So it was a play….
I know Renoir for Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game and I’m aware he had a Hollywood period, then went back to France. The Lower Depths is earlier.
Jean Gabin is fantastic, so is Louis Jouvet. Renoir juxtaposes royalty on its way down and a thief on his way out. The relationship between the two men is fantastic and when the film veers from it–into the long scenes with the flophouse’s other residents, I started checking the clock. Adapting a play well takes more work than just adapting a novel–a play has so much that isn’t going to work on screen.
Not changing the setting from Russia to France works against the film too… though maybe not. I suppose there are plenty of American films of the period set in other languages told in English. However, I always think of Russia as having a distinctiveness that The Lower Depths does not (I’m mostly thinking Ballad of a Soldier). The Lower Depths isn’t rich with the atmosphere, in fact it seems kind of anorexic with it. The film never succeeds in making the audience believe there are more than the people we see throughout–when there’s a huge crowd at one point, it’s totally out of place.
Still, it’s an interesting “in-progress” work from Renoir. From the first shot, you can see he’s doing something special.