The Lower Depths (1936)


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The Lower Depths (1936) Review

Jean Renoir's The Lower Depths was released in 1936, a brief historical moment before his Grand Illusion of 1938 and The Rules of the Game of 1940. The latter pair of films long ago joined the pantheon of enduring cinema, glittering agelessly in textbooks and on the programs of festivals in the rarified company of titles such as The Battleship Potemkin and The Passion of Joan of Arc. The Lower Depths both gains and loses by its proximity to Renoir's later masterpieces: It's not one of them them, but the same guy made it. It's tempting to think of the film as merely a lot of fun. But then again, something else is working here, too.

Adapted from Maxim Gorky's original play, The Lower Depths follows the tawdry goings-on of a group of flophouse denizens whose lives are complicated by love, crime, a pair of unsavory landlords, and above all poverty. The primaries in this cast of miscreants are the thief Pépel (Jean Gabin), a baron whose taste for games of chance has stripped him of his wealth (Louis Jouvet), the miserly landlord and sometime fence for Pépel's goods (Vladimir Sokoloff), his shrill wife (Suzy Prim), and her beautiful and available sister (Junie Astor). An alcoholic actor, a prostitute with a longing for true romance, and a pilgrim of questionable sagacity function as secondaries. Driving the action is a complicated love affair being conducted by Pépel and the landlady; she's in love, he isn't. Or rather, he is, but not with her. The object of his true affections is her lovely sister Natasha.

Described this way, the plot sounds heavy-going, but in fact Renoir brings to the proceedings his usual, singular humanity and a sure balance of lightheartedness and gravitas. In this, he's abetted inestimably by the faultless cast he's assembled. Gabin, a handsome matinee idol of 1930s France, conveys the essential dignity of the down-and-out blue collar hero, despite his occupation as house-breaker; his scenes with Jouvet, a comic marvel as the debauched baron, are buddy film material taken to a plane of ethereal sophistication. Astor is a real beauty, and playing Gabin's true love she's both vulnerable and not, as Katharine Hepburn often was. (Had this film been in English, I suspect that her likeness would be familiar around the world to this day.) As the landlords, Sokoloff and Prim radiate distinct yet significant threat.

But Renoir's greatest gift was his extraordinarily limpid directorial style. In The Lower Depths he draws attention to himself more than usual, primarily through the use of some very amusing camera work; when Jouvet is introduced, for instance, the camera circles his unapologetic -- even amused -- form as he is upbraided for his debts, and a pair of extraordinary tracking shots bracket a disastrous visit to a restaurant by our hero and his drunken girl. Yet even given these, the extent to which Renoir absents himself is remarkable. What director could show a similar restraint today?

The Lower Depths was also adapted to the screen by Akira Kurosawa in 1957, and both versions of the film, with a generous supply of extras, are newly available from the Criterion Collection. Of these, Renoir's take on the story gets my nod, but both versions have been hard to find, and I'm grateful to Criterion for the chance to compare.

Aka Les Bas-fonds.