a suggestion that it was actually Edouard’s wife who does this). Edouard’s devastated. His love for that particular edition of Balzac, the way he wails over the offense of having it defiled, got me to focus even more attention on how much I like this Criterion DVD. It’s a beautiful restoration of the movie with nice artwork on the box and a good supply of extra content for somebody who wants to really explore the material. It got me thinking of books (like the Balzac volume here) that go through a million artful reprintings, supplemented with big-name introductions or afterwards or critical essays, and the reality that none of this supplemental material influences the text itself. Maybe they help to illuminate its beauty for somebody who, like me, is foreign to it and needs a little extra context, but ultimately the text is the text. I guess those of us who really feel a connection to this stuff will take it as a gesture of respect, maybe even worship, to dress the thing in handsome covers. What would the effect be if we only released these works in static boxes, with no art?

gamestop case
The generic Gamestop case, for when somebody traded in a came without the original packaging. Somehow, it was never any cheaper than the pre-owned games in original packaging.

I think about this sometimes when I buy a used game at Gamestop. Sometimes, when people are done with their video games, they trade them in for store credit. Very often, if they’ve lost the packaging for that game, they submit the blank disc. In this case, Gamestop re-packages the disk in a generic blue-and-white case. Kind of ugly. Sometimes that generic box will be on the shelf beside another pre-owned copy, and that other copy will have the original box. What always puzzles me (though I don’t think I’ve ever discussed it with myself until now) is why those pre-owned games in the generic package aren’t at least a couple dollars cheaper than the ones in beautiful factory packaging. They’re always the same price. Sometimes, bafflingly, the one without a box is values higher than the one that has it.

Leonard Cohen is dead now and even though I own all of the albums I care to own (even, sigh, Dear Heather) I know that, if some beautiful new collector’s edition of those albums gets released, I’ll fork over big sums for it.

I used to give people a hard time if they insisted on owning hardbacks over paperbacks, or trades instead of mass-market, thinking at the time that the text is the text, that the packaging doesn’t matter. Year by year I become a little more precious about the object, though. Strange.

Anyway. Skip Boudu.


  • “… ultimately the text is the text,” which is to say that ultimately the intention of the author is what counts. (I’m appropriating the argument that follows from Walter Benn Michaels’s The Shape of the Signifier. Good book.) Not that the question is about what text means; it’s about what the text is, and that’s where you appeal to the author’s intention: what’s in & what isn’t, what counts as part of it & what doesn’t. Thus Shepherd’s illustrations for Winnie the Pooh count, because Milne collaborated with him on them, but Rosemary Wells’ illustrations of Mother Goose rhymes don’t count because Mother Goose did not approve. Would you agree? I imagine you wouldn’t, because it’s more nuanced than that, sure, but at a certain reductive level you should agree.

    So, hypothetically agreeing, it’s odd that you explicitly take this side, the authorial side, since it implies that the subject position of the reader doesn’t matter. The artwork, the introductions, the critical essays don’t count. Neither does the table you read at, or the taste of a particular beer in your mouth as you read, though all of this is part of the reading experience, part of the reader’s continuum of sensation. It’s odd because all of your essays are written from the other side of the argument, that the subject position of the reader is what really matters about a work. A puzzling thought you haven’t explicitly thought before, an aside about Leonard Cohen, the interviews included with the Criterion edition, these deserve as much attention as Simon’s performance.

    This isn’t a criticism, by the way. The side you implicitly take on a boring question of textual ontology has nothing to do with whether or not your essays are good or bad. I’m trying to put my pedantic finger on why most of them are good. Here, I think it’s the tension between those two positions. Generally, I think it’s because tension, energy, conflict, & negentropy win out in your prose over stasis, decay, and becoming more precious about our objects with the passing years. Which is what Boudu sauvé des eaux is about & why it’s good. Boudu is on the side of life, another incarnation of the Great Vitalist, like Falstaff, or the trickster Coyote of indigenous American mythologies. Or Eric Cartman. We all know Cartman’s a fucking twat, but more often than not I’ll take him over an entropic insistence on hardback over paperbacks.


    • Frip, you’re like a recurring good dream. Nice to hear from you again.

      Had to read your comment twice but now I understand what you’re saying and, yeah, you’re right. My “the text is the text” remark wasn’t as thought-out as it ought to have been — you put into words what I would probably never have managed: I seldom write about these movies as they stand as autonomous texts outside of the environment in which I see them. I talk about the mood in which I watched them, or the Cohen album they reminded me of, or the event I’ve been dreading or the question I’ve been noodling. That’s interesting. I really appreciate how, not for the first time, you’re having me think of my stuff in ways I hadn’t considered before. Focusing my attention from angles I wouldn’t have otherwise reached. I was just watching a YouTube video where a guy I admire was talking about his habit of writing letters to the editor. Says he’s been doing it for years because, having done so much editorial work himself, he’s familiar with the feeling like you’re working in an echo chamber and nobody’s out there giving your efforts serious consideration. So thanks for that!

      And I guess, if I’m gonna try to chase your line of thought, that you’re totally right: Boudu Saved from Drowning isn’t NEARLY as good as the Criterion Collection’s “Boudu Saved from Drowning”. And the flavor of a certain writer’s introduction can sometimes make me more interested to dip into a classic. The same conversation, enjoyed once over coffee and another time over beer, will feel different.

      I really appreciate you’re input!


      • I was so busy chasing my line of thought that I forgot my actual point though: Boudu sauvé des eaux itself is better than the Criterion Collection version of it in something like the way that (to butcher that great opening sentence from Joan Didion’s review of The Executioner’s Song) Norman Mailer is better than most people’s reading of him. Criterion—the restoration, the packaging, the interviews, et al.—helps its customers misread Boudu & Renoir’s La Règle du jeu as serious & sober critiques whose cinematic energy & humor dwindles outside their immediate historical context. They didn’t do that with other examples of anarchic French cinema, like Zéro de conduite & Zazie dans le Métro.

        Boudu isn’t just good, it’s really good. Seen properly, that ending, which Renoir changed from Fauchois’s play, when Boudu is floating away, free again, should feel like a strange & joyous reversal of the mythical image of the lyre & gory sundered head of Orpheus floating “down the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian shore.” A big “should,” but I feel it.


  • My reading of this movie is a lot more prosaic than most. It is an extended finger to the bourgeoisie idealism of the middle class. That is either fun or horrible according to your viewpoint. Mike shifted in the course of the movie so I went from disliking it to loving it.


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