The Crime of Monsieur Lange

The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1935) was likeposter the holy grail, one of those films I’d heard about but never managed to see. Before its recent restoration, this Renoir gem was impossible to find. But I lucked out: they were screening it at Holyoke Community College for free as part of their annual French film series. There’s always one near-forgotten classic in the bunch, and this year it was Monsieur Lange. What a delightful surprise it turned out to be.

In the 1930s, before noir was noir (the term “film noir” was only coined—by the French—in 1946), Europeans were making gritty, downbeat films with adult subject matter, storylines involving adultery and crime that usually culminated in death. American gangster movies covered some of this territory, and there was a fair amount of cross-fertilization between this genre, the German Expressionism of the 1920s, and what the French were calling poetic realism. Renoir hung out with the poetic realist crowd and some of his early pictures were gritty, with the deep shadows we associate with the German Expressionist style, but even when they end in murder, Renoir’s films don’t leave you in despair. You come out of them smiling, your faith in humanity restored.

I don’t believe there are such things as absolute truth, but I do believe in absolute human qualities — generosity, for instance, which is one of the basic ones. 

– Jean Renoir

Renoir feels tenderly toward his characters, every last one of them.The villain of The Crime of Monsieur Lange is a rogue, no doubt about it. He impregnates one of his employees, cheats on his mistress, borrows money from the janitor, never intending to pay it back, exploits the film’s hero, bilks his creditors and then fakes his death when the police catch onto his schemes. When he reappears toward the end of the picture disguised as a priest, a twinkle in his eye, prepared to resume his malign activities, you can’t hate him.

As in his better known ensemble pictures, Grand Illusion (1937) and Rules of the Game (1939), the printing company where Monsieur Lange is set is a world unto itself,Lange workers “where all types of humanity mingle and clash: bosses and workers, misers and dreamers, innocents and scoundrels, the impassioned and the foolish.” Renoir directs all of these characters with such a light touch that their interactions appear fresh and spontaneous. Work, in this world, as in the best Marxist fantasy, is a source of joy and fulfillment, once the workers own the means of production and the evil boss gets his due.

Renoir claimed that he was not a director, he was a storyteller. This one is something of a fairytale, but I’m not complaining.

The Rules of the Game

We had a French exchange student staying with us for a couple of weeks, Sophie. Turns out she’s applying to film schools, wants to learn the ropes, start as a cameraperson and work her way up to directing. She’s well-versed in American film, a great admirer of Wes Anderson (and took advantage of the opportunity to watch The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is still playing at the local art house), but arrived knowing next to nothing about the classics of her own country’s cinematic tradition.

I had my work cut out for me. She’d heard of the New Wave, of course, but had never seen Breathless or The 400 Blows. We remedied that—and Jean-Paul Belmondo gained another admirer. She’d never heard of Chris Marker, but I’ll bet she’s going to knock the socks off the interview committee with her insights into La jetée and Si j’avais quatre dromadaires, which we happened to catch at the Massachusetts Multicultural Film Festival before she left.

And the crowning touch, my favorite French film of all time: Jean Renoir’s 1939 masterpiece, The Rules of the Game. Yes, I know it’s everybody’s favorite. Long before Downton Abbey, here was an upstairs/downstairs-y story, complete with frocks and motorcars, that didn’t indulge in nostalgia for a lifestyle that was soon to be destroyed.

Renoir couldn’t wait to see this world end. It was dead already, as he shows us hererenoir in bear suitThat’s him in the bear suit, by the way. When he asks the amorous couple to help him out of it, the gentleman responds, “On n’a pas de temps.” We have no time. Renoir’s character repeats the line, just to make sure we get it.

War is coming, but you wouldn’t know it from the goings-on at the Château de la Colinière. A weak-willed aristocrat, played by the inimitable Marcel Dalio (in what was really his last great role) has arranged a shooting party. Such a time-honored pastime of the leisure class! Only it’s not so charming, when you see bunny rabbits getting shot. As the late Alexander Sesonske noted in the essay he wrote for the 2004 Criterion edition:

In a film whose shots often run for a minute or more, here fifty-one shots appear in less than four minutes, in a mounting rhythm of cutting and movement that culminates in an awesome barrage of gunfire as, in twenty-two shots—fifty-three seconds—twelve animals die.

This makes The Rules of the Game sound gruesome, but it’s actually an enchanting film. Renoir’s affection for his characters comes through in every scene. Flawed human beings dancing on the edge of a volcano (as he put it). You feel sorry for each and every one of them.

And Sophie? I came home the next day and found her watching it again, along with all the supplemental materials on the Criterion disc.

Mission accomplished.