The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1935) was like 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, “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.