Variations on Theme: Boudu, Toni, and Mother Nature

[Film analysis paper from 1999]

In ancient times, many cultures conceived of the world as a snake devouring itself, creating a continuous circle.  In modern times, film critic Andre Bazin had a similar conception.  He believed everything in reality was connected to everything else. The world, reality, is continuous, circular.  Before the rules of chaos theory, where a butterfly in Santiago can affect the weather in London, Bazin was using his theory to glorify auteur director Jean Renoir’s film style, extolling certain tendencies he saw as showing this continuous, interconnected philosophy of nature.  As a general way of deciphering Renoir’s style, Bazin highlighted the director’s habit of de-emphasizing the narrative to emphasize the sensual, physical world in which the narrative takes place.  Bazin pointed out several stylistic traits, from the use of non-professional actors and real locations to the use of deep staging and lateral reframing.  Bazin argued these traits draw attention away from what story is being told and to the world and characters through which the story is being told.

Renoir’s preference for showing the physical world ties in with the various themes he creates throughout his movies.  Bazin’s contentions apply throughout Renoir’s works as the director employs a consistent arsenal of traits to depict this continuous reality; however, there also exist thematic variations which are depicted through changes in these traits.  While Boudu Saved From Drowning and Toni both deal thematically with nature, their takes on man’s relationship with nature are opposites, and stylistic differences account for this discrepancy.  For Boudu, the world is open for him because he is one with the world.  For Toni, the world is a circle trapping him because he is out of step with the world.

Separated by only two years, Boudu and Toni share many stylistic traits that hearken back to Bazin’s conceptions.  A main one is his tendency to reveal the spatial continuance of reality rather than establish spatial relations through editing, even if it is not conducive to the narrative.  He has a preference to open or close scenes by focusing on details or lingering on setting.  When the audience is first introduced to M. Lestingois and Anne-Marie of Boudu, the scene starts on a marble bust and slowly the camera moves to find the two lovers.  Opening such a scene on a detail is also how Boudu is introduced, by first focusing on the movement of a boat and then tracking until he is found under a tree.  While this may not seem like a typical establishing shot, it actually sets up the environment better than a still shot because the camera moves through it, giving the setting a sense of all three-dimensions.  When a scene is ended by being held on a seemingly unimportant detail, it gives the environment more precedence because that is where it lingers or focuses.  Boudu gives the rich man his money and leaves, but instead of cutting the shot lingers on the man and lets Boudu wander off to the background, creating the three-dimension feel.

 

Focusing on details to begin a scene is not as prevalent in Toni.  Its major occurrence comes when Gaby is writing a letter and the camera pulls back to show the entire unhappy family in their little room.  More common is lingering on some aspect of nature to end a scene and thus show the world in which these people live.  When Toni first arrives at Marie’s house, instead of going inside, the camera actually pans to show the town.  Both times the camera catches the workers going to town, the workers leave the frame and the camera tilts up to the bridge.  These camera movements, unlike those in Boudu, introduce the world more than the characters.  But, regardless, they all serve the purpose of revealing the physical surroundings and showing the characters places in these locations.

Revealing spatial relationships was also accomplished by using apertures (doors, windows, etc.) to reveal planes of space as seamless with previous ones, without the false feeling which plagues editing.  The use of apertures is more common in Boudu, first appearing when M. Lestingois opens a curtain to reveal a wash woman.  Such a technique also figures highly in the climax of the story when a simple door opening reveals the two adulterous couples to each other.  In Toni, the use of apertures to reveal additional space is not nearly as complex and usually just  reveals a character rather than another plane of space.  Towards the end a knock on the window causes Josefa to open it and find Gaby, and in this fashion they plot how to steal the money from Albert.  These two differences begin to show the main differences in style between the films, but more about their similarities.

Another strong similarity is the use of sound to draw the attention of camera and viewer alike off-screen, thus revealing a whole new location that is related to the one before it.  This sound in Boudu is akin to sound bridges because they usually blanket cuts.  One in particular is repeated throughout: the flutist whose song is heard in shots concerning the Lestingois household before a cut reveals him playing on a balcony nearby.  This techniques is applied again for a musician in the street and a parade bringing M. Lestingois his medal; the latter usage is a curious example for it occurs when Boudu seduces Mme. Lestingois.  In this scene, they go down and out of frame, and the camera tracks in on a painting of a trumpet player.  Only then does the sound of real trumpets play, causing the spectator at first to believe the sound is a non-diegetic commentary on the action in the scene until it cuts to parade outside, thus assuring its place in the reality of the diegesis.

In Toni, the usage is not restricted to music.  Although it is used often by having the singers draw attention off-screen, such as the opening of the film, people speaking also serve the same function.  However, when people are speaking off-screen, instead of cutting to show them the camera will typically perform a lateral reframing to bring them into view.  This is the way Josefa is introduced.  She is heard talking to her uncle but is not seen until the camera moves to find her.  A reverse of this situation occurs in the scene when Sebastian is discussing baptizing his niece.  The camera is first on the niece and Josefa while Sebastian talks, then finally moves to show to whom he is talking.  This camera movement seems to be a tighter way of displaying spatial relationships; because a simple camera movement is all it takes to reveal the source of the noise, the space actually seems smaller than when a cut is needed to show disparate locations.

This discrepancy in sound usage begins to show the differences in style and their connections to the variations in theme.  The variation begins to materialize with the use of apertures to frame action.  Both films use this technique extensively–in Toni an explosion in the background is actually framed by two trees in the middle ground–but the actions which occur in these framings are not the same.  In Boudu, Boudu is usually the character caught in a doorway; however, he does not act like he is caught.  That is, he usually performs some type of action which can be taken as free-spirited.  He sits in the frame, using the edges to prop himself up.  On one occasion he uses it to catch Anne-Marie in his legs.  Only on one occasion is he terribly stoic; this occurs when the entire household is sitting at the table and the camera catches them far in the background.  This is quite similar to the framing of Toni.  When Gaby and Toni find Josefa after she killed Albert, they just stand in the door, then Gaby leaves Toni to stand there as if stuck within its frame.  Gaby, at the end of the scene, leaves and is seen going up the path but is totally framed within the doorway.  There is none of the free-spiritedness of Boudu but a resignation to the limits of the world in which they find themselves.

The contrast is seen in the use of deep focus and staging.  The classic example is Boudu doing the handstand at the end of the hall; with so much of the environment seen and Boudu being his typical self, this speaks strongly to the association being made between him and nature.  Boudu is shown surrounded by a lot of scenery as he floats down the river; and while this may not be deep staging per se as much as an extreme long shot, there is the scene where he receives food from the lovers and then walks up-screen.  The point with Boudu is that deep staging occurs quite often throughout the film where action in the foreground and the background are important.  This is not so in Toni where the most obvious instance occurs at the mine where Fernand and Tony talk about Josefa before Albert butts in.  It is true that the characters are in the foreground and behind them can be seen the workers down in the quarry.  However, this scene is shot as such a high angle as to distort any depth cues, creating a rather flat appearance; it looks almost as if the characters are filmed talking in front of a blue screen.  The main times when there is a sense of the different grounds is at the depot where the people wait for the train.  Yet here they are all crowded into the middle ground and, thus, this is more an instance of an extreme long shot rather than deep staging.  In both films the deep staging is useful to show the different planes of reality the characters are in and to link different planes.  However, only in Boudu is there a true sense of three-dimensionality; Toni is rather flat and more restricted without it.

Boudu resides in a reality which is more conducive for movement while Toni lives in a sphere of restricted movement.  This distinction becomes apparent in differences in camera movement and in the setting composition.  A similar lateral reframement occurs when the camera follows characters walking in both.  After Boudu loses his dog, he walks down the street, and the camera tracks with him for a period; it serves the purpose of showing him in the unnatural setting of the street.  When Toni and Fernand are going to work before finding Josefa, they camera follows their movement as well, in a tighter shot than the one used for Boudu.  However, both sequences end with the characters being hidden by some object: a car for Boudu and a tree for Toni.  There is symbolism in this as Boudu is rarely ever hidden by something of nature but Toni constantly is behind a tree or bush which blocks him from the camera.  This is important later, but what is more interesting here is how camera movement or lack of either keeps a character in frame or allows them to wander in and out of frame.

While there is camera movement in Boudu, they are not as complex as those in Toni. For Boudu the camera for the most part prefers long takes of still shots, giving the impression that Renoir simply set the camera down and directed the characters in and out of the frame.  Movement in and out of frame is very common; instead of having the camera move to follow characters, they simply come and go as they please, supporting the fact that reality exists outside of what the camera lens captures.  This is rare for the world of Toni; its main occurrence is at the train depot as the still camera records the train’s arrival and the constant bustle of the passengers.  Instead of allowing the characters to come and go as they please, the camera will move to keep them within frame.  This is clearest when Albert disturbs Josefa from hanging her laundry.  The camera readjusts itself to keep them from leaving the frame, trapping them within a certain view of reality even if it shifts to accommodate the different spaces they inhabit throughout the sequence.  Both techniques create the sense of a continuous world beyond the borders of the frame; that is not in dispute.  However, whereas Boudu and company are free to leave the frame, Toni and company are held in it  Boudu and company can go into any part of reality that exists, but Toni and company are restricted to the reality the camera chooses to show.

The stylistic differences point to the variations in how the characters relate to nature.  Boudu is free to interact with it as he wishes while Toni is trapped inside a limited area.  The relationship is defined in how the setting is composed within the frame.  Across Boudu there is a feeling of openness, especially when Boudu is in some type of wilderness.  When Boudu goes looking for his dog in the forest, there is a great deep focus which shows trees, stretching out in lines to the horizon.  There is a great deal of space surrounding each tree, allowing him easy access to walk in the forest.  Unhindered movement through nature is terribly obvious while he floats down the Marne after escaping the bourgeois Lestingois.  Boudu is framed in extreme long shots to show him totally unfettered by anything natural.  Even when he comes unto the shore, there is still enough open space around him in which to move.

Toni, when he really needs to, cannot move so easily through nature.  Towards the film’s end, when Toni is running from the police officer, he runs into a thick forest of conifers which surround him and hinder his movement.  This shot merely shows the extreme to which nature hinders him.  When he and Fernand discuss Toni’s plans to run away with Josefa, they are totally surrounded by the inky black of night with only the fire shedding slight light on them.  Nature is closing in, and it’s not a particularly nice nature.  This idea is also found in the aforementioned motif for some plant to come between him and the camera.  The occurrences typically deal with Josefa, from Toni talking about her with Fernand to trying to cover-up Josefa’s guilt in murdering Albert.  There is the feeling here that nature is trying to hide him, or is trapping him in.  Another interpretation is that the camera becomes personified, a voyeur who is following Toni.  This interpretation would mean the audience is expected to scrutinize what they see and find what flaws they may, as if Renoir has painted a portrait of a man.

Seeing Toni as a painting is supported in how flat the film’s settings appear in comparison with Boudu.  Renoir successfully develops a concept of a world that is not solely confined to the frame; the audience, through camera and character movement, is aware that a world exists beyond in height and width.  However, the films are not similar in how they create the idea of a continuous depth.  To create depth in a two-dimensional medium a director can fall back on a list of options, from overlapping to using diagonals.  But diagonals are more efficient because the eye is drawn along the line to all planes of field.

Boudu uses diagonals and characters actually moving in depth more than Toni.  When Boudu asks the police officer about his dog, various diagonals created by the road and the trees draw the eye around the screen. Boudu even leaves in depth, going right up screen as the scene carries on.  Many times in the Lestingois household, when two or three people are talking, they are set up on a diagonal across the screen.  In various scenes within the house, people will leave one room going into the background or enter a room from the background.  Because this occurs both in nature and in the house, it can be inferred that Boudu is not trapped in his current situation, that he is free to move anywhere because a true three-dimensional world has been created around him.  His is a positive relationship with nature.

Only at certain times are diagonals used in Toni, and they do not point to a particularly positive relationship.  Diagonals bring the train into the town in the beginning and end; however, this parallelism only adds to the notion of a circle holding Toni caught.  When the funeral procession carries Sebastian to his grave, they walk the same diagonal as the workers going into town.  They are walking to their doom, the parallelism points out.  But death seems to be the only way to escape the circle as the most amazing uses of diagonals appears as Toni is running on the bridge before being shot.  The bridge is slanted across the screen, the tracks disappear off into the horizon and the town is clearly seen in depth behind him.  Nature is finally open and showing all its planes, perhaps luring him on like some seductress, like Josefa herself.  Contrast this with the incredible flat feeling the film generates elsewhere.  There is an extensive use of straight on camera angles that captures characters as if for mug shots and reduces the planes of nature to fall over each other.  When Marie runs off to drown herself, she runs into a field from a silhouetted foreground, thus placing the foreground on top of the background.  As she rows into the water, the sky and water combine, making Marie appear as if she in on a mirror.  Although theuse of overlapping does not allow for optical illusions to be created, it is hard not to notice the flatness created by the lack of diagonals, the even lighting and the straight camera angles.  This is not a three-dimensional world with as abundant a depth as width and height.  This is a world of limited travel.

Why is Toni trapped in his world while Boudu is free to roam?  It is not because one is not a continuous reality.  It more likely has to do with the variations on theme built into the films.  Boudu is a sub-proletariat, a bum who was perfectly at ease living in nature.  He prefers water to wine and only thinks of buying a bike if he were to win the lottery.  His personality is one of non-indulgence, free-spiritedness, and an acceptance of what comes to him.  He could not be turned into a bourgeois by the Lestingois and would not be turned into one by winning the lottery and Anne-Marie.  In his heart he was a sub-proletariat and a man of nature; his relationship with nature was one of give and take, of dependence on his side and affection on nature’s.  When he needs food, nature presents him with the kind couple; when he needs clothes, they are hanging there on the line; when he needs rescuing, M. Lestingois is readily on hand.  Because of this relationship with nature, he is free to roam about as he pleases, and this is displayed in the three-dimensionality of the diegesis in which he resides.  Here the idea is that if one is at peace with nature, nature grants freedom to live as one sees fit.

Toni is not at peace with nature.  Toni is a proletariat, but he is also an outsider; he is a Spaniard who came into a French town, alienating the French workers who see his kind as taking jobs from them.  He is in a relationship with a women he does not love while the woman he truly loves has married another and possibly does not care for him; when Josefa wants to leave her husband, it is Gaby and not Toni to whom she turns.  But most importantly, he is trapped in this town because of his unnatural idealism created by his infatuation for Josefa.  Fernand warns him that his “love” for Josefa will only end up killing him and begs his friend to stop having impossible dreams and “come down to earth.”  Toni is not accepting his situation in life, whether created by fate or natural order.  He has dreams which, given the situation, cannot be fulfilled without some type of otherworldly, divine, “Hollywood” intervention.  So he is trapped by nature; his own personality pits him against nature and thus he is not living in harmony.  When one does not live in harmony with nature, nature becomes an enemy.  This is the message for the audience to gain from this painting in motion.

 

Toni-Renoir078

Renoir was a painter’s son; he understood how to compose reality to get one’s message across.  Using the new painting tools of cinematography and new malleability of setting, he is able to create films of such a realistic feel it is hard to tell where the film ends and the real world begins.  Bazin picked up on this and sanctified Renoir as his example of true realistic filmmaking.  But Renoir is not only trying to show the world as it is; he is also trying to tell the audience something about how to live as a part of the continuity.  In the end, Boudu is a happy man because he is one with nature.  In the end, Toni is a dead man because he was not.  Which one seems the right way to live with the nature that surrounds everyone?  It may be metaphysical, it may be spiritual, but it is Renoir’s message.

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