Boudu Saved from Drowning: Tramping in the City

When Jean Renoir looked back on Boudu Saved from Drowning from the vantage point of 1967, there were two aspects of the film that stood out in his mind. One, not surprisingly, was the brilliant, idiosyncratic performance of Michel Simon, in the role of Boudu, which led the director to call the film a “free exercise around an actor.” The other was the film’s commendation of loitering as the antidote to efficiency and perfection. These two aspects are not, of course, distinguishable. Our delight in the film today has a lot to do with watching Simon’s eccentric Boudu raise loitering in the city to the level of art.

Renoir’s recollections are an inducement to think of Boudu Saved from Drowning as a spatial story. The film was adapted from a play by the minor boulevardier René Fauchois, but to open up the confinement of the story, Renoir kept just half of the play’s first two acts and invented all of the exteriors for the film’s beginning and ending, when he takes us outside into the Paris summer of 1932. Light filtering through the leaves in a park, women in summer dresses and men with open shirts, boats chug-chugging on the Seine, traffic in the streets, music along a riverbank, and couples in the long grass still play on our senses seventy-five years later. The film’s locations in the city are as instantly recognizable today as they would have been to an audience in 1932. One can still cadge tips in the Bois de Boulogne, wander along the banks of the Seine, past the bouquinistes, or throw oneself into the river from the Pont des Arts—and doubtless make a scene and draw a crowd. There is, however, a somber aspect to the lolling about depicted in the film. This is the period of the Depression in France, which accounts for the indifferent remark by a working-class character on the bridge that, of late, people have been throwing themselves into the Seine with regularity. Simon’s Boudu—who seems to have walked out of the end of Renoir’s La chienne a tramp and into this role a year later—would have been just one of the more than ten thousand clochards living in the city’s parks and streets and under its bridges in the early thirties, ragged figures as iconic as Paris’s most famous cultural and political monuments and a constant reminder of the city’s disparities of wealth and power, education and social class, privilege and place.

In The Practice of Everyday Life, cultural philosopher Michel de Certeau defines spatial stories as those that make “sentences and -itineraries” out of the places that they “traverse and organize,” that they “select and link” together. The narrative geography of Boudu Saved from Drowning is critical to its meaning. At the beginning of the film, Boudu comes into the city center from the Bois de Boulogne, at its westernmost edge, and at the end he is flushed back beyond its outskirts, into the Marne, at Chennevières, a tributary of the Seine beyond the city’s eastern perimeter. The spectator is to imagine Lestingois’ bookshop as overlooking the Pont des Arts, a physically impossible location that would situate it in the square in front of the Institut de France. Imaginatively, however, there could not be a more important site. The Institut de France is home to the Académie française, sits next to the École des beaux-arts, and is directly across the Seine from the Louvre. This is the center of culture, of learning, of civilization, at the center of a city that considers itself to be at the center of the universe of culture, learning, and civilization. Boudu’s presence in Monsieur Lestingois’ bookshop, which stands in for all of this, explodes those values as hypocritical, bankrupt, ineffectual.

Renoir thus turned a moralizing play into a filmic satire, largely at the expense of his middle-class bookseller, M. Lestingois. What the play presented as a successful mission civilisatrice, the film delights in as the uncontrollable eruption of pure havoc. Fauchois’ theater piece belongs to Lestingois, whereas Renoir’s film belongs to Boudu, as nearly as that is possible without ever permitting us access to Boudu’s consciousness. That is an important admission, that we cannot know Boudu from the inside out, as it were, but must see him through the eyes of Lestingois, a condition of knowledge that becomes literalized in the film through Lestingois’ telescope. Boudu’s abject state and marginal social position make him largely impenetrable to both bourgeois bookseller and bourgeois filmmaker. Still, while Lestingois’ perspective may be privileged, this is not a condition that proves to be to his advantage.

Both Lestingois and Boudu know their world, their city, very differently. One observes it, one acts in it. One is an eye at rest, the other a body in motion. One is static, sedentary; the other mobile, a pedestrian. One is rational, reflective, bound to time; the other impulsive, corporeal, a creature of space. One is forever stable, at home; the other forever displaced, in public. This is the phenomenology of their separate ways of being in the world. There is a sense that Boudu exteriorizes something that is in Lestingois himself, that the bookseller has summoned him up from the dark reaches of the personal and social unconscious. Boudu is everything at the center of the self and within society that has been discarded, ignored, or repressed. This “boudu” belongs to filth, to waste, to the unassimilable; he is an instinct, an urge, a drive. (What kind of name is Boudu? Does it connote a substance? An action? A disposition?) This “boudu” is something “savage” (so says Madame Lestingois), summoned involuntarily, that both attracts and repels, in equal measure, and over which Lestingois has no control, as the balance of the film proves.

When Boudu walks into Lestingois’ telescopic view at the Pont des Arts, what fantasies of the self (and of society) is Lestingois acting out in this encounter, both in his own interest and on behalf of the spectator? The enjoyment of looking is by no means entirely pure, transparent, unproblematic. The play between proximity and distance established through the optical apparatus at the first “meeting” between the two—that is to say, a proximity that is always illusory, because it enables Lestingois to preserve a real distance—between the bourgeois class and its subproletarian waste, will set the terms of their relationship for the remainder of the film. There can be no doubt that Boudu is his second self. We recognize their identity relation later in the film, when Lestingois gives Boudu his clothes and tries to educate him in the bourgeois life. But what Boudu brings to this life is havoc, particularly, sexual havoc, for what Boudu will act out for Lestingois is the fantasy of his own sexual energy. Lestingois’ telescope/camera is focused on the ankles and swinging hemlines of women passing along the Seine (one of whom, it’s worth noting, is black), until it captures Boudu, fully eroticized (and feminized) by Lestingois’ gaze. Lestingois is aroused by Boudu (I won’t carry on about the thing with the telescope; although I will suggest that a telescope is the exemplary instrument of colonialism). What is attractive about him is his corporeal presence, his vivid physicality, as he sprawls on a table, lounges in an entryway, stands on his head, swings from a doorjamb, traps the maid with his legs, or crashes about a room. Boudu lurches about as though he were trying to bring down the walls, to overcome his confinement, to open up the bookshop to undifferentiated space. Even Renoir’s camera looks to move in ways that will deepen or extend the closeness of interior space. The whole environment becomes eroticized. At night we hear over the soundtrack notes of longing played on the flute by Lestingois’ neighbor and see shots cut in of a cat stalking the rooftops. Finally, Boudu seduces Mme Lestingois.

Rhetorically, let me ask, if we are encouraged to compare Lestin-gois’ telescope to a camera, can we resist substituting Renoir for Lestingois? Or ourselves for each of them in turn? What anxieties, therefore, has Renoir inadvertently expressed on his own and our behalf? Lestingois’ attraction to Boudu is matched by his anxiety at his own loss of power. “One should only come to the aid of one’s equals,” he says at one point, defeated. But as befits the particulars of the trope we are dealing with here, the difficulties of class difference are conducted primarily in terms of sexual power and sexual loss. Boudu has it, and Lestingois doesn’t. “My pipes are weary,” Lestingois confesses, which explains why he would summon up from the passing crowd this subterranean self, but also why Boudu’s energy is ultimately a threat, even a social threat, that eventually will have to be banished from the narrative. “Boudu” is that which flows—a desire, involuntarily productive, without deliberate agency—but he does allow those who engage with him to imagine how they might politicize the individual as well as the social body through a willingness to recognize and negotiate their limits. The political geography of the self in social space has to be a somatic geography.

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