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Currently playing at the AK film club: Tora! Tora! Tora! (Fleischer-Fukasaku-Masuda 1970)

Film Club: The Lower Depths (Jean Renoir, 1936)

Renoir The Lower DepthsFollowing our quiet contemplation of Kurosawa’s The Lower Depths in January, our film club will continue its progress and move onto Jean Renoir’s 1936 film of the same (or titled Les Bas-fonds in its original French).

Both works are, of course, based on Maxim Gorky’s play. Yet, the two take very different approaches to the source.

Despite the fact that Kurosawa moves the action to Japan while Renoir at least on the surface keeps it in Russia, Kurosawa’s film follows the original play much more closely. Renoir takes many liberties with both the plot and the characters, and much of the first half of the film is in fact not even spent at the lower depths of the boarding house, but in high society.

Similarly, while Kurosawa’s film is a tour de force of ensemble acting, Renoir focuses more on some characters than others, making Pepel (played by the always excellent Jean Gabin) a definite lead character whose story we are following. As a result, the two works are also rhythmically very different, with Kurosawa following Gorky’s almost plotless procession, while Renoir is able to make use of a more standard narrative plot progression. And while with both Gorky and Kurosawa one can validly question whether there is any way out of the empty illusions and dreams of those stuck in the lower depths, Renoir provides the possibility and a concrete example of redemption.

The difference between the two approaches may well have something to do with the origins of the two films. While Kurosawa admired Gorky’s play and other Russian literature of the era, according to the Alexander Sesonske’s essay published with the Criterion edition of the film, and also available on Criterion’s website, Renoir’s adaptation of The Lower Depths had its origins in the European political landscape of the 1930s, with the rise of Nazism in Germany and that of the Popular Front in France. This difference is visible also when comparing the two films, as Kurosawa’s Lower Depths tackles the story with the theme of human condition in mind, whereas Renoir’s Lower Depths is arguably more restricted to sociological questions.

Kurosawa greatly admired Renoir, both as a director and a human being. In the preface to his autobiography, Kurosawa mentions Renoir’s own autobiography as the main reason he finally decided to write one himself. He also mentions the time the two directors met, which left Kurosawa with “the feeling that I would like to grow old in the same way [Renoir] did” (xii).

Teruyo Nogami, in her book Waiting on the Weather, also describes this meeting that according to her took place in Paris. She specifically mentions that Kurosawa had been particularly eager to discuss Gorky and The Lower Depths with Renoir, only to have the French director tell him that the French film “is not The Lower Depths. It is completely different from the original work.” (281)

One reason for Renoir’s hesitation to discuss The Lower Depths may have been that he had not in fact at that point yet seen Kurosawa’s adaptation. According to Sesonske’s essay (which actually suggests that the above meeting took place in Los Angeles in Spring 1976), Renoir ultimately saw Kurosawa’s film in 1977. “He watched it with great interest, then remarked, ‘That is a much more important film than mine.’”

Would you agree with Renoir’s assessment and why?

Renoir’s The Lower Depths is available in a Region 1 DVD from Criterion, which also includes Kurosawa’s film. The set can be bought for instance at Amazon.com.

Our film club’s target next month will be Kurosawa’s 1958 work The Hidden Fortress. For home video availability, see Kurosawa DVDs.

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Discussion: 7 Comments »

#1


Ugetsu



A very enjoyable film! I’ve just finished watching it now.

I’m amazed at just how different it is from Kurosawas version. The whole first act of course is entirely new. Renoir clearly did everything he could to make it into pure cinema – I doubt anyone unaware of its background would guess its theatrical origins. Yet ironically, I think Kurosawa, in embracing its theatricality, actually made a better film.

Renoirs version is clearly much funnier and more light-hearted. I think this creates a somewhat awkward tension with the downbeat and tragic elements of the original story. He almost pulls it off, but not quite I think. Jean Gabin and Louis Jouvet are fantastic in the lead roles, they make the film. But oh…. Jany Holt as Nastasia, what a terrible performance! She creates a giant black hole everytime she’s on screen. On the screen notes of my Criterion version it says Renoir was told to cast her by the producer, and did everything he could to improve her performance, but he is quoted as saying she just didn’t have the face or the acting ability. However, according to imdb, she seems to have had quite a long and fairly distinguished career, so I wonder if Renoir has to take some of the blame. Its a pretty serious problem in the film, as its very hard to see why Pepel or the Inspector would be so interested in her.


 

#2


Vili Maunula



I think that you are spot on about the issue of theatrical influences, Ugetsu. Kurosawa, as so often, went to an extreme with the style for the film, and it worked. Renoir’s on the other hand lacks any special character.

Kurosawa of course thought that his own film was funny. Which it is, but not really ha-ha feel good funny, which Renoir’s film can be. Maybe Renoir’s is a little too feel good. Even the actor’s death doesn’t really carry much weight.

Holt is indeed quite poor in the film, but I felt that a big reason for that is the script, which doesn’t really give her much to play with. Or maybe Renoir wanted to minimise the damage? You are right that Holt seems to have had a long career, but this still seems to have been only her fourth film. Not everyone can produce a Drunken Angel style show stealing performance in their fourth outing. :wink:

Thinking back, perhaps my biggest issue with the film was that it just didn’t feel like Russia. So much so that any time they mentioned rubles, I caught myself wondering why they are using rubles in France. It felt very French throughout.

But all in all, Renoir’s Lower Depths is definitely a good film. It is actually the third Renoir film that I have watched in the past half a year, as I have been catching up with films that I feel I should be familiar with. The other two films were, of course, The Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion, the latter which I greatly enjoyed, while The Rules of the Game left me a little puzzled about its universal acclaim (it is by no means a bad film, and technically really well made of course, but the story often felt quite silly).

By the way, I never realised until today that Jean Renoir was actually the son of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the impressionist painter. I wonder if that contributed to Kurosawa’s admiration of Renoir (the filmmaker).


 

#3


Ugetsu



I’d agree very much with your comments, Vili. I think that the suicide of the actor wasn’t handled well, I think it didn’t have the emotional weight as in Kurosawa’s version. It looked ‘tacked on’, as if they were almost embarrassed to have this part of the play in the film. It just didn’t go with the generally more feel-good ending.

The script doesn’t do Holt any favours, but I’d contrast her to the actress who played the prostitute, who I think was quite memorable even though she had only a few lines. I thought she was also a lot more attractive, I couldn’t help thinking that if she had played Nastasia, it would have been more understandable that so many men were fighting over her. I think that Kyoko Kagawa did a much better job (with not much more help from the script) with showing a woman who was simultaneously downtrodden, but with enough spark to see why a man would change his life for her, while also making the way she betrayed the thief in the end quite believable.

As for the ‘Russian’ issue, I agree that it would have been much better if they’d just used a French setting. Or perhaps there was a reluctance to show so much corruption in the State? I wonder if the confusion in setting was deliberate – a way of subtly criticising the close links France and Russia had politically at the time.


 

#4


lawless



I liked the movie better than I expected to, but in the end, it completely betrayed its origins by presenting a falsely hopeful view of life in the lower depths. By focusing on a few characters, it also felt unbalanced in comparison to the original and Kurosawa’s version.

According to both IMDB and Wikipedia, Jany Holt played Nastia, the prostitute, and Junie Astor played Natacha, the landlady’s sister. Be that as it may, when I watched the film, I thought you had been discussing Suzy Prim, who played the landlady. She had the character’s brassiness down pat, but was to my mind very unattractive. I could maybe see why her husband had married her, but not why Papel became involved with her.

I did not dislike Astor’s performance as Natacha as much as the two of you did. She was physically attractive and meant to be a more innocent, naive character than the one in the play or Kurosawa’s movie. I disliked her storyline, though; having the Inspector (presumably the equivalent of the police officer who was related to the landlady in Kurosawa’s version) be a man who exploits Natacha’s vulnerability with her sister’s connivance is a non-canonical twist that I didn’t like. It was both melodramatic and overly conventional. And having her walk off into the sunset with Papel at the end was a betrayal of the source material.

I liked the interaction between Papel and the Baron; in fact, there was more chemistry between them than between Papel and Natacha, to the point where, bless my slashy heart, I saw Papel/the Baron as a more plausible romantic pairing than Papel/Natacha. After all, Papel and the Baron spent the night carousing together, something Papel wouldn’t dare do with Natacha. :wink: Since the script shows them getting along better than Papel and Natacha, I don’t think the lack of chemistry between Papel and Natacha can solely be laid at the performers’ feet, either.

In fact, I thought Gabin did a better job as the thief than Mifune did. (To my mind, Mifune, while good, was the weakest link in Kurosawa’s cast.) Jouvet and Renoir made something very different of the Baron than Chiaki and Kurosawa made of the equivalent character, the ex-samurai, as well. I wouldn’t exactly call it “better,” but it’s more colorful and entertaining.

While Renoir’s film is more light-hearted and optimistic than Kurosawa’s, I felt Kurosawa’s was actually funnier because of its absurdities and odd juxtapositions. Renoir’s movie was too conventional to bring that brutal kind of humor to the fore. And the backgrounding of the pilgrim/priest character completely obscured what I felt was the point of the original and of Kurosawa’s version about the desirability of illusions vs. the truth, which is why the actor’s suicide seems so out of place here.

I agree that the Frenchness of the setting in what was supposed to be Russia didn’t help any. Renoir should have made the setting explicitly French.

Vili – Could you do me a favor and summarize the plot of The Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion? I know I saw at least of them as part of the same foreign film series where I first saw Seven Samurai, Sanjuro, Rashomon, Yojimbo, and Throne of Blood, but I can’t remember which one it was. All I remember is a country house setting and possibly some type of escape.


 

#5


Ugetsu



Lawless

According to both IMDB and Wikipedia, Jany Holt played Nastia, the prostitute, and Junie Astor played Natacha, the landlady’s sister. Be that as it may, when I watched the film, I thought you had been discussing Suzy Prim, who played the landlady. She had the character’s brassiness down pat, but was to my mind very unattractive. I could maybe see why her husband had married her, but not why Papel became involved with her.

You are quite right, sorry for the incoherent post! I I was confused by Holts higher position in the imdb cast listings (very curious that it left Astors name at the bottom).

You are quite right of course that the bromance between the Baron and Papel was much more compelling. Maybe this was partly due to the script, but I’d suggest this was simply because those two actors were head and shoulders above the others in charisma, so it was inevitable.

I agree with you that the ‘happy ending’ of Papel and Natacha was a betrayal (its interesting that in the extras on the Criterion dvd there is an interview with Renoir who emphasises that Gorky was happy with the script – I think he protested too much). I have no problem in principle with a happy ending – I’ve never understood the implicit view of many that somehow tragic or sad endings somehow are more real or have more integrity than happy endings. But in this case its just wrong for the story and narrative. If Gorky was happy with it, I suspect he was being polite, or thinking of his share of the box office.

I also agree with you that Kurosawa’s version is actually funnier, I think it comes down to better timing and rhythm.

In fact, I thought Gabin did a better job as the thief than Mifune did. (To my mind, Mifune, while good, was the weakest link in Kurosawa’s cast.) Jouvet and Renoir made something very different of the Baron than Chiaki and Kurosawa made of the equivalent character, the ex-samurai, as well. I wouldn’t exactly call it “better,” but it’s more colorful and entertaining.

To an extent I agree with you, but I don’t think Mifune was a weak link. I think that Kurosawa (for once) curbed Mifunes ability to dominate the screen, to the benefit of the film. Renoir seems happy to have let the charisma of his actors loose, creating more of a star vehicle for his two lead actors.


 

#6


Vili Maunula



lawless: According to both IMDB and Wikipedia, Jany Holt played Nastia, the prostitute, and Junie Astor played Natacha, the landlady’s sister.

Thanks for spotting our error, Lawless! Apparently Astor in fact had quite a long career as well, and The Lower Depths was her 13th film.

lawless: While Renoir’s film is more light-hearted and optimistic than Kurosawa’s, I felt Kurosawa’s was actually funnier because of its absurdities and odd juxtapositions.

Well put!

lawless: Vili – Could you do me a favor and summarize the plot of The Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion?

Sure! You description of a country house and an escape could actually fit either film, but I think it probably was The Rules of the Game. Here’s how I remember them:

The Rules of the Game: A French aviator is in love with an Austrian woman who is married to a French aristocrat. The woman’s maid servant is in turn married to a German who maintains the hunting grounds at the aristocrat’s country estate. They all, together with other characters, spend a weekend at the estate, partying and shooting bunnies. Two problematic love triangles appear: one between the aviator and the Austrian woman (and her husband the aristocrat, plus later their friend who also has the hots for the woman), and one between a house servant and the maid servant (and her husband the German guy). Lots of shouting and running around takes place, especially with the latter group of people. In the confusion of things, the aviator ultimately gets shot by mistake.

Grand Illusion: French military officers are captured by Germans and taken prisoners of war. While maintaining a funnily friendly and gentlemanly relationship with their German captors, with whom those with aristocratic background even dine, the French nevertheless try to escape. Ultimately two manage to do so, and they end up at a German woman’s farm house, where they spend a winter (or summer?), as one of them is injured and the woman decides not to give them up to German soldiers, as they can help her with the farm and their presence also protects her young daughter. Despite no common language between them, the woman and one of the French guys fall in love. In the end, the two French guys leave to Switzerland, with promises to come back when the war ends.

Ugetsu: I have no problem in principle with a happy ending – I’ve never understood the implicit view of many that somehow tragic or sad endings somehow are more real or have more integrity than happy endings.

It’s probably related to the idea that comedies are somehow inferior to tragedies, although they are often (at least the good ones) much more difficult to create. But perhaps with a happy ending or a comedy you don’t always have the same impact on the audience, lessening the potential cathartic effect. Yet, I think it’s still just a matter of comedies and happy endings being more difficult to pull off properly, not them being inferior in some way.

With Renoir’s Lower Depths, I must agree with both of you in that here the happy ending didn’t really work that well.


 

#7


lawless



Ugetsu:

You are quite right of course that the bromance between the Baron and Papel was much more compelling. Maybe this was partly due to the script, but I’d suggest this was simply because those two actors were head and shoulders above the others in charisma, so it was inevitable.

I think it was due both to the script and to their charisma.

I agree that Kurosawa restrained Mifune somewhat, but I also felt that he was slightly miscast. The thief needed to be a little more suave than he played him to come off properly, imo. Gabin had that suavity; Mifune, not so much. Perhaps Kurosawa should have asked Mifune to channel the character he played in Scandal.

Vili — Thanks for the summaries. I can now definitively say that I know I’ve seen Grand Illusion. I’ve probably also seen The Rules of the Game. If I remembered them better, I’d probably put one or both of them (if one, probably Grand Illusion, as I remember more about it) on my list of favorites. I do remember liking them more wholeheartedly than, say, movies by Truffaut or Bergman that I saw as part of the same series.


 

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