The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936)
Directed by Jean Renoir
Tuesday, February 7 at the FIAF
Jean Renoir is most famous today as a capital-h Humanist, regularly draped in sterling praise that downplays, if not outright ignores, his lacerating sarcasm—as though it were an unseemly tic, or a bad habit. Such are the film-school perils of limiting yourself to Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game; both are masterpieces, and plenty sharp, but bolstered in spirit and reputation by the brutal canvas of World War II. That's not Renoir's fault, but "lesser" film The Crime of Monsieur Lange demands reexamination: released just before the streak that exiled him to Hollywood, it's a Popular Front polemic that also plays as an office sex comedy. The "crime" is an open question, posed by a radiant young woman named Valentine (Florelle) to a bar full of suspicious patrons at a French/Belgian border lodge. Her boyfriend Lange (Rene Lefevre) is a wanted man, his face on the cover of the newspapers; he's sleeping upstairs. Before they decide to call the police, can she explain how they ended up there?
It's a salacious framing device that plays into the wisdom of the commons—particularly hardworking rural Frenchmen. The story then rolls back to Valentine's first encounters with Lange, a grunt for the smooth-talking, cigarette-inhaling magazine publisher Batala (Jules Berry). Valentine's laundry company and Batala's offices share a wide courtyard, and the staffs mingle symbiotically; for one, she and he have already slept together, an experience she'd rather not repeat. Despite his wolfish advances, she's much sweeter on Lange, the dopey creator of an underdog Western serial called "Arizona Jim." Batala makes Lange his golden goose, but not without duping him into a contract that clutters his stories with product placement—a means of getting caught up on some old debts.
Well, without giving much away: Batala manages to screw pretty much everybody on the block (literally and figuratively). Lange's case is minor compared to the innocent-faced girl on Valentin's payroll who not only succumbs to Batala's charm, but also gets pregnant in the process. When Lange commits his "crime" there can be no question to its justification, for his own betterment as well as the workers in the courtyard. This is a pocket-sized film about a small community—sometimes warm and supportive, sometimes cruel and nosy—and it pulses with a highwire toggling of deep blue tragedy and everyday hilarity. The grotesque, bourgeois Batala is the closest screenwriter Jacques Prevert gets to caricature, but Berry is so dogged in exploring Batala's weaknesses that it meshes. Like that character, the politics of Monsieur Lange are simple enough that it would've crumbled in lesser hands. But at his peak, Renoir's signature talent was to pry nourishment from all-too-real human folly; he makes it look like it's all in a day's work.