A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Lower Depths (Jean Renoir, 1936)

Jean Gabin and Louis Jouvet in The Lower Depths
Pépel: Jean Gabin
The Baron: Louis Jouvet
Vassilissa: Suzy Prim
Natasha: Junie Astor
Kostylev: Vladimir Sokoloff
Louka: René Génin
Nastia: Jany Holt
The Actor: Robert Le Vigan
The Police Inspector: André Gabriello
Felix: Léon Larive
Anna: Nathalie Alexeeff

Director: Jean Renoir
Screenplay: Yevgeni Zamyatin, Jacques Companéez, Jean Renoir, Charles Spaak
Based on the play by Maxim Gorky
Cinematography: Fédote Bourgasoff

Jean Renoir's encompassing humanism might have seemed the right sensibility to apply to Maxim Gorky's play about society's castoffs, who live in a crowded flophouse. But Renoir can't avoid "opening up" the play, which takes place entirely in the dingy living quarters and presents the continual conflicts and squabbles among the inhabitants and their greedy landlord. He chooses to begin with the backstory of one of the inhabitants, a baron so addicted to gambling that he has lost his entire fortune. Pépel, a thief who pays his rent at the flophouse by letting the landlord serve as fence for the stolen goods, one night decides to rob the baron's house, unaware that the baron is bankrupt and the authorities are in the process of repossessing everything he owns. When the baron discovers Pépel robbing him, he just laughs and invites Pépel to sit down to supper. The two make friends over the misery of their lives, and the baron moves into the flophouse too. It's a scene of sophisticated comedy that starts the film far away from the madness of the play. Renoir also provides a kind of happy ending, in which Pépel, after serving time in prison for killing the landlord, hits the road with Natasha, the late landlord's sister-in-law -- a sharp contrast to the play's ending, an ironic moment in which news of the death of one of the inhabitants interrupts a raucous song. Renoir maintained that Gorky had approved of the screenplay, but the film was not released until December 1936 and Gorky died in June of that year, so his opinion of the completed film can't be known. The film is really a reinterpretation of the play in the light of the political turmoil of the mid-1930s in France and the struggle of the Popular Front against the fascists. If it's more Renoir than Gorky, it's still satisfying in large part because of the performances of Louis Jouvet as the baron and Jean Gabin as Pépel, an odd couple whose scenes together are the heart of the film. The ensemble is mostly terrific except for Junie Astor, whose limited range of expressions never brings Natasha to life, and whose pencil-line eyebrows seem out of place on the face of a character who has been bullied into being a scrubwoman in a flophouse. Inevitably, Renoir's The Lower Depths has been compared to Akira Kurosawa's 1957 version, which sticks much more closely to the play. Renoir himself thought Kurosawa's film "more important" than his, and I find it hard to argue otherwise, but it's nice to have two versions by two master filmmakers.

Watched on Filmstruck Criterion Collection 

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