The second piece in the this series tracing the vagabond’s travels “beyond the boredom and bondage of village life” onto the screen looks to the gods to explain the walking contradiction that is the tramp. Jean Renoir makes the hero a magical thief in his masterpiece The Lower Depths, one of my favorite films of all time.
In the court of Hollywood the tramp is the fool, the outsider who can see things for what they are and, for some reason, is allowed to say so. The first article in this series examined Modern Times- Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp and Paulette Goddard’s Gamin live in a world of stark contrast where the wanderer is righteous and authority is baseless or just plain misguided. In 1936, Jean Renoir made Les Bas-Fonds, an adaptation of the Russian play whose title translates to The Lower Depths. Renoir is more monochrome compared to the black and white of Modern Times, but Les Bas-Fonds still overflows with moments that glorify the impoverished and lance the cruelty inherent in the way of the world. Let’s turn, then, to the lovable denizens of a flophouse, home to our hero, Pépel the thief.
The movie opens by showing us where everyone stands in relation to each other by a ranking of bedrooms. The thief obviously has the best room in the flophouse. The crooked landlord/fence shares his room with the good younger sister and his bed with the bad older sister, who is either in love with the thief or looking to get rid of the landlord. Enter the rascal, a typical flophouse commons resident, who receives a scolding for being too wild and a spot on the floor with mixed grace and apathy. “You know, I am who I am. If people don’t like it, too bad.” The squalor is not hiding, it doesn’t seem like that nice a place to stay, but within the first ten minutes I really like some of these people.
Pépel takes you around some wondrous hairpin turns, he is a cuddly cat and he is totally hardboiled. In the span of a few moments, the landlord flips out on bad sister, Vassilisa, found in a darkened corner with the thief. The landlord doubles back to direct some more of his rage toward Pépel, the thief tells the landlord to watch himself or get choked out. The landlord tries to call the thief’s bluff, the thief (with the heart of gold) nearly chokes the landlord to death. Good little sister Natasha throws her lantern to the floor and the break in the mood lets the thief let go, exit stage left landlord. Closeup on Pépel. Closeup on Natasha. No words. This is why I watch movies. Then the thief demurely returns the broken lantern to good sister, with a little thank you for her stopping him before something irreparable happened. Natasha is revolted by her own feelings for Pépel, thieves are bad, she shouldn’t like bad. You get everybody’s relationship in two minutes and establish the basic dynamic that those in power are power crazed and the good handle themselves with a resilience that could be mistaken for tranquility.
Les Bas-Fonds centers around two men, not just Pépel. The other icon of hobodom is the Baron. He has a gambling problem. See him lie to his superiors about where the money goes. See him lay it all out instead to the poor girls who frequent the social club. What happens in the club stays in the club. High society folks can bring lower class girls and ply them with liquor before retiring for a petting party. High society folks can fleece each other gambling. See the lower class girls singing low gravy for the crowd (reenforcing the Modern Times standard that entertainment is the only path the poor have to get a legitimate leg up in the world). The Baron is beloved by all the club girls because he is not there for sex, and when he’s in, he’s all in and buying drinks for everybody. The Baron has a selfish, destructive side, but he has an open and amicable side as well, and he kind of needs to go through the former to be able to be the latter.
Okay, so since the Baron got cleaned out at the tables he comes home early, while Pépel is burgling his house. Part of me loves this movie for the powerful social statement it lays underneath all the drama. Part of me loves it because it is just a great fucking movie. The writing and editing make it feel shockingly modern on a regular basis. The dialog consistently kills it, some of the camera technique is so loaded it will seem both ahead of its time and a testament to how high one can reach within supposed limitations. You would think that the Baron interrupting the thief means trouble, but the Baron has just lost everything, gambled away every kopek he has and tomorrow the state comes to repossess as much of his estate as can be sold. As far as the Baron is concerned, Pépel can take what he wants from the house. The Baron is a plus and Pépel is a plus so naturally they hit it off and when the Baron offers a drink they end up drinking together until dawn- a dawn that breaks to the Baron not having a home any more. And so he too ends up in the flophouse.
Now this series was born in part because I got to talking about AH Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which I feel is a giant and unfortunately widespread crock of bullshit. The theory that you need to satisfy your basic needs like filling your stomach and making sure there’s a roof over your head before you can satisfy your spiritual needs like figuring out what your life is for and fun stuff like that. In my eyes, this places enlightenment solely in the possession of the ruling class. I believe that a person from any background is capable of achieving humanity’s greatest possible potential. The saints were all vagabonds. The tramp code of ethics comes from shedding the idea that societal gain or wealth are the point to life. “To hell with logic,” says Pépel, “I was raised with certain manners.” When is life best? When it’s warm outside, when you are sleeping in a field. “Is it nice?” asks the Baron. “It can be,” replies Pépel. There you have it, folks. To a mind unfettered from empty desires, being on top of the world and dozing in the grass are the same thing. There’s only one cigarette left in the morning, and the Baron wants it but won’t smoke it out of concern for Pépel going without, so Pépel breaks the cigarette in half.
An aside: did you know that Dionysus represents both the fun and the regret you get from the state of ecstasy? A reasonable amount of wine is pleasant but when misused things can go awry. Ecstasy like epiphany, living in a state of being right with the universe. That is the path of the vagabond from Modern Times, the tramp understands what matters and what doesn’t and lives in a state right with the universe. I guess those with nothing recognize intrinsic value more readily than the satisfied. The Little Tramp- or in Les Bas-Fonds, Pépel- understands what matters and lives it that way. To continue asiding, metaphorically speaking, epiphany is not you, it is something that is brought to you from out of the unknown. So in Dionysus that unknown is given form, and ecstasy is represented as the outsider who comes.
The flophouse is occupied by an abundance of classic destitute wanderer types. The actor/drunk, the dreamer, the cynic, the pilgrim. The landlord is obviously the antithesis of the drifter and Kostylev doesn’t drop the ball, a horrible little man who delivers his yelliest lines with real vitriol. In the flophouse common room, Kostylev decides to charge the cobbler extra for his work bench, and the cobbler responds, “Charge me extra for a rope and strangle me.”
“Why should I? What good would that do me? On the contrary, may God keep you. Live as you like, and with that half ruble you give me I’ll light a candle to the Holy Virgin. It will atone for my sins…”
Les Bas-Fonds explores the duality of the drifter, the Baron is the uncertain side of the rift. Is he good or bad? He gets up to the same old shit at the flophouse card table he was into when he was wasting his riches. He is curious but callous. You get the sense that he is here because he senses that vagabonds have secret knowledge about how to live that he lacks. Is he for real or just passing through? How pure are his hobo motivations? The Baron is the student and the thief is the sensei. Pépel is the Little Tramp character. The spirit guide. A Lucifer to go with our Dionysus. Why is the Baron a tramp? “There’s a kind of fog in my noggin,” answers the Baron, now that he has passed beyond society and is lying in that field where the sweet spot is, each of the roles he played in his life seem to have no more permanence than mist. “In this flowing stream, then, on which there is no abiding, what is there of the things which hurry by on which a man would set a high price? It would be just as if a man should fall in love with one of the sparrows which fly by, but it has already passed out of sight.” That’s Marcus Aurelius, not Les Bas-Fonds, but you get the picture. Even though all the stuff is gone, he persists, the Baron. Has he learned anything?
Why is Pépel a tramp? Pépel says he commits crime because he knows he needs another to tame him. That other half is Natasha. Natasha (like the Gamin) wants all the dumb stuff that people who aren’t paupers take for granted. She tries hard but ultimately fails to achieve the Dream, because the Dream is the dream of a system that was built to exclude those on the bottom. Natasha is offered the goldigger route that the club girls chose and chose different. Lucifer, the Morning Star, is Venus and Venus is actually both the morning star and the evening star. Two stars. Dawn and dusk, what filmmakers call the magic hour. MAGIC. VAGABONDS.