Robert Le Vigan

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The Lower Depths (1936) Review


Very Good
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.

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