Thursday, May 18, 2017

Jean Renoir | Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (The Crime of Monsieur Lange)

the dreamer awakeS
by Douglas Messerli

Jean Castanyer, Jacques Prévert, and Jean Renoir (screenplay), Jean Renoir (director) Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (The Crime of Monsieur Lange) / 1936

Jean Renoir’s 1936 film, The Crime of Monsieur Lange, is a hefty mix of a murder tale and comedy, dipped in a syrup of politics and love.

     The hero, Amédée Lange (René Lefèvre) begins the film as a frightened editorial assistant to publisher Paul Batala (Jules Berry), secretly writing his “Arizona Jim” series during the nights,  growing, by film’s end, into to a confidant lover to the local laundress, Valentine Cardès  (Florelle) and confidant to the concierge’s love-stricken son, Charles (Maurice Baquet), who spends most of the film in bed after being struck by a lorry.

Batala, like almost every publisher I know (including myself), constantly in debt, spends much of his time creating new schemes to raise yet more funds, but seems permanently behind in all his promised projects. But unlike most publishers I know, Batala, spends most of the money on himself and wastes his days attempting to seduce every pretty woman he encounters, at one point even raping the innocent laundry worker with whom Charles is in love.

      In order to satisfy the demands one of his creditors, Meunier—represented in the film by his son (Henry Guisol)—he suddenly decides to publish Lange’s ridiculous western fantasies, which strangely enough become a huge hit with the public. Yet before he can even begin to reap the benefits of his newest scam, the police show up, forcing Batala to go on the lamb. His train trip away from Paris ends in a horrific accident which kills several travelers, including, so the newspapers report, Batala.

      Suddenly, the staff of Batala’s publishing house are faced with unemployment, until the son of Meunier returns to make claim to the company and is convinced by the staff to run the company as a cooperative. He’s immediately convincing, but must take Lange aside to ask: “What is a cooperative?” Renoir’s political statements are not without their humorous side.

     The failed publishing house soon is raking in the money, based on the popularity of Lange’s populist story, as events spin into delight for all involved. An offer to turn “Arizona Jim” into a film brings together most of the remaining cast members as they celebrate their success at a grand dinner party, punctuated  by the Christmas songs of the drunken concierge (Marcel Lévesque).

      Everything has now turned into a kind permanent holiday, so it seems—that is until Lange in the hallways runs into Batala, who has evidently survived the crash and switched his garb with a priest who he was talking to at the time of the accident. The publisher has returned to claim the company as his own, based on the fraudulent agreement he has made with Lange. Suddenly the joyous Marxist community the workers have created is threatened by the greedy capitalist who nearly destroyed their lives. Lange, now a man of some surety and new belief, grabs the opportunity to steal away the publisher’s gun and shoot the man. As Valentine asks  the French peasants gathered round the table to hear and judge her story in the small bar near the Belgian border to where she and Lange have escaped, who could dare to blame the crazy dreamer, Lange for his acts?

      Certainly the villagers find him innocent, despite the bartender’s idiot son’s demand that they call the police; and the last scene of this film shows the couple crossing over the border, free from the ramifications of the murder.

     Made during Renoir’s flirtation with and, soon, open embracement with the Communist Party (the very next year Renoir made a promotional film for the Party), it is one of the loveliest films of his early period. In this light story, there are only a couple of dark scenes, but they are among the most important. One, is the scene in which Charles’ girlfriend, having been impregnated by Battala’s rape, is giving birth: the child dies, but the mother thankfully survives. The other is the scene of the crime. As Battala, revealing himself to Lange, moves toward the right and out of the frame, Renoir pans his camera on a circular arc to the left, revealing the collective still celebrating within, before returning to the source of their previous distress, the villain finally showing his face to Lange. Battala is represented through angles, at a pitch; he is, we recall, a man who has angled and pitched his way through life. Lange, on the other hand, has been strengthened and emboldened by the circle of his friends. In this remarkable cinematic encounter, we realize that the dreamer has finally awakened. He acts to kill a man who has already long been spiritually dead.


Los Angeles, May 18, 2017

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