In 1936 the rise of Hitler in Germany and the Popular Front in France created within the French Left a new sense of solidarity with the Soviet Union. In that context the Russian immigrant producer Alexander Kamenka asked Jean Renoir to direct a film of Maxim Gorky’s play The Lower Depths.
The Gorky play presents a closed and desperate world, that of a dingy and sordid flophouse that offers the last refuge on earth to some of those “at the bottom of life,” lost souls with no hope but only illusions to make life bearable.
But presenting a world without hope would not do in the France of the Popular Front. And the worlds we find in Renoir’s films always have open possibilities. One may look out the window and see the perfect tramp; a Sunday excursion may lead to a ruined life or to pleasant memories. So conjunction with Renoir is an uneasy fit.
Donald Richie calls Akira Kurosawa’s film of The Lower Depths a miracle of ensemble playing. In contrast Renoir makes of the play a vehicle for two fine actors, Louis Jouvet and Jean Gabin. The action of Kurosawa’s film occurs completely within the flophouse, as does the play, but less than half of Renoir’s Lower Depths takes place there. Still the flophouse remains, visually, the most interesting locale in the film, with its chiaroscuro lighting and dramatic shadows, its rough bricks, rude stairways, and old wooden posts that often divide the screen vertically or project diagonally across the frame and its length that lends itself so well to deep focus cinematography. But the heart of the story no longer resides in the lives of the derelicts who cluster there. For Renoir’s concern is more on how one moves in or out of the lower depths than what life is like when you are there.
The major characters, the baron and Pépel (Jouvet and Gabin) meet as failed thieves. The baron has stolen 30,000 rubles from the ministry and lost it gambling. Pépel has come to rob the baron’s luxurious house and found nothing worth stealing there. The baron, returning home in a suicidal mood, interrupts Pépel’s theft. As in many Renoir films, this moment when two characters meet is the seminal point in the film. Here in their first encounter, each opens the eyes of the other to the possibility of change. Each glimpses a new possibility, the baron, a life without things; Pépel a life without thefts.
Soon the baron appears at the flophouse. One passion, gambling, has consumed and overturned his upper class life. A great discovery seals his fate; that a three-kopek game in the flophouse intrigues him as much as the thousand-ruble game in the casino. If he has lost his class he has found his life. He sheds luxury and prestige without regret. When Pépel finds life in the lower depths unbearable and proposes to leave the flophouse, he asks the baron what he will do. The baron replies without hesitation, “I’ll stay here.” He has no desire to go. Unlike Gorky’s baron, his descent from aristocracy has not been degrading but liberating.
After Pépel leaves the baron’s carrying the bronze horses he steals some apples, then gives them to a child and tells him, “And if someday someone tells you Pépel is a thief, you’ll set them straight.” At the film’s end he sets out as an honest workman.
The major flaw in Renoir’s film is the casting of the first major character, Natasha. Dramatically Natasha plays a prominent role in the film, necessary for both the death of Kostylyov and Pépel’s escape from the lower depths. But Junie Astor’s performance destroys almost every scene she is in. Renoir said of this, “She’s terrible, isn’t she? She was a friend of the producer. He asked me as a special favor to give her the part. I worked hard with her but it didn’t do much good. I think of her as almost anticinematic. Some faces are beautiful, made for the camera. Some faces are not beautiful but interesting. But Junie Astor had a face that showed nothing to the camera. It is empty.”
Feeling this way Renoir managed to shoot his film with only half-a-dozen close-ups of Junie Astor. Each confirms his description, her blank face conveying nothing of Natasha’s inner life. Fortunately we hardly notice her when Gabin is on the screen.
The central strand of Renoir’s film, the relation of Pépel and the baron, hardly present in Gorky’s play, culminates in the final major scene between them on the river bank, a scene related to Pépel’s coming change of life as the first scene was related to the baron’s. Renoir said of this scene, “It wasn’t going well and I saved it by finding a snail and putting it on the back of Jouvet’s hand. I knew from the reaction of the audience to that scene that the film would be a hit and Gabin was going to be a star.”
The improvised addition of the snail seems a perfect example of Renoir’s genius on the set, for it does save the scene and allows it to deepen the characterizations. There is, of course, nothing resembling this scene in Gorky’s play.
When Akira Kurosawa made his version of The Lower Depths in 1957 he had seen Renoir’s film. It was perhaps that which led him to try it himself. Unlike Renoir, Kurosawa follows Gorky almost scene for scene. In a style that resembles Renoir’s in its long takes and deep focus cinematography Kurosawa creates his flophouse as the locus of a world. But by the sheer vitality of the life in his film manages to overthrow the despair and pathos that permeate the play.
Kurosawa greatly admired Jean Renoir, thought him one of the greatest masters of cinema. The two met once in the 1970s, late in Renoir’s life when Kurosawa was in Los Angeles to receive an Academy Award and was invited to have dinner with the Renoirs. Kurosawa has written that his own decision to write an autobiography was prompted by reading Renoir’s My Life and My Films “and by the terrific impression Renoir left on me when I met him—the feeling that I would like to grow old in the same way he did.”
Kurosawa’s Lower Depths shows the power that could be achieved in cinema by staying close to the text and setting of Gorky’s work. By comparison, Renoir’s Lower Depths may appear to be merely variations on some themes from Gorky. Renoir did not see Kurosawa’s film until 1977. He watched it with great interest, then remarked, “That is a much more important film than mine.”
Alexander Sesonske is the author of Jean Renoir: The French Films 1924-1939.