“Le Crime de Monsieur Lange” - Jean Renoir (1936)

Jean Renoir’s great films of the late 1930s have such a rich social complexity to them that they are sometimes summed up as reflecting his overall “humanism” – although I’m not sure that term does full justice to what Renoir accomplished. Certainly his films encompass multiple layers of fraternal camaraderie, social expectations, and romantic love that involve a number of interacting characters; and these films often have a depth that goes beyond the conventional cinema fare. In fact the first time one sees one of these films, it is easy to miss just how adroit Renoir’s cinematic expression was in these works. Cinematically, Renoir is able to convey multiple subjective perspectives, sometimes all in the same frame of an extended moving-camera shot.  Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (The Crime of Monsieur Lange, 1936), was an early oeuvre in this series, and it also happens to be one of Renoir’s more controversial offerings.

In some ways Le Crime de Monsieur Lange was Renoir’s most overtly political film.  Renoir’s generally leftist sympathies are in clear view in this work, which was made during the ascendancy of France’s Popular Front, a coalition of leftist political groups, including the Communist Party, that won the 1936 general election.  Renoir, himself, was affiliated with the Popular Front, and in that same year he also made a documentary film, La Vie Est à Nous (Life Belongs to Us) that was funded by the Communist Party.  But what makes Le Crime de Monsieur Lange particularly controversial is not so much its leftist sympathies, but its apparent justification of a murder (“le crime”) that was presumably done for social well-being.  (This may evoke some thoughts in your mind concerning the American government’s drone-empowered assassinations of foreign villains, but I will leave that topic aside here.)

The story of the film, as you would expect with Renoir, is more than just a political narrative, and it includes several romantic relationships. It is framed as a story told in flashback: an account of the circumstances that led up to the murder.  One can think of the plot as comprising five main sections, but the three inner sections make up the bulk of the film.
1.  Framing the Story (6 minutes)
A car drops off a man and a woman (we later learn their names -- Amèdée Lange and Valentine Cardès) to a hotel near the French frontier, and they check in for the night.  Immediately the hotel owner’s son recognizes the male guest as a wanted criminal, and suggests to the other hotel workers and patrons in the lobby they turn him in to the police.  During the ensuing discussion, the female guest comes out to the lobby and says that she will tell their story to all of them and that they can then judge what action they may want to take.

2.  Batala’s Publishing House (37 minutes)

The first section of the film presents the social situation at a local building courtyard that includes a small publishing run by Paul Batala, a laundry run by Valentine, and a rooming house managed by a concierge (Marcel Levesque) and his wife. The principal characters introduced here are
  • Batala (Jules Berry) runs the publishing house, which is trying to get out its first issue of a pulp detective magazine. It is soon evident that Batala is a dishonest and unreliable manipulator, swindler, and womanizer.
  • Lange (René Lefèvre) works for the publishing house.  He dreams of being a successful writer, and his nights are spent writing stories about his fictional creation, “Arizona Jim”.
  • Edith (Sylvia Bataille) works for the publishing house and is Batala’s (current) woman.
  • Valentine (Florelle) runs the laundry in the same courtyard buildling.
  • Estelle (Nadia Sibirskaïa) is a pretty young woman working at the laundry.
  • Charles (Maurice Baquet), the son of the concierge, is a bicycle delivery man and in love with Estelle.
As is typical with Renoir, the romantic involvements are many.  Batala had a past relationship with Valentine, is currently involved with Edith, and eventually forces himself on Estelle and impregnates her.  Edith loves Batala and will do whatever he says.  Lange is interested in Edith and Estelle, and later in Valentine.  Valentine is interested in Lange.  Estelle loves Charles, but shies away from a physical relationship.  Depicting the evolution of these relationships occupies the bulk of this part of the film. 

This section closes when the hopelessly in debt swindler, Batala, learns that his creditors are taking legal action against him that may lead to his imprisonment.  So Batala heads out of town on the train.

3.  The Worker’s Cooperative (20 minutes)
News reports indicate that Batala has been killed in a train crash, and the company’s creditors swarm into the publishing house demanding payment. The company staff propose that a worker’s collective be formed to run the business, and the chief creditor, M. Meunier’s son, readily accepts the idea. Soon the rejuvenated company is flourishing by publishing Lange’s “Arizona Jim” comics, which become huge bestsellers at all the newsstands.  The “team spirit” of the collective leads to social harmony and effective, cooperative work. 

Everyone is happy now.  Lange and Valentine have become lovers, and so, too, are Charles and Estelle.  Arizona Jim is such a success that the collective gets a film contract, and they decide to throw a party to celebrate.

4.  Batala Returns (14 minutes)
As the party begins in a dining room in the courtyard, Lange goes upstairs and discovers the presumed-dead Batala dressed as a priest and rummaging around in the company office. To Lange’s horror, Batala announces that he has returned to take what is his.  He says he owns all the rights to the company, and he intends to take over again and dissolve the worker cooperative. This is the corrupt 1% restoring its privileged ownership over the 99%, and Lange sees the idealistic dreams of the collective dissolving before his very eyes.  After Batala goes out into the courtyard and starts coming on to Valentine, Lange  rushes out and shoots Batala with a gun.  M. Meunier’s son offers to whisk Valentine and Lange away from the murder scene and take them to the border in his car.

5.  Closing the Frame (2 minutes)

We return to the present, with Valentine now having concluded her story to the hotel staff and awaiting their verdict: will they turn them in or let them go?  The closing shots reveal what that decision is, with Valentine and Lange making their way on foot along a windswept beach and across the border to safety and an unknown future.
The most evidently controversial issue with Le Crime de Monsieur Lange is whether it endorses committing murder for the common good.  But in fact there are several interesting aspects of the film worth considering, both with respect to the cinematic elements and to the larger themes presented. With respect to the cinematography, Renoir’s emerging virtues are on display. This includes shooting in depth, featuring multiple, active personages coming in and out of frame within a single shot.  In this respect there are several moving camera shots that have drawn considerable attention from critics, most notably during the murder sequence.  During that approximately three-minute scene, there are several closely joined shots that make the entire sequence seem almost like a single shot.  Film scholars have been particularly interested in the shot of the actual shooting, which includes a 270-degree reverse pan shot  [1,2].  In that shot, the camera has Lange initially in frame; and then as Lange moves away to the right, it pans to the left, in the opposite direction of Lange’s movement.  This pan shot sweeps quickly around the empty courtyard, finally winding up on Lange again, who is now in front of Batala.  Why did Renoir choose such a bizarre camera movement at this critical movement?  Some critics have suggested that Renoir’s pan was intended to incorporate the social perspective of the collective (the sounds of the celebratory party can be heard on the soundtrack throughout this shot) so as to make the murder an act of “the people” and not just that of an individual [1,2].  I rather doubt this interpretation.  Renoir’s pan here is quite rapid (perhaps too rapid) and not the sort of deliberative and circumspective movement that would incorporate all that it surveys into its overall perspective.  It is true that the shot does distance the viewer from Lange at this decisive moment, thereby building up dramatic tension, but whether the shot truly incorporates a socially communal perspective is doubtful.

Another interesting cinematic take with respect to this film is to compare its overall tone with Marcel Carne’s Le Jour se Léve (1939):
  • Both films were scripted principally by Jacques Prevert. 
  • Both films are told in flashback about a murder that has just been committed.
  • In both films, the murdered man is an unprincipled and almost satanic shapeshifter stylishly played by Jules Berry.  The seemingly only way to thwart this treacherous threat is to kill him off.
Despite these similarities, the two films seem quite distinct to me.  Le Jour se Léve, the superior film, is a moody, existentialistic story about love. The viewer gets inside the head of the later film’s protagonist, François, and empathizes with his concerns and anxieties.  With respect to Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, however, the perspective is more socially inclusive, and although the viewer sees the Lange character sympathetically, the view is primarily from the outside.  Thus  Le Jour se Léve is more subjectively romantic and Le Crime de Monsieur Lange is more objectively political. Given the fact that Prevert scripted both films, we can assume that this distinction between the films largely reflects the differences between Carne’s and Renoir’s cinematic visions and styles of visual storytelling.

In fact this is what makes Renoir so interesting.  His cinematic storytelling style often incorporates multiple perspectives and is consequently both romantic and political at the same time.  But these two perspectives are not just stuck together in an ad hoc fashion without coherence; instead, these two angles seem to fit together into a larger human landscape.  Most critics and film scholars have focused on the political side of things, but the romantic side of this film is at least as important.  Thus there are viewers (in fact, sometimes even a single viewer on different occasions) who have liked this film for quite different reasons.

Consider the difference between the men and the women in Le Crime de Monsieur Lange.  The three principal women, Valentine, Sylvia, and Edith, are all totally supportive and loving.  They are selfless, committed, and loyal to the individual men that they love, even when they, themselves, are ignored or abused.   The men, however, are quite the opposite.  Batala is good-tempered, but is also a selfish opportunist and willing to exploit anyone else in order to promote his own comfort.  The courtyard house concierge seems foolishly harmless, but he consistently espouses racist views and dismisses Asians (whom he had earlier encountered in the French “Tonkin Campaign”), Indians, and Blacks as stupid and lazy.  Charles is tolerably naive but totally focused on his own welfare.  Lange wants to do the right thing, but lives in a dream world of cowboys who right wrongs with a six-gun.  This kind of “solution” won’t work in the real world, and we know that Lange’s murder is a profoundly wrong way to deal with the complex, interleaved corruptions of modern existence.  In fact there is a disconcerting escapism that permeates the world around Lange.  Lange is troubled when the news of Batala’s death comes over the radio, but Valentine puckers up to him and says, “what about me; am I alive?”  And when the undesired child of Estelle and Batala is stillborn, there is only a momentary frown expressed by those around her.  In fact shortly thereafter Lange decides to incorporate that incident into one of his comic book stories, and he projects what will happen to one of his characters in his imagined story –  “Estelle, led astray by the sordid hooded fascist had a certain amount of luck: the baby died!”

So what are we to take away from Le Crime de Monsieur Lange?  Certainly we can’t endorse Lange’s murderous act, even though we know that this simple-minded man wanted to remove a miscreant whom nobody would miss.  Was the worker’s collective also such a simple-minded dream that it could not really work in the real world? According to Renoir’s optimistic presentation here, it could work, and this is where his inclusive humanistic vision comes into play.  The collectivist idea could work on a larger scale, but only if the socially collectivist structure is supported by the willing, compassionate engagement that underlies the spirit of this movie.  The political solution will not work without the romantic spirits, and this romantic spirit is most movingly expressed by the women in Renoir’s film, not the men.

  1. Reader, Keith, “The Circular Ruins? Frontiers, Exile and the Nation in Renoir’s Le Crime de Monsieur Lange” (2000), French Studies, vol LIV, No. 3, pp. 287-297.
  2. O’Shaughnessy, Martin, “Breaking the Circle: Le Crime de Monsieur Lange and the Contemporary Illegibility of the Radical Text” (2011), South Central Review, 28:3, pp. 26-44.


Charlotte said...

Beautiful write up and what a beautiful story.
Thanks, Charlotte

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