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.
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?
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.