Wednesday, May 15, 2013


The Baron (Louis Jouvet) gets a dressing down from a government minister; he has borrowed some "secret funds" for gambling and has lost the money. Seeming unconcerned, he makes one more effort to win big, but loses. That night, a thief named Pépel (Jean Gabin) breaks into the Baron's house, but when the Baron tells him that everything of value has been repossessed, the two bond over their dire straits in life, and the Baron comes to stay at the squalid boarding house where Pépel stays. Pépel has his hands full staying out of the hands of the law and dallying with Vassilissa, the young wife of the elderly landlord Kostylev, and Natasha, Vassilissa's sister. Other characters we get to know include a down-on-his-luck actor (Robert Le Vigan) who keeps telling people that he is an "organism poisoned by alcohol," a young, whimsical and frequently drunken accordion player (Maurice Baquet), a cobbler and his dying wife, and a fat police inspector who has set his cap for Natasha. Pépel's love triangle takes center stage until the end when one character commits suicide and another is killed in a brawl—the police are told that it was his life in "the lower depths" that killed him.

Based on a Maxim Gorky play, Jean Renoir's film version retains most of the Russian names (and at least in the subtitles, the Russian currency of rubles) but is set in Paris. For a good chunk of its running time, this almost comes off as a French version of YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU, though one in which Kostylev (the Lionel Barrymore equivalent) is a rotten bastard instead of a sweet fairy-godfather figure. The flophouse, through grungy, is large and open and filled with colorful people, and generally seems like a pleasant place to stay. Gabin and Jouvet (pictured above), who were two of France's most esteemed actors of the time, have a wonderful chemistry together—better than Gabin has with either of his lovers, though Suzy Prim as Vassilissa is fine as a woman you love to hate who is occasionally likeable. Renoir's style feels very modern, with a moving camera that occasionally passes behind objects which obscure the action briefly, as if we were spying unseen on the characters. Another dramatic piece this movie conjures up is Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, in which the down-and-out denizens of a bar are stripped of their illusions by a truth-teller. Here, Gabin is a kind of truth-teller, but he allows most of them to keep their illusions, and even gets a relatively happy ending himself—a weak but not fatal plot point. Some may find the light tone of the movie to clash too much with the underlying narrative—and Akira Kurasawa's version of the same material, made in 1957, is apparently darker and more faithful to Gorky, though I have not seen it—but this is still worth seeing, for Renoir's style and the two lead actors. [DVD]

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