“Why didn’t you let me drown?” — Boudu

Michel Simon is hilariously anarchic as a homeless tramp—this may be his greatest role—in Jean Renoir’s satire of bourgeois Parisians, Boudu sauvé des eaux, from the play by René Fauchois. Boudu is taken into the home of a conscientious bookseller who has rescued him after he tries drowning himself in the Seine. (Simon’s Boudu doesn’t fit in, wreaks havoc with his clumsiness, to which he reacts with obliviousness bordering on abandon.) Renoir changed the play’s ending, where Boudu accepts bourgeois responsibilities. Renoir’s Boudu seems headed down that path, but after he marries the maid (with whom his benefactor was having an affair) he “drowns” again by accidentally falling into the river while sitting next to his bride, leaving her behind and reclaiming his liberty.
     The immediate reason for Boudu’s suicide attempt is that he cannot locate his dog, a scruffy mess like his master. The police will not help Boudu find the dog, but they help a bourgeois woman who is looking for her expensive dog—a lap pet that completes a prized self-image of social superiority rather than the vital companion that Boudu’s dog is. Boudu is desperate; all alone, he really wants to die.
     Bookseller Lestingois rescues Boudu to maintain a self-image of virtue that offsets guilt over his bourgeois attainments—a guilt we also see when he gives an impoverished student two books behind his wife’s back.
     Everyone but me sees Renoir’s revised ending as an occasion for unblemished joy: Boudu is himself again, a tramp at liberty. I look at this a little differently: Boudu knows only how to be himself, and that’s not enough. Discarding his wedding hat is an extravagant gesture; but what does it mean that the hat is obstructed in the water, stuck? Before, Boudu needed his dog in order to survive emotionally. He still doesn’t have his dog, and he may end up trying again to drown himself.
     Paul Mazursky directed the Americanized version: Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986).

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