(1936) dir. Jean Renoir
Back in 1995, when I was living in England, the BBC and Channel 4 were celebrating “a century of cinema” with documentaries and lots of “the greatest” of world cinema. It was a pretty good time to be there and not have a lot to do. It is when I was introduced to the word of Jean Renoir, through The Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939). But oddly, through time, I don’t think I ever ended up seeing any more of his films, nor seeing those films again. It was an interesting time, the period that got me inspired to study cinema and really exposed me to cinema, as well.
The Lower Depths is Renoir’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s play of the same name, adapted to France, of course. The film stars the ubiquitous Jean Gabin, who I am really getting to know of late, from such films as Pépé le Moko (1937) & Touchez pas au grisbi (1954). Little did I realize what an important film actor Gabin is/was in France, something of a Humphrey Bogart/John Wayne icon, and here, in The Lower Depths, he’s perhaps the most charming that I’ve seen him. Playing a good-hearted thief from the poorest ranks of society, he is looking for a woman to give him a reason to be good.
Like the other of Renoir’s films, The Lower Depths is very much about class, or “the classes” of society. It’s an odd thing for me to relate to the way that culturally is much more imprinted on Europe, especially a Europe of the 1930’s, when class-consciousness was more a full-on structure. The idea that you can tell someone of the “upper class” who is “slumming” simply by the way they carry themselves, a sense of one class being better than another.
One of the best scenes in the movie is when Jean Gabin is burgalizing the flat of a baron and is caught in the act. The baron, however, largely through gambling, has winnowed himself out of money to the point that the next day everything he has is going to be repossessed, so he pleasantly treats Gabin to dinner, drinks, and cards, and tells him to take anything he likes.
While the thief wants out of “the lower depths”, away from the dirt, poverty, crime, and death, the nobleman yearns for the freedoms that come from owning nothing. He is charmed by the notion of sleeping in the grass by the river, though even his butler is shocked that anyone would do such a thing. The class consciousness is clearly a dated thing, though an interesting one, and really, it’s the characters who make the film live.
There is an Akira Kurosawa film adapted from the play as well. In fact, Criterion compiles them in packaging. So, I guess that I’ll be seeing that one fairly soon. Vive Renoir! Vive Gabin!