In Jean Renoir’s La Chienne, Michel Simon plays Legrand, an inept, nebbish (married) bourgeoisie in love with a voluptuous set of damaged goods. When she laughs cruelly at his overtures and seemingly bottomless capacity to ignore her devotion to her hot-tempered criminal boyfriend, he stabs her in a pique of rage and stands idly by as the boyfriend is fingered for the crime. Despondent and wracked with guilt, Legrand slides down the economic class scale until the ending, when he is shown as a grizzled vagrant who seems almost inordinately happy with whatever bits of leftover food or pocket change he can scavenge. The social condition that ended a dark and disturbing passion play in 1931 also ignites Renoir’s very next film in 1932 as an uproarious social satire, Boudu Saved from Drowning. Again, Simon plays a bum, the lasciviously named Priapus Boudu. Only instead of portraying his plight as fate’s dark joke, which would probably be a natural fit for a film that begins with the man’s attempted suicide in the waters of the Seine (weighted down, no doubt, by his extremely heavy Priapic genitals), Renoir juxtaposes Boudu’s infinite zest against the studied mannerisms of the genial bookseller who rescues him from the waters, Edouard Lestingois.
As Lestingois rides the repercussions of his altruism to local fame and esteem, his wife Emma and maid Anne-Marie (who is also his mistress) are basically held captive when Lestingois invites Boudu into his home. Boudu first offends their sensibilities by gobbling slimy sardines with his bare hands and spitting white wine over his shoulder, then offends their sense of order and homemakers’ logic with his aimless lounging, and finally offends their honor when he swoops for a piece of tail. (Though the otherwise icy Mrs. Lestingois’s trembling, giggly post-coital thaw after a scene that seems to imply rape indicates that her façade of honor is only really in place with the anticipation of being toppled.) All the while, Lestingois flanks his precious bookshelves and turns a blind eye to every inconvenience, excepting the fact that Boudu’s sleeping hulk on the staircase blocks his midnight access to trysts in Anne-Marie’s servant chambers.
As Raymond Durgnat notes in his book-length criticism of Renoir’s films, the rescued, revived, and near-refurbished Boudu represents the inherent obscenity of “state without enterprise,” or at least the obscenity required to stave off the requisite suicide attempts. And, to Durgnat, Lestingois represents “enterprise without state.” His marriage, his affair, his career as a bookseller, his veneration by his peers—everything that Lestingois passively accrues to sculpt the shape of his legacy is branded staid. He ignores his wife’s sexual needs in order to muster up the stamina for Anne-Marie, and even then he admits that he doesn’t quite have it in him. He reads his collection of first editions but doesn’t use their wisdom and insight to any real action, instead giving books away to young men with more enthusiasm and potential.
For a film that is frequently characterized as an unequivocal cherry bomb dropped in the toilet of middle-class airs (a stance fuelled by Simon’s blowsy, sensual, canonical performance as Boudu), Renoir’s portrayal of the otherwise pathetic Lestingois is surprisingly warm. Even his character’s epigrammatic punchline, “one should only rescue those of one’s own class,” comes from Lestingois as a bemused quip of self-deprecation. Anyway, once Boudu rejects their way of life and floats back down the river (this time, escaping back to life as a bum), it is Lestingois who gets to hold both women under his arms. Even enterprise without state can be amply rewarded in the films of Renoir; his Little Theatre ended with a similarly sunny endorsement of the ménage-à-trois. That’s real humanism.
Rendez-Vous with French Cinema runs from February 28—March 10.