THE LOWER DEPTHS (Jean Renoir, 1936)

Poverty, and fresh love’s capacity to undo its grip of despair, at least temporarily: in adapting Maxim Gorky’s play Na dnie for the French screen, Jean Renoir takes on a great theme. On this occasion Renoir’s primary interest lies elsewhere than in social analysis, the crux of Gorky’s concern. However uneven the result, Les bas-fonds has little or no connection with such analysis or with French poetic realism.
     Outdoors sunlight, liberated, expansive camera movement, Alochka, the young, agile accordian player who clicks his heels in the air: what does this have to do with the lower depths?. For one thing, all this speaks to the need of the poor to cope with their poverty. The alcoholic actor’s fate reminds us that not everyone can cope. But the Baron’s apparent transcendence of his gambling habit as he settles into his new existence in slum lodgings raises questions about individual responsibility that perforate the social rigor of the indoor setting. The Baron (Louis Jouvet, brilliant) trades in his high stakes, aiming at high-style survival, for sociable card games.
     For me, Renoir’s amiable film carries a subtext that defines it and lifts it into a category of its own. Wasska Pépel is a thief who has at least convinced himself he can turn over a new leaf for the sake of Natasha, the girl he loves and who loves him. Earlier, he said that he knows no other way of living because his father, a thief who died in prison, taught by his example. That may be the point: what fathers teach their sons. Renoir learned something else from his father. A phenomenal outdoor scene evokes the sociability of such a painting as Impressionist Pierre-Auguste’s Bal du Moulin de la Galette (1876).
     Like father like loving son.


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