Directed by Jean Renoir
Screenplay by Jean Renoir & Albert Valenin
Based on the Play by Rene Fauchois
Starring Michel Simon, Marcelle Hainia, Charles Granval & Severine Lerczinska
Released in 1932
Available in the US from Criterion
Time hasn't treated the old comic actors that well--whether one likes it or not, and most of their fans don't, Chaplin and Keaton aren't paid much attention to anymore by the masses. Even Jim Carrey seems to have hung up his rubber-faced shtick, while the current vogue for dry improvisation and a healthy collection of wigs shows no sign of abatement. That's not for anyone to say that's a good or a bad thing: comedy isn't like drama in a lot of great ways, and while it's sad that most people born today will never check out A Night At The Opera, that shouldn't mean they suffer character assassination at the hands of those who do. (They should just suffer never getting to see A Night At The Opera.)
Michel Simon played at being a real actor, and he eventually found success at it--and many will tell you he found it in Boudu. Luckily, those people don't work here. Like our previous installment in the Great Directors category, this film is just better than a trifle, and far from a masterpiece. It's early in Renoir's sound days, but for whatever reason, it's quite unlike his later literary adaptations in that there's a lot less of the type of exploration and experimentation. Instead, Renoir's direction and screenplay play it straight, and the meat of the film lays on the shoulders of Michel Simon, who, unlike his director, chooses to do whatever he feels like with the material he's given. At the time, Simon's performance was treated with some rapturous response, and although film criticism wasn't dealt with substantially during the early 30's, Simon's work was something acknowledged with a decent recognition for it's uniqueness. It deserved it--and in a professional, theoretical manner, it still is something quite special.
It's just no longer that entertaining, and it's uniqueness suffers under the weight of the last 70 years--after all, the overweight, ignorant clown has since been done far better. Watching Boudu's wrecking of the kitchen, or his bizarre seduction of his saviors uptight wife, one automatically begins to compare his work to John Belushi or John Candy, and the comparison leaves Simon's work seeming quite amateurish--and the truth is, that it is rather amateurish. That's part of it's charm--much like the film itself, it's an interesting diversion, a valiant effort by intelligent men to create art out of a play written for the unwashed. And therein lies the basic problem--as a worthy piece of exploration into a director who's best work stands among the greatest films of all time, it's not an unpleasant film--no, but all that aside, it's a comedy that just isn't very funny. The argument has been made, and made again and again, that Boudu is really about an attack on the dishonest sentiment and inherent cruelty of the middle class towards those who refuse to acknowledge it's mores, that's a reading that I refuse to endorse--because that's a reading of Renoir's greater works, and one that Boudu can't support. Even the vaguest of similarities requires a ridiculous amount of intellectual gamesmanship for this film to stand alongside Rules of the Game in thematical agreement. Still, it is Renoir--and bad Renoir is going to be far more rewarding than anything else that pops up at the local multiplex for the next...well, let's say 19 years, just to be polite.
-Tucker Stone, 2007