Boudu Saved from Drowning

According to Wikipedia, Pauline Kael called Boudu sauvé des eaux (1932) “not only a lovely fable about a bourgeois attempt to reform an early hippy…but a photographic record of an earlier France.” Although it is an enjoyable film with strong performances, I found it to be more problematic than Kael did.

Like Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog, the film seems to regard the bourgeois attempt to reform the lower classes, however well-intentioned, as doomed to failure. On the one hand, this is a humorous indictment of the bourgeoisie’s tendency to romanticise poverty  and their naïve view that charity will be rapturously received by the proletariat. On the other hand, it seems to espouse the concerning view that the lower classes are irredeemably brutish and beastly. Whether this is by nature (as it more clearly is in Bulgakov) or merely by circumstance, the message is troubling, because it implies that any attempt to assist the impoverished is middle-class meddling that should not be attempted. In other words it is a reactionary defence of the status quo.

Of course the film is a comedy, and the dichotomy provides many amusing cultural clashes between Boudu and his benefactors. But it’s difficult to dismiss out-of-hand the serious side of the film. In addition to being, as Kael says, an “early hippy” and roguish free spirit who eventually flees the captivity of his bourgeois benefactors, Boudu is insufferably rude and ungrateful. More importantly, although the film seems to imply that Boudu is better off without his benefactors, it cannot be forgotten that when Lestingois first encounters him, he is attempting suicide. And although the scene is played for farce, Boudu does subsequently rape his rescuer’s wife. Like Bulgakov’s dog, his bad behaviour is portrayed as part of his nature, but the heart of this message—that there are fundamental, irreconcilable difference between the boorish poor and the refined middle classes—is a bit difficult to stomach at times.

Perhaps it’s ill-advised to read too much politically in what is meant to be a light-hearted film. Charles Granval is entertaining as Boudu, and as Kael says, it’s an interesting depiction of an earlier France. Still, I found the underlying subtext of the film to be both both problematic and difficult to ignore.

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