Sunday, August 22, 2010

#239: The Lower Depths

(Jean Renoir, 1936, and Akira Kurosawa, 1957)

The Lower Depths represents a unique opportunity: two of the five or ten most revered directors in film history tackling the same source material. Originally a Russian play, it has been adapted into film an umber of times, with these two instances being the most noteworthy (ironically not being literal adaptations, with both being transferred to their director's respective native countries). Kurosawa's version is the much more faithful adaptation, which will be apparent even to people (like me) who have never read or seen the original play. It takes place exclusively in the titular slums, and is focused on its ensemble. It very much feels like a play, and for that reason feels much less interesting to me.

Renoir's version, on the other hand, is the "Hollywood" version of the play. Set in numerous locales and focused on one main protagonist/hero, played wonderfully by Jean Gabin, the film comes complete with rich mustache-twirling villain and happy ending. It's also got a sense of humor, and plays its social rifts for laughs instead of tears; in a lot of ways, it's the rehearsal for Renoir's masterpiece, The Rules of the Game, which is both funnier and more insightful.

While the films were included in one set to note the differences in approach between these two master directors, it's inevitable that everyone will decide which one they like better. For me, it's easily Renoir's version, as I had a hard time making it through the frustratingly staged Kurosawa version, despite strong direction and performances. But watching both films is an interesting test as to what you are looking for in films, and it represents one of the more intriguing sets in the catalog.

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