Friday, May 8, 2020
Jean Renoir | Un purge bébé (Baby’s Laxative)
by Douglas Messerli
Georges Feydeau (writer, based on his play), Jean Renoir (director) Un purge bébé (Baby’s Laxative) / 1931
Nothing is quite ever let loose in Jean Renoir’s lovely short, first talkie film, Un purge bébé, in which Mr. Follavoine, a porcelain manufacturer, is determined to sell a customer, Chouilloux, an influential official of the Ministry of Hosts, his porcelain chamber pots.
The pots are simply fine, and over the pace of the this short 52-minute movie, survive all sorts of public abuse. But what do you do with a child who refuses to take his laxative. Soldiers might indeed use them readily, but a spoiled child might readily refuse the medicine, laxatives such as mineral oil and others, to help cure him.
In fact, this is the very problem that Mr. Fallovine has not perceived. His angry wife, attending for their constipated child, refuses to get dressed, remaining in her midnight garb, hair curlers in place, in order to help entertain their distinguished guest.
The complications are quite hilarious, but as in Georges Feydeau’s original play—upon which this film is based—the focus of the work is on the real shit of the bourgeois society which Madame Fallovine is well aware of: how to heal a young, stubborn child who refuses what might make him
It is a society, given her husband’s and others attempts to focus on simply commercial proceedings, that cannot heal the very people they might have loved. Sound familiar?
The continual intrusions of actress Marguerite Pierry, who properly scolds her husband and his would-be client are hilarious, as are the continual refusals of her baby to take the medicine that might heal him.
This, strangely enough, is a kind of ménage-a-trois between wife, husband, and the sometimes-sympathetic visitor, who play out the fears, from a Belle Époque perspective, of what the World War I soldiers might be facing.
Of course, the fighting soldiers might need someplace to deposit their defecations, but buried deep in the trenches, porcelain pots, no matter how sturdy, were clearly not the answer! And, at home, it was even impossible to get a bébé to comprehend how to help relieve his system.
In the end, of course, these men mistakenly consume, as they have in their daily activities of life, the very medicine they and their wives have been insisting others must ingest.
Renoir does not show us the results, but we well know what will happen. Madame Fallovine, if she has not succeeded with her young son, has helped to cure the constipated society in which she must exist. The deal between Fallovine and Chouilloux, we presume, is thankfully over.
Those horribly suffering World War I soldiers will have to care for themselves.
And the baby will go back to bed to deal with his own temporary sufferings.
If not one of the great Renoir’s most significant films, this movie is a kind of short wonder that tears apart a society he would later satirize, with significant criticism, just a few years later in
Rules of the Game and many other works.
Un purge bébé helps to make me realize, once again, just how great Renoir was as a director, putting his significance in a new perspective, this an almost Rabelaisian work that subtly takes on issues which most other directors might have never tackled.
Los Angeles, May 8, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (May 2020).