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Posts Tagged ‘Les Bas Fonds’

95 min. French black and white

Aka. Les Bas-Fonds is one of the curiosities in the history of cinema that Jean Renoir who has been busy making Une Partie de Campagne left it for directing a film, theme of which was apparently against his grain. Une Partie is like a painting of his father come to life where nature takes hand in determining the life of a nubile girl in her first love. The lovers surrender to nature and to their emotions, but social circumstances determine otherwise. What had in the Gorky’s gutter play to wean him from the Maupassant story? In 1936 the rise of Hitler in Germany and the Popular Front in France created within the French Left a new sense of solidarity with the Soviet Union. In that context the Russian immigrant producer Alexander Kamenka asked Jean Renoir to direct a film of Maxim Gorky’s play The Lower Depths. Renoir accepted the offer and before agreeing to take on the project, Renoir insisted that the film be set in France (not Russia), and that some drastic changes be made to the plot. The most significant change was the ending; the tragic denouement in Gorki’s play was replaced with a happier ending, in keeping with the mood of the time.
Trivia:
Renoir was obliged to write to Gorki to receive permission for these alterations to the story, which was duly given (although Gorki died a few months before the film was released).
Plot

The story revolves around two characters that represent two ends of the society. One is titled and the other a common thief. The baron (Jouvet) has stolen 30,000 rubbles from the ministry and lost it gambling. Pépel (Gabin) has come to rob the baron’s luxurious house and finds nothing worth stealing there. The baron, returning home in a suicidal mood, interrupts Pépel’s theft. Here in their first encounter, each opens the eyes of the other to the possibility of change. Each glimpses a new possibility, the baron, a life without things; Pépel a life without thefts.
Soon the baron appears at the flophouse. The baron finds himself in the swim of things there. If thousand – rubble game in the casino had turned his world upside down he finds life there: he can still indulge his passion in the three-kopek game in the flophouse. If he has lost his class he has found his life. He sheds luxury and prestige without regret. When Pépel finds life in the lower depths unbearable and proposes to leave the flophouse, he asks the baron what he will do. The baron replies without hesitation, “I’ll stay here.” He has no desire to go. Unlike Gorky’s baron, his descent from aristocracy has not been degrading but liberating.
After Pépel leaves the baron’s home carrying the bronze horses he steals some apples, then gives them to a child and tells him, “And if someday someone tells you Pépel is a thief, you’ll set them straight.” The film ends with homage to Chaplin’s Modern Times as the lovers walk off down the road of life.
Acting: The film, apart from its dark theme, is carried by the acting of the two main characters. The Gabin-Jouvet pairing is a masterstroke, with both actors providing fine performances that are charged with conviction and humanity. Despite their different backgrounds and approaches to their art, the two actors complement each other perfectly, the down-trodden and passionate proletarian played by Gabin making a poignant contrast with Jouvet’s ruined but nonchalant aristocrat.
The scene where the two characters meet and, realizing the absurdity of the barriers which separate them, become friends is one of the enduring moments of the film, and is certainly in keeping with the ethos of the Popular Front.
The large supporting cast gives the film its richness and color, with notable performances from Suzy Prim, Robert Le Vigan.
I can still savour the wonderful opening shot of the film: Jouvet stands upright, the only figure on screen, in the centre of the frame, silent but with an occasional superior smirk escaping him as his unseen superior rebukes him for embezzling ministry funds to pay off his gambling debts; and the camera swings round him first to the left and then further and further to the right finally to reveal his superior reflected in a mirror.
This single opening shot keys us to all the important features of the film: the priority given to star persona and performance; the degree to which the narrative differs from (adds to, opens out) Gorky’s original play; and the significance of Renoir’s camera style of this time, characterized by deep-focus depth-of-field, the moving camera, and the revelation of off-screen space, the world extending beyond the limits of the frame” (brightlights films.com- Ian Johnston)
Akira Kurosawa and Renoir
Both Renoir and Kurosawa
 adapted it each with his distinct genius leaving its impress. Donald Richie calls Akira Kurosawa’s film of The Lower Depths a miracle of ensemble playing. In contrast Renoir makes of the play a vehicle for two fine actors, Louis Jouvet and Jean Gabin. The action of Kurosawa’s film occurs completely within the flophouse, as does the play, but less than half of Renoir’s Lower Depths takes place there. Still the flophouse remains, visually, the most interesting locale in the film, with its chiaroscuro lighting and dramatic shadows, its rough bricks, rude stairways, and old wooden posts that often divide the screen vertically or project diagonally across the frame and its length that lends itself so well to deep focus cinematography.
When Akira Kurosawa made his version of The Lower Depths in 1957 he had seen Renoir’s film. It was perhaps that which led him to try it himself. Unlike Renoir, Kurosawa follows Gorky almost scene for scene. In a style that resembles Renoir’s in its long takes and deep focus cinematography Kurosawa creates his flophouse as the locus of a world. But by the sheer vitality of the life in his film manages to overthrow the despair and pathos that permeate the play.
Kurosawa greatly admired Jean Renoir and his own decision to write an autobiography was prompted by reading Renoir’s My Life and My Films “and by the terrific impression Renoir left on me when I met him—the feeling that I would like to grow old in the same way he did.”
Kurosawa’s Lower Depths shows the power that could be achieved in cinema by staying close to the text and setting of Gorky’s work. Renoir did not see Kurosawa’s film until 1977. He watched it with great interest, then remarked, “That is a much more important film than mine.”
Although overshadowed by Renoir’s subsequent masterpieces (La Grande Illusion was made straight after this film), Les Bas-fonds is an impressive work, which, through its very evident humanity, remains a surprisingly modern film. This film was awarded the first Prix Louis Delluc in 1937.

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