Jean Renoir's satiric gutting of René Fauchois' play is one of the director's finest works, a biting work whose ambiguous target (does it ultimately side with individualist anarchy or bourgeois liberalism?) is less the result of an unfocused screenplay than an even-handed work of humanity. With roots in Herman Melville's similarly perplexing short story "Bartleby the Scrivener," Boudu Saved from Drowning is both an absurdist ode to rebellion and a sympathetic, even positive portrayal of goodness within the oblivious bourgeoisie.
The titular Boudu is the tramp qua tramps, played by that great beast Michel Simon of L'Atalante fame (or perhaps it's more accurate to say that Vigo's film later featured Simon of Boudu fame). Gigantic, scabrous, and stumbling in a way that suggests less habitual drunkenness than a body that infuses red blood cells with gin, Boudu is the Dionysian keeper of a park on the Seine. When his dog runs away, the distraught bum hurls himself off a bridge into the river, drawing a crowd of middle-class people who gasp and shriek but do nothing. It is up to a bourgeois man named Edouard Lestingois, who sees Boudu jump while mockingly watching the man through a telescope in his apartment, to run downstairs, across the street, down the bridge steps and finally, slowly leap to the man's rescue. Even the hero must maintain composure and be sure not to get all his nice clothes wet.
Renoir's framing of that save, at once suspenseful and comically protracted, defines Lestingois with almost no words: he is a kind man, unable to let Boudu drown as a crowd down below watches in a horror that turns to fascination, but he also adheres to his social status. He only sees the tramp in the first place because he people-watches for freaks, and his composed half-run across the street and slow walk down to the river show him valuing his image as much as this man's life. But no matter, bourgeois onlookers shower Edouard with praise even as he is still trying to revive Boudu, commending the man and promising him medals as he slaps the bum about the face to bring him back to consciousness. They don't particularly care about this hobo, only that Edouard did something interesting; Lestingois' own wife, Emma, seems to regard this beached, bearded beast as an inconvenience, only reluctantly lifting up his head when Edouard asks her to as he continues to perform exercises on Boudu.
Eventually, the man comes around, and a joyous Edouard takes the tramp into his home to clean him up, unconsciously following that proverb that whomsoever saves a life must continue to look after it. But Lestingois soon comes to regret that decision: Boudu, far from grateful or humbled by the rescue, brings his explosive temperament and anarchic habits into Edouard's home. He thanklessly tosses aside shirts he does not even try on before declaring they won't fit, spits on the floor and refuses to eat their meals, demanding simpler repast like sardines and bread. Later, forbidden to hock phlegm on the floor, Boudu slinks around a room looking for some salivary outlet, at last settling on the pages of a book by Balzac with a look of impish victory.
Like Bartleby, Boudu is wholly at odds with a modernizing, collectivizing society; he takes orders from no one, does not alter his ways and proves so immobile that even those who grow sick of his presence cannot seem to eject him from their lives. Edouard, like Melville's narrator, is weak and overly kind, never taking direct action with Boudu though he grumbles behind the tramp's back. Speaking with his wife after Boudu has become a poltergeist in their home, Lestingois says, "One should only come to the aid of one's equals," his sardonic tone not hiding how convinced of this statement he has become.
Renoir clearly delights in Boudu's unshakable primitivism: he suffuses a tracking shot of the man limping around the park with his uncynical grace, morphing a shot of this grotesque creature into a pure evocation of the park's warmth and idyll. In comparison, the camerawork in the apartment is more confined, mathematical. Renoir uses long shots that put window- and doorframes between the camera and the actors, constricting them further in the compartmentalized bourgeois world. In one masterful shot, Renoir places the camera outside several perfectly aligned doorways, peering into the deep background at the dinner table as the maid, Anne-Marie, gets up to go to the kitchen. Only when the camera tracks left with her movement to frame the young woman in two window sills does it become clear that Renoir was in another apartment across the way, emphasizing how cramped and conformist the bourgeois structure is.
The clear aesthetic preference for the open, inviting natural world stacks the film in Boudu's favor, but Renoir takes great pains to complicate Edouard. The first shot of the film, in fact, is a visualization of the man's unorthodox, almost pagan daydream, frolicking like wood nymphs with Anne-Marie, with whom he carries on an affair. That search for sexual rejuvenation shows how badly Lestingois wants to break out of his limiting social structure, a character revelation only deepened by his relationship with Boudu, who clearly tempts him on some level with his primal connection to the id. Yet he still follows convention and even bends Boudu into the bourgeoisie, or at least so he thinks.
Amazingly, this boisterously comic movie nearly sparked riots in Paris upon its release, though (according to Renoir and Simon) simply because Boudu ate with his hands. That is almost certainly an exaggeration, and even if it was the stated reason for disruption, the visceral French reaction against the film likely stems from its commentary on the prewar bourgeois values it exalted: Anne-Marie engages in an affair with Edouard because she sees it as her way of climbing the social ladder. Boudu is driven to throw himself off a bridge because the cops won't help him look for his dog, but a woman who comes along saying she can't find her 10,000-franc puppy draws damn near the whole precinct in a search. Emma, like the original audience, finds Boudu's unclean hands revolting, yet Boudu notes how much more disgusting it is to spit and sneeze into a handkerchief and then place the mucus-soaked rag back in one's pocket for decorum.
Boudu is so utterly offensive to middle-class, socialized tastes, so outside norms, that one soon discovers he is not rebelling against convention so much as entirely removed from it. A condescending woman has her child give him five francs at the start of the film, which confuses him as money has no value to the man who only needs to beg a sandwich off someone to be happy. When a wealthy man pulls up in a car, Boudu hands him the fiver sarcastically but also reveals that money is not a concept he particularly understands or cares about. And when the tramp briefly adopts bourgeois attitudes late in the film, he does so solely to mess with the middle-class, seducing Lestingois' wife and wooing Anne-Marie as well when he wins a lottery.
But in the end, Boudu has the last laugh over his saviors, capsizing a boat at his wedding, dumping the party into the river as he suddenly displays the ability to swim and flees from the middle-class life he seemed to have in the bag, a complete reversal of the traditional ending of the play. Eager to get out of his bourgeois trappings, the soaked Boudu grabs the clothes off a scarecrow, but the savior imagery of the Christ-posed scarecrow does not entirely suggest the bum is a deliverance figure for the trapped bourgeoisie. It's just as easy to feel relief for the Lestingois family at being free of the man, but as Renoir's satire closes, it's clear that Boudu has shown them the true worth of the foundation of their lives, decent as these people may be.