Collapsing Columns
Mise-en-scene in Boudu

by Richard Abel

from Jump Cut, no. 5, 1975, pp. 20-22
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004

For U.S. students of cinema, BOUDU SAVED FROM DROWNING holds a unique place in he oeuvre of Jean Renoir.(1) Since none of his earlier sound films is available for l6mm rental in the United States, BOUDU becomes our introduction to Renoir’s development of a distinctive style that integrates the two deepest impulses of his art—affection for all human beings and extreme dissatisfaction with existing social orders, especially that of the French bourgeoisie. In BOUDU, a crucial means of this integration is an unusually calculated mise-en-scene that depends on a sustained use of “deep focus” cinematography(2) and the contrast between vertical and horizontal forms.

Previous analyses of BOUDU have either ignored its mise-en-scene(3) or sought to make it conform to the popular view of Renoir as a   “humanist making films which are careless in form but rich in feeling and in an ‘affirmation of life’...” (4) The young André Bazin, for instance, believed Renoir’s mise-en-scene created a “democratic style” in which the audience is given “... a certain freedom to select for themselves with their own eyes from among the elements which the image contains, and thus far to participate in the film’s creation.” (5) William S. Pechter accepted this definition with the modification that it really frees the characters (not the audience) to interact in accordance with their own natural rhythms: “... the sense of liberation with which Renoir’s films leave us is not only our own but that of those characters themselves.” (6) Neither accurately describes the style of BOUDU, nor do they describe the style of many other Renoir films. To his credit, Bazin seems to have realized this, for he later explained the function of Renoir’s mise-en-scene quite differently:

“... by uniting foreground, middle ground, and background, by not setting the different planes off against one another, the actor is completely entwined with, and works in direct relationship to, his total setting. Every element of the reality on the screen, whether animate or inanimate, is interdependent.”(7)

Unfortunately, Bazin was unable to develop the implications of his perception.(8) For, in BOUDU, Renoir uses “deep focus” and graphic contrast in a number of specific ways: 1) to juxtapose the natural world Boudu inhabits and the civilized world of the Lestingois family, 2) to contrast lateral and penetrating movements of the characters in such away that the latter help create the film’s structure, and 3) to express the constricting, deceptively compartmentalizing nature of the bourgeois world view. This last he achieves (contra Bazin) by deliberately “setting the different planes off against one another” within the frame.

BOUDU SAVED FROM DROWNING has for its theme the comic juxtaposition of opposites: the spirit of anarchic freedom versus the forces of social constraint and obligation. As Gerald Mast and others have noted, this is expressed most simply in the characterization—in the contrast between the unruly, dog-like, cherubic Boudu and the “humanistic,” class-conscious members of the Lestingois household, between the man of nature and the man of culture, between the vagabond and the bourgeoisie. The theme also grows naturally out of the plot. Lestingois saves Boudu from near-suicide in the Seine and then the vagrant him carried into his own bookshop and apartment. There, with gross impenitence, Boudu proceeds to casually disrupt the “normal” conventions of the family—from lying on tables to spitting on Lestingois’ cherished copy of The Physiognomy of Marriage by that famous recorder of the emerging bourgeois class, Honore de Balzac. By the end, Lestingois has been cuckolded and his home nearly destroyed, while Boudu drifts peacefully away down river. Like Luis Buñuel, Renoir, too, takes pleasure in satirizing the bourgeoisie.

However, BOUDU’s theme is expressed most interestingly in the composition of visual space which surrounds and includes these characters. Renoir’s mise-en-scene here is expectedly “deep focus.” But its effect is hardly that of an open, indefinite space to give the characters free movement. Instead, from the beginning, it functions most importantly to suggest through different planes of action and space something about the bourgeois world Lestingois inhabits.

The film opens with a long shot of a stage (a la Méliès) with a painted backdrop of a formal garden and with two white columns to the left. A nymph comes running into the frame pursued by a short, squat Priapus. She finally allows herself to be caught, and the two embrace quietly. A dissolve and pan around the bookshop interior take us to Lestingois (who played Priapus) embracing his maid Anne-Marie (the nymph), calling her Chloe and describing his love for her in terms of pastoral convention. Anne-Marie soon goes upstairs to prepare dinner. Lestingois sits down at his desk, and his wife Emma comes in the front door which opens on a busy street along the Seine’s left bank.

The dissolve and ensuing dialogue reveal the scene of Priapus and Chloe to be Lestingois’ literary vision of his own relationship with Anne-Marie. Renoir deliberately emphasized the two-dimensionality of this image by using a highly artificial backdrop and having his characters in stereotyped costumes move laterally on stage. This sets up a contrast with the sense of space in his bookshop and apartment, especially in three successive shots. After Anne Marie has gone upstairs, the camera remains in the corridor outside the kitchen door through which she passes and idly stands twirling a pan. The next (long) shot shows Lestingois pulling open the window curtains behind his desk before he sits down. In the small inner courtyard a neighbor woman is seen washing clothes in a tub. The last shot shows the front door and window looking out on the street as Emma appears and comes through the door and past the camera.

Renoir’s purpose here is to contrast the imaginary and real space of Lestingois’ two worlds, but also to suggest something more. For the interior of Lestingois’ apartment and bookshop is carefully isolated from the outside world. The doors and windows serve to separate one plane of action or space from another. they function as barriers and as means of definition. Behind them Lestingois can maintain his private idyll and also later spy on the people passing by. Furthermore, the described space of the apartment also carefully separates Lestingois and Anne-Marie, as propriety and social role require. Thus, swiftly and simply, does Renoir set up the facade of bourgeois life for attack.

At the end of a shot following a toy sailboat on a pond (later boats will be means of rescue and escape), we meet Boudu in a very different visual space, the parks and streets of Paris. The natural landscape of the opening fantasy is now quite real in its three-dimensionality. Boudu wanders freely through it at a singularly clumsy, erratic pace. His actions are natural enough in this setting, but they seem ridiculous or irritating to other people who also use the parks. This may help explain why Boudu looks oddly lost and later, unexpectedly, jumps into the Seine. Unconscious of his struggling rescuers, he is carried into the bookshop in two shots which emphasize his physical penetration of its space. In one, he is rushed directly towards the camera through the front door that holds back the crowd of curious Parisians. In the second, he seems to emerge from the camera lens as he is taken straight to the bookseller’s desk.

In this very different world Boudu awakes unchanged. His natural gestures become even more comically incongruous as he blithely accepts Lestingois’ patronizing interest in him. Though a guest, his intruding nature quickly surfaces. This is especially so when, sleeping by the hallway stairs, he keeps his host from having a nightly tryst with the maid. Lestingois’ ability to sustain his idyll within the physical space of his home is suddenly challenged. The social arrangement he had used as a facade for his actions now serves to keep the lovers apart. Confined to their rooms, they are linked now ironically in separate shots—which include the sleeping Emma and Boudu—by the same soft flute music which underscored the opening fantasy. Lestingois opens his window on the courtyard and, seeing nothing, closes it to sit alone in the dark.

From this point on, Renoir begins to describe the apartment by using “deep focus” to develop this newly-discovered awareness of confinement. The first shot of the next scene establishes this effect clearly for the remaining interior scenes. From just inside Emma’s bedroom, the camera shoots through a corridor and sitting room to the dining room where the family is gathered for dinner. The dining room actively occupies a small space on the left side of the frame which is dominated by the walls of the bedroom and corridor. Suddenly, as Anne-Marie moves left out of the dining room, the camera moves left and parallel to her, following her through several opposite windows opening on the courtyard. She stops in the kitchen and comes to the window, and the camera dollies up closer to its window frame (in Lestingois’ bedroom) as she asks the washerwoman below for some matches.(9)

This unusual shot expresses much more about space than it does about character. In it we get a succinct view of most of the apartment’s second floor, whose chief attribute seems to be a set of regular geometrical planes and volumes. And their effect, especially that of the corridors and windows, is to enclose and constrain. Here, in one shot and two simple camera movements, Renoir conveys the stifling order and restrictiveness of the bourgeois world. The same sense of space also characterizes several later shots of Boudu as he tries to maneuver through the apartment’s rooms. And it culminates, just before Emma’s seduction, in a shot of Lestingois’ walking away from her bedroom through the same corridor and dining room, muttering impotently about Boudu, as Emma remains standing in the left foreground. Turning to the window, she listens to a calliope in the street below. The window lets the lively rhythm of the street reach her ears, but it also keeps her within the deadly sterility of her home. Although the space in the apartment has an extreme depth of three-dimensionality, it clearly restricts, channels, compartmentalizes, and deadens human activity—to both Emma’s and Lestingois’ dissatisfaction.

In the seduction scene and its aftermath, Renoir again uses the visual space around his characters, especially separate planes of action, to resolve his theme. The seduction makes an ironic contrast with the film’s opening scenes. Boudu attacks and subdues Erna (with little resistance) before etchings of a bugler and drummer, just as Priapus chased Chloe before a painted backdrop in Lestingois’ fantasy. But now as the camera dollies in towards the bugler, on the soundtrack march music erupts from a full band. The camera holds on a full shot of the bugler and then suddenly cuts to a small brass band actually parading down the street outside: The next shot is of Lestingois looking up from his desk, with the window open on the courtyard behind him, followed by a shot through the front door as the band marches up and stops in the middle of the street. The group finishes its piece quickly and comes through the door into the shop to happily congratulate Lestingois. The city, they announce, has awarded him a medal for saving Boudu. He is a public hero.

Renoir seems to have enjoyed the irony of this scene immensely. He even goes so far as to link the movement of characters and camera here with that of the opening scene and that of Boudu’s entrance into the house. A real Priapus has usurped Lestingois’ place in his own home, disrupted his affair, and taken possession of his wife (besides playing bookseller in his doorway). The civilized fantasy of pastoral love, underscored by flute music, has given way to a bugler and band and exuberant, anarchical lust.

Yet Lestingois persists in the illusion that his world is secure within and properly ordered for all to see. And for him, Renoir disguises the extent of the change by having the outside world invade his premises just as Boudu takes his wife. For the audience, however, the clearly defined planes of action and space set up in the beginning of the film have begun to collapse all around him. That collapse is finally complete when Boudu and Emma, who is now attacking him before a wall covered with prints and paintings, accidentally break down the door to Anne-Marie’s room. They discover Lestingois and the maid embracing on the bed. The compartmentalization of space and illusion of order is destroyed at last, and the anarchy underlying even the bourgeois home is revealed.

This climactic scene of discovery takes us back once more to the opening scene of Lestingois’ fantasy. While chasing Chloe, Priapus bumps into one of the fake columns on stage, and barely saves it from toppling over. This simple act of a column collapsing becomes a metaphor for the film’s central action.(10) The column—with its connotation of support, stability, even rigidity—introduces the vertical lines and forms which dominate Lestingois’ bookshop and apartment. In conjunction with the separate planes of space, they convey the illusory stability of the bourgeois world. Even the regular rows of park trees early in the film contribute to this impression and seem to threaten Boudu. Priapus in the satyr play, of course, in reality becomes Boudu. Among the vertical lines of Lestingois’ apartment he is a distinct anomaly—lying on tables, sleeping curled upon the floor, standing on his head in the hall, suspending himself sideways in doorways. His clumsy movements and unusual positions continually disrupt the orderly space of the frame. And when he does get a haircut and shave, to match his new clothes, his stiff striding walk in returning home becomes a parody of the straight-backed gentleman. In all this, he resembles closely the famous U.S. destroyer of order, that blithe spirit of anarchy—Harpo Marx.(11)

For Renoir, the antidote to the rigid verticality of bourgeois space lies in the horizontal flow of the river in nature. This movement is emphasized most clearly in the final sequence of BOUDU. The camera dollies back slowly and gently from the outdoor orchestra and we discover we are gliding with the wedding party on a small river. Lestingois has turned the marriage ceremony into a pastoral idyll which resembles his earlier fantasy—the two couples drifting blissfully in a real landscape (with the flute-player now rowing). Priapus’ anarchy seems contained and civilized until, ever so casually, Boudu upsets the boat and floats away as his benefactors flounder frantically ashore.

This is the open, indefinite world which is his natural habitat, and in it the civilized Lestingoises do not fare well.(12) Boudu simply drifts with the current, floating on his back, and rolling over several times like an animal at ease in its environment. Later on shore, he pulls the clothes off a scarecrow, throwing the upright pole to the ground. Our last view of him has the old vagabond comfortably outstretched in the grass. The camera follows his discarded hat floating on the water’s surface, until it comes to rest against an iron rod jutting out of the water, and then continues panning slowly from one end of the river to the other. In these final scenes Renoir confirms Boudu’s identity with the river and clearly allies his sympathies with the freedom and anarchy it has come to symbolize.

This analysis of BOUDU rests on the “materiality” of space surrounding the characters and their interaction with it (not only with one another). It confirms that the real object of Renoir’s criticism is not the characters but the world they have created or accepted for themselves. It is the physical space they inhabit, their bourgeois home. Through the intrusive character of Boudu and the composition of space in Lestingois’ apartment, Renoir develops the idea of bourgeois society as a trap and deception, not only for Boudu, but for the Lestingois family as well. For all the characters are caught in his mise-en-scene. In his penetration and disruption of the apartment’s space, Boudu perpetrates the collapse of the bourgeois order. In returning to nature by taking us out on the river, Renoir creates a new world of momentary harmony and peace. But that world collapses all too easily—not only from Lestingois’ need for re-establishing the old order—but from Boudu’s blind impulsiveness and, most importantly, because of the ambiguous calm of the river itself.

Like Boudu—who “... in his lack of feelings for others ... refuses social and human relationships altogether”(13)—the river, too, has its dark side. After all, Boudu tries to commit suicide in the Seine, and the wedding party comes close to drowning in the waters of a supposed pastoral idyll. Renoir’s point seems to be that nature—and the spirit of anarchy—is not all that benevolent. Since the river is the main catalyst of the film, recognition of this fact by the characters becomes paramount.(14) It is the river that sends Boudu from the world of the vagabond into the world of the bourgeoisie, which he nearly destroys but which also nearly entraps him—in marriage. Here, too, sex is not all that benevolent. It may be liberating for Emma and the source of revelation for the family, but it is also the means by which Boudu is almost “initiated” into society.(15) In fact, he acquires the two absolute requisites of bourgeois life—money and a wife.(16) In the end, too, it is the river that returns him to his old world, grateful perhaps, but little the wiser for his experience. For Lestingois, the matter seems different. The encounter with Boudu, and then the river, leaves him huddled on the riverbank with his two women and their friends, modestly obscured by leafy branches. They still form a community, but in their nakedness they have a new knowledge of themselves and their world. Boudu returns to an Eden of unconscious bliss, while the Lestingoises cling to one another in an Eden after the Fall and the cold dawning of knowledge and, perhaps, even a little wisdom.

Though certainly a celebration of anarchy and nature, BOUDOU represents even more Renoir’s earliest attempt to clear the ground for a new community, in which the spirit of anarchic freedom may flourish. In later films, such as THE CRIME OF MONSIEUR LANGE (1935), PEOPLE OF FRANCE ... (1936), and even GRAND ILLUSION (1937), he will explore the possibility of a new human community to replace the old order that has passed away.(17) But with the failure of the Popular Front by 1937, that possibility dims. Just before the outbreak of war in 1939, Renoir issues his last critique of the old order that was to disappear and yet dodders on, the tragi-comic masterpiece, RULES OF THE GAME. Of all other Renoir films from the thirties, only BOUDU SAVED FROM DROWNING approaches the level of satire in RULES OF THE GAME. That is no small achievement.


1. Although first screened in France in 1932, BOUDU was not shown in the United States until February 23, 1967, at Daniel Talbot’s New Yorker Theatre in New York City.

2. Renoir himself first emphasized this quality of his cinematography in “Souvenirs,” Le Point XVIII (Decembre 1938), p. 281.

3. Leo Braudy, Jean Renoir: The World of his Films , New York: Doubleday, 1971; Gerald Mast, The Comic Mind , New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973.

4. William S. Pechter, “Radical Freedom: Aspects of Jean Renoir,” Twenty-four Times a Second (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), p. 195.

5. Ibid., pp. 200-201.

6. Ibid, p. 202.

7. André Bazin, “The Camera—The Screen” (from “Renoir, Français,” Cahiers du Cinéma VIII, January 1952), Jean Renoir , ed. Pierre Leprohon, trans. Brigid Elson (New York: Crown, 1971), p. 200.

8. The uncompleted manuscript of his book on Renoir was published, as Jean Renoir, Paris: Editions Champ Libre, 1971.

9. This shot is comparable, in uniqueness and startling expressiveness, to the 360° pan that follows Lange and then circles the courtyard opposite him to catch the shooting of Batala in THE CRIME OF MONSIEUR LANGE (1935). It also may be prefigured in a scene with Michel Simon shaving by a courtyard window in LA CHIENNE (1931).

10. I owe this insight and some of the following observations to a student in my “Introduction to Film” class, Kaye Ross.

11. Renoir’s debt to U.S. film comics has gone largely unnoticed. In A DAY IN THE COUNTRY, for instance, he models Dufour and Anatole clearly on Laurel and Hardy.

12. Cf. the similar experience of the Parisian Dufour family who go on a country outing in A DAY IN THE COUNTRY (1936).

13. Braudy, p. 115.

14. Cf. the significance of the river in A DAY IN THE COUNTRY

15. There is a strange mythic resonance here. In the Gilgamesh epic, for instance, the wild man Enkidu is brought into the city of Ur by means of a prostitute.

16. Mast, p. 240.

17. See Goffredo Fofi, “The Cinema of the Popular Front in France (1934-38),” Screen XIII, 4 (Winter, 1972/73), pp. 5-57.