Boudu Saved From Drowning is sort of an Exhibit A for the adage “no good deed goes unpunished”.
Edouard Lestingois is a respectable middle-class bookseller at the start of the film; polished, intelligent, erudite. He fancies himself a “free spirit” of sorts, but mostly all this means is he gives poor students a discount in the store, against the wishes of his wife; he also is conducting an affair with the live-in maid Anne-Marie (also, presumably, against the wishes of his wife). In addition to adultery, he has a naughty habit of clandestine people-watching, using a spyglass to peer through the window at the crowds thronging the banks of the Seine just outside.
Boudu, meanwhile (played by Michel Simon, who we last saw in La Chienne) is a tramp living in the Bois du Bolongue just outside Paris, with only his dog for company. The dog runs away one afternoon, though, and after a frustrating search, Boudu decides to end it all, wandering to the Pont des Arts in the center of Paris to jump in and drown himself. But as luck would have it, Lestingois – who had been watching him, and marveling at how “picturesque” a tramp he appeared to be – has seen him jump and decides to rescue him. He even invites Boudu to stay with the family a while, to recover from his ordeal and get back on his feet some.
But Boudu doesn’t quite behave the way they expect a grateful houseguest would. He criticizes the food, and eschews the bed they give him in lieu of curling up on the floor. His efforts to simply polish his shoes destroy the kitchen. He spits on the floor. Most hair-raisingly – he seduces Madame Lestingois – and seduces Anne-Marie. Finally, an incensed Lestingois discovers that Boudu has spit inside some of the books and realizes he must either reform or evict his guest.
This is a bit of an archetypal story, and Boudu is an archetypal Free-Spirited Tramp, beholden to nothing and nobody, and much happier that way. Director Jean Renoir (also from La Chienne) based the film on an existing play which featured Michel Simon as Boudu. Renoir immediately realized he needed to keep Simon – instead of the mild-mannered clerk he played in the previous film, Boudu is much more like the real Simon, who apparently hung out with anarchists and prostitutes, did some amateur boxing on the side, and reportedly had one hell of a collection of porn and didn’t care who knew about it.
I had the funny feeling, though, that this bit of true-to-life casting may have worked to the film’s detriment in a couple scenes. There’s a section in the middle, with Boudu blundering around doing a bunch of stuff while the other characters tut a lot and clean up after him, that feels a bit like Renoir took Simon aside before filming and said “okay, do whatever you want” and had the rest of the cast improvise around him. There were some funny bits of schtick – like Boudu suddenly stopping in the middle of the hallway to do a handstand, presumably for no other reason than “I just felt like it”. But it feels a little meandering and directionless compared to the rest of the film. Things are stronger overall – the performances, the camerawork, the script – when there’s a tighter control on Simon, like when Boudu seduces Mme. Lestingois.
The film has enjoyed a couple of remakes. There was a straightforward 2005 French remake with Gérard Depardieu, but the real surprise was that this film was the inspiration for the 1986 film Down and Out in Beverly Hills, with Nick Nolte as “Jerry Baskin”, the tramp who tries to drown himself in the pool of a wealthy Los Angeles couple (Richard Dreyfuss and Bette Midler). It feels strangely appropriate to note that this film, based on the tale of the earthy tramp Boudu, was the first R-rated film released by the Walt Disney studio.