The Lower Depths (Jean Renoir / France, 1936):
(Les Bas Fonds; Underworld)

The text is Gorky’s, the names and the whiskers are Russian, yet the world here is wholly French, or, rather, wholly Jean Renoir’s -- claustrophobia is supposed to reign, yet his camera can’t resist pulling back and panning freely to take in the spectacle of Maurice Baquet’s accordion-slamming clowning. Boudu and Le Crime de M. Lange are spotted amid the dwellers of the flophouse, where Jean Gabin goes about his business as a burglar and carries on with Suzy Prim, the wife of the old landlord (Vladimir Sokoloff). Somewhere in the upper depths, the Baron (Louis Jouvet) challenges his fate at the casino in a Lubitschian sketch: Jouvet at the baccarat table, a chanteuse tells the tale ("All trades are equal on this earth / Each has his hour and his task"), a close-up spots the cigarette that can’t be lit. Jouvet’s mansion is being repossessed the next morning, he finds Gabin there with a gun. "To hell with logic, I was raised with certain manners": Renoir tracks toward the window at dusk and back at dawn, ruined aristocrat and principled thief have become best friends over wine and veal (City Lights). The cramping of literary adaptations is dispersed via spacious, sun-dappled technique, staging a confrontation between Gabin and his lover in front of a second-story window with the deep-focus courtyard visible below, then circling around an al fresco bistro until the ingénue (Junie Astor) is located at the table trying to fight off some Oliver Hardy’s advances. If Jouvet dreams of dozing in the grass after a life of changing uniforms, Gabin yearns to be tamed by romance. To be alive is to deal with such stimuli, all conflicting and all valid. Next to it, death is an easy escape -- the old man (René Génin) soothes the sick with tales of mortal relief, the broken-down actor (Robert Le Vigan) embraces it with a flourish from Shakespeare -- which to Renoir cannot compare to the open road of life. With Jany Holt, Paul Temps, and André Gabriello. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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