Boudu Saved from Drowning &
Elena and Her Men, Reviewed
August 13, 2019
n and out of the water he goes. One minute, Boudu is jumping off a bridge and into a river, despondent over the disappearance of his cherished black toy
poodle. In another, he’s a newlywed riding in a canoe with his bride and a cadre of wedding guests. From his seat he spots a lily pad; it stands out to him because it’s all alone in a sea of nothing. He tries to grab
it — what he intends to do with it, I don’t know — but then ends up tipping the boat over, everyone inside falling in headfirst almost in slow motion. In the original minute, he hopes the water will consume him, relieve him of his pain. In the later one, he floats on his back blissfully for a moment — as if to temporarily appreciate just how much things have changed over the course of the last few days.
And how things have changed. At the beginning of the movie, Boudu (Michel Simon, funnily disheveled), who is the star of Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), is a goofy homeless man with nothing to his name besides this little dog. At the end of it, it’s suggested that he has become a “tramp” again. But a lot has happened in the meantime. After the bridge-jumping incident, Boudu is taken in by an upper-middle-class family. Its patriarch, a for the most part benevolent bookkeeper named Edouard (Charles Granval), is the one who witnessed the near-disaster, and sees potential in Boudu, whom he thinks could “be someone.” At least as long as he eventually gets rid of his ragged clothes, messy coiffure, klutzy gait, and initial on-the-brink-of-a-crisis demeanor.
Boudu ends up stirring up more trouble than Edouard might have foreseen. Namely, the former messes with his host’s romantic interests. Edouard is having an affair with his kittenish housemaid Chloe-Anne (Sévérine Lerczinska). Then Boudu starts having one with her, too. Edouard’s unaware wife, Emma (Marcelle Hainia), has no idea of her husband’s infidelity, though perhaps is made something of an equal when Boudu sets his sights on seducing her. (We learn that what it takes to do that successfully is for Boudu to get a tidy haircut and shave, along with some new clothes.)
There are lots of movies that work with the fish-out-of-water-houseguest-turns-host’s-life-upside-down conceit. More often do they take the more forcefully heartwarming route, à la The Sound of Music (1965) or The Blind Side (2009). But I tend to like this sort of premise more when, the second the guest arrives — whether they’re wanted around or not — the people of the house realize they’d give an arm and a leg to get them out but have to make nice until it’s appropriate to actually give them the boot. I think of The Man Who Came to Dinner (1941), in which the nettlesome Monty Woolly essentially terrorizes his dinner-party hosts after he accidentally injures his leg, or a number of home-invasion thrillers. There’s something especially evocative about movies that involve a sanctuary going through unprecedented torment on accord of someone who should have never been let in in the first place. We know the feeling of wanting things to go back to the way they were but not wanting to seem impolite, or even, if unwilling to think so drastically, hate committing to thinking ill of someone.
Boudu Saved from Drowning is the apotheosis of the guest-from-hell comedy subgenre. It also imbues in some interesting social commentary. On one hand, it's the sort of farce where we can relish the admirably confident misbehavior of Boudu, who's a charmer who isn’t averse to doing things like wiping his shoes off on freshly cleaned sheets. (The film’s remake, the also-good Down and Out in Beverly Hills, from 1986, tapped more into this brand of farcical humor.) But on the other, it’s an impish satire on the upper-middle-class lifestyle, poking fun at the social conventions its members dedicate themselves to and the hypocrisies which often follow. (Above all else, the movie has an eye on well-intentioned liberals like the central Lestingoises, who might do things like, say, take in a homeless person more out of self-interest than fundamental generosity. It seems as though Boudu’s behavior is supposed to be karma in scruffy human form.)
The movie was co-written (with René Fauchois, who penned the play the film is based on) and directed by Jean Renoir with a pointed, jovial sense of humor. But there are two things I like most about his work here, which are also among the feature’s least accentuated. His subdued emphasis on his exteriors is winning; his documentary-like gazes at places in and around Paris give us an idea of what it must have been like to live there in the early 1930s. But also appealing is how understated the satire itself is. Scenes and sequences, if you notice, are never glaringly silly; never are the characters obviously standing in for certain Parisian society types. Renoir has a lot on his mind, but the messages he’s projected here are cunningly embedded; this doesn’t feel like a holier-than-thou “message” comedy. At first look, Boudu Saved from Drowning is a sportive comedy of manners, perhaps even a French take on the very-American screwball comedy. But on a second one, it’s much more.
n Elena and Her Men (1956), Renoir’s fifth movie of the 1950s, the basic comic chaos is comparable. But there’s not much else to the movie. It's as if Renoir was trying to show off that he is, indeed, a master of controlling comic
bedlam. But akin to the lighter features of Preston Sturges, there’s something equal parts admirable and enjoyable about a movie so taken with its basal looniness. You almost take delight in the fact that the people behind the camera are spending the length of the feature just barely avoiding the brink.
And Elena and Her Men has got a doozy of a storyline. It’s set in 1890, in France. It stars Ingrid Bergman, confidently exchanging French dialogue and evidently confident in just about all other areas, as the titular character, a Polish princess. The movie is all about her complicated romantic exploits and the side complications Renoir throws at them in order to generate even more disorder.
First Elena agrees to get married to a greying and rich friend in order to get her financially flagging family out of dire monetary straits. Then she falls in love with a count (Mel Ferrer) with great cheekbones. But then she becomes the apple of the eye of a high-haired French general with whom the count’s in close quarters (Jean Marais). She has, as it turns out, potentially influential political power, too. The general is considering overthrowing the French government, and Elena, who is thought to bring good luck (don’t ask me why) by the upper-crusters, might just be being used.
It’s hard to keep it all straight. But the comic sequences in Elena and Her Men are so torrential yet marvelously executed, and the performances are just as engaging as Renoir’s stylish and self-assured direction, that we don’t care. There’s one great sketch in the movie where Elena and one of her love interests have to keep bouncing from room to room in order to have a moment alone, unaware that another couple in the ensemble is trying to do the same. The ending is a masterwork of misunderstanding and stressfully discordant character motivations.
Bergman in particular is at the peak of her powers here. She not only crafts an enchanting and substantial character I’m not quite sure exists on the page; she also has a way of showing the levels of interests she’s willing to invest in these men just through her array of facial expressions and her body language. She brings a weight and focus Renoir matches with his energy, wit, and audacity.
Boudu Saved from Drowning: A-
Elena and Her Men: B