Saturday, September 24, 2011

Uneven Results

Films: La Chienne (The Bitch); Boudu Sauve des Eaux (Boudu Saved from Drowning)
Format: VHS from Highland Community College Library through interlibrary loan on big ol' television (La Chienne); DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player (Boudu).

Jean Renoir has six films on The List. I say that as a statement of fact, not as one of shock, surprise, or outrage. Before working The List, I had not heard of Renoir; that name was immediately associated with Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the painter and not the French director. Well, I’ve corrected that today, watching one-third of his entries.

The first is La Chienne (The Bitch). This is a surprisingly convoluted story for these early days of film. It’s complex and layered without being complicated. There are only a couple of major players here, so it’s simple to keep track of everything, and yet this film goes a very long distance from its starting point.

We start with a puppet show, and I mean that in a literal sense. The first puppet tells us that what we are about to see is a tragedy. It is interrupted by a second puppet who tells us this is a comedy with a moral. Both of these puppets are beaten into submission by a third, who tells us that that the story we are about to see is just a story with no moral and no lesson to share. The people are real people and the story is a real one, and it signifies nothing.

Maurice Legrand (Michel Simon) is a meek cashier who is dominated by his terror of a wife, Adele (Magdeleine Berubet). Adele constantly complains of his painting and compares him unfavorably with her first husband, who died in World War I. One evening, when out with his coworkers, he sees a fight between a man and a woman, and he intercedes.

The woman is Lulu (Janie Marese). Legrand is immediately smitten with her because of her youth and her beauty, not knowing that she is essentially a prostitute and that the fight was with her boyfriend/pimp, Dede (Georges Flamant). He also doesn’t know that Dede and Lulu are still a couple, and that this meeting with him is something they have essentially been looking for. Thanks to his infatuation, Legrand sets up Lulu in a new apartment, which he decorates with his own paintings. Dede believes that Legrand is actually a famous painter, and decides that he’ll sell the unsigned artwork under the name of Clara Wood, setting up Lulu as Clara. Meanwhile, to keep her (and, unknowingly, Dede) living in some comfort, Legrand begins embezzling from his company.

Things really come to a head when Legrand discovers that Adele’s first husband is not dead, but living under an assumed name. Both men are in the position now of wanting their own freedom from the terror that is Adele, causing some scheming by both. For Legrand, this is a way out of his loveless, terrible marriage and a life with Lulu, but of course he doesn’t realize that Lulu’s life is actually with Dede and she wants to keep it that way.

I can’t express how disappointed I am that this film was available to me only on VHS and that it hasn’t been remastered. This is a highly entertaining film all the way through. The story plays out like real life, with real people coming up against obstacles and reacting to them. The plot continues to thicken throughout, and while the story does require that the audience pay attention, it never gets so dense that it can’t easily be followed. I can only imagine what this would look like fully remastered and looking like it should. Certainly far less entertaining and less interesting films have been given the full-on Criterion treatment; Renoir’s early work would appear to deserve at least that same consideration.

That aside, though, this film comes highly recommended. The comedy is dark and not always obvious, but the people are real and the situation is one that plays out exactly as it should, even if it isn’t exactly how we as the audience would like it to end up.

There is a Chinese saying that goes along the lines of saving someone’s life makes you responsible for that person. Had you not saved the life, any evil that person commits would have never happened. No film explores this idea more completely than Renoir’s follow-up to La Chienne, Boudu Sauve des Eaux (Boudu Saved from Drowning). Priape Boudu (Michel Simon once again) is a tramp. His dog has run away, and despondent over this, he decides to drown himself in the Seine. Fortunately for him and unfortunately for the rest of us, he is pulled from the water (hence the title) by Edouard Lestingois (Charles Granval).

Lestingois takes the dripping tramp into his home to care for him, and we get a lovely view of exactly how Boudu repays the man who saved him. Essentially, his repayment comes in the form of acting like a complete bastard at every possible opportunity. He spits on things, drops things, breaks things, demands everyone get him whatever he wants, tries to have sex with the serving girl (Severine Lerczinska), polishes his shoes with the satin comforter, floods the kitchen, and otherwise acts like a sort of Will Farrell character with fewer manners.

At one point, Boudu has so offended everyone in the house that they are ready to push him out the door. This is after he has trashed the place, destroyed the kitchen, ruined one of Lestingois’s valuable rare books by spitting in the pages, and destroyed the bedroom by polishing his shoes with whatever he could find. Confronted by Lestingois’s wife Emma (Marcelle Hainia), he basically rapes her, which naturally causes her to fall deeply in at least lust for the man. Her husband isn’t too worried since he’s sticking it to the serving girl anyway.

I see what Renoir is trying to do with this film. He’s commenting on the sort of hypocrisy that is rife in the world. At the start, for instance, when Boudu’s dog runs off, he is given no help by the police officer he speaks to. Moments later, a rich woman with the same problem is treated seriously and the cop starts a doghunt to find her precious Pekinese. Okay, I see that. And I see it at the end as well (don’t worry about this being spoiled—you’re missing nothing). This horrible man who treats everyone terribly owns the winning lottery ticket, giving him a small fortune of 100,000 francs. And suddenly he is respectable, all is forgiven, and he can marry the chambermaid, who’s getting sexed by her boss. I get that. I see the hypocrisy of the situation exactly as I am supposed to see it.

But that doesn’t mean that the film works or that I like it. In fact, the film does not work in the main specifically because Boudu is such a hateful character. I believe he is intended to be funny, to be something of a clown. He is not. Instead, he is merely an ingrate and an asshole. As a character, he is a complete misfire, and since the entire movie revolves around him and what he does throughout, the entire movie misfires as a result.

My fervent hope is that of the two Renoir films I watched today, this one is the aberration and not the norm, because this one was painfully bad.

Why to watch La Chienne: For a film that is this old, it’s actually quite modern.
Why not to watch: It won’t be the ending you want.

Why to watch Boudu Sauve des Eaux: For the first hour or so, Boudu has a truly epic beard.
Why not to watch: Because it isn’t worth watching.


  1. I found La chienne online (for free!) and watched it tonight. I did not expect to be seeing a 1931 version of Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street in French!

    It was a beautiful print, by the way. Much nicer than any print of Scarlet Street I've ever seen.

    As much as I love Scarlet Street, I think I might prefer La chienne by a hair. Even with the French version of Sidney Toler in place of Edward G. Robinson, I thought La chienne had it goin' on!

    (They're both great movies.)

    I saw Boudu Saved from Drowning many years ago and I seem to have liked it a lot more than you did. I don't remember the specifics well at all, but I think it got a lot more points for being WEIRD than it did for being funny.

    1. La Chienne is one I'd watch again. I didn't like Boudu much, so I'm thinking once was enough.