In 1936, when Le Crime de Monsieur Lange premiered, Jean Renoir and his collaborator Jacques Prevert were riding the wave of enthusiasm surrounding the advent of the Popular Front, which had just that year swept Léon Blum into power as the first socialist Prime Minister of France (not to mention the first Jew to hold that office—a mere 30 years after the conclusion of the Dreyfus Affair) surrounded by a government composed of a coalition of leftists. The new regime was suffused with hope and promise—a promise of political change and social betterment. The cabinet was composed of Socialists, Radicals, and Socialist Republicans and included three women, before women even had the right to vote.
The Film Forum in New York City presents Le Crime de Monsieur Lange 17-23 November. This is a rare opportunity to see an important document in film history and an effervescent comedy that belies a rather disturbing meditation on the prospects of human liberation.
Blum and the Popular Front ushered in a series of reforms pertaining to labor laws (creating the right to strike, collective bargaining, a guaranteed two-week vacation, wage raises, and an interdiction on overtime), attempted to stabilize the economy (in freefall, owing to the Great Depression), ensured that students would remain in school until at least the age of 14 while increasing support for education, and improved health care. For a moment, it seemed as though Marceau Pivert’s (a member of the French Section of the Worker’s International) declaration “Tout est possible” (“Everything is possible”) was perfectly reasonable. Indeed, it was a sentiment shared by Renoir himself as is evident in the director’s documentary (also released in that heady year), La Vie Est à Nous (Life Belongs to Us), funded by the Communist Party.
The Popular Front collapsed a mere year after its establishment, crushed under the weight of its inefficiency in addressing the economic situation, its moral indifference with respect to the Spanish Civil War, and its willingness to turn a blind eye toward Nazi aggression against Czechoslovakia. But released in 1936, a year of seemingly unchecked and inexorable hope, Le Crime de Monsieur Lange bubbles over with the enthusiasm and socialist zeal of that all-too-brief moment in European political history.
The film treats a small building complex and its courtyard as a microcosm for France and its political situation—indeed, the film was originally to be titled Sur la Cour (Overlooking the Courtyard). The complex includes a publishing office, a laundry, and a rooming house. The plot revolves around Amédée Lange (René Lefèvre), who lives in the rooming house and works for the publisher, the unctuous but manipulative Mr. Batala (played to hammy perfection by Jules Berry). Lange spends his nights obsessively writing Western adventure stories about “Arizona Jim” and his exploits with bandits and a pretty young Mexican woman. The woman who runs the laundry, Valentine (the chanteuse Florelle), openly flirts with the oblivious Lange and suggests he ask Batala to publish his stories. Batala at first brushes Lange off until he has a meeting with a Mr. Baigneur, who accuses Batala of neglecting to promote his company’s Ranimax pills in return for the money already given to Batala. The canny and unscrupulous Batala hits upon the idea of inserting advertising copy into the plotlines of “Arizona Jim” and tricks Lange into signing away his rights to the stories. Lange, utterly taken in by the publisher, is overjoyed. When he discovers Batala’s machinations, he’s distraught by what he sees as the denigration of his work, but there’s nothing he can do.
Soon, however, Batala’s misdeeds catch up with him when another creditor begins legal action against him. He absconds on a train where he is seen chatting amicably with a priest. Soon after, Lange and Valentine, in bed after a successful date, hear on the radio that the train crashed; Batala is reported dead and the priest missing.
The publishing house is reduced to utter chaos. Deeply in arrears owing to Batala’s greedy mismanagement, various creditors appear, demanding immediate payment, and the workers are thereby threatened with unemployment. Lange sells the group on the idea of forming a collective, a scheme endorsed by the carefree son of the largest creditor, Mr. Meunier (played with beguiling panache by Henri Guisol). Meunier is overjoyed to meet Lange, the author of his favorite stories, and in one of the funniest lines of the film, Meunier declares that the best moments in Lange’s tales are when the hero takes the Ranimax pills.
The collective turns the business around and they soon see a profit, their success largely fueled by the astounding popularity of “Arizona Jim”. Meunier even suggests they make a film out of the characters of the series. But then Batala reappears in the town dressed as a priest and continuing to filch money from naïve victims. He learns of the windfall his former business is experiencing and, of course, decides to horn his way back in to his old position. Lange discovers Batala in the publishing office while the remainder of the collective celebrate their good fortune at a party below in the rooming house. Lange quickly perceives that Batala’s return augurs utter ruin for the collective and therefore the demise of their livelihoods and happiness. The title more or less reveals the conclusion: Lange determines that the only way to prevent disaster is to murder Batala.
Now, a typical understanding of this film is to read it through the lens of the vision of utopia proffered by the Popular Front. Batala is indeed a rather blatant representation of the rapacious and unprincipled capitalist who exploits his workers without regard for their well-being, manipulates his creditors without a sense of decency, and relentlessly seeks to sate his carnal appetites without respect for the autonomy of others. Thus, he tricks Lange into signing an unjust contract, he blatantly robs his business associates and then bribes their emissaries, and, in one of the most disturbing but ultimately hidden moments of the film, he nonchalantly rapes the young Estelle (Nadia Sibirskaïa) in his office while his employees continue their business on the other side of the door.
And yet, what is perhaps most distressing of all is that Berry portrays this monster with such flamboyance and irresistible élan that our moral repugnance and outrage shades into amusement (which may be why the rape is so often ignored in critical accounts). In this film, the capitalist is not dangerous merely because he employs unfair practices in order to maintain his position of prominence and to benefit from the inequitably recompensed labor of others; rather his treachery lies in his ability to charm the innocent in the very act of destroying them. The ingratiating insinuations of the capitalist into the private recesses of the public’s moral and social lives make him an insidious creature, largely immune to efforts to extirpate him from the social body. He doesn’t wear the face of the villain but rather distracts you with his mendacious smile; the vigorous pat on your back diverts your attention from the hand he has in your pocket.
The problem then is more than simply exposing the villainous underside of the capitalist. Batala is exposed repeatedly and yet the threat that he presents is not eradicated. His lover knows he is unfaithful and he even pimps her out when his financial situation gets too restrictive, and yet she is devoted to him, weeping at his departure on the train, desperate to join him in his flight. Lange recognizes that Batala used him egregiously but Lange cannot conjure up an argument to restore his rights to his intellectual property—indeed, the very notion of asserting such rights around a man like Batala seems risible. If Batala could be reduced to a mere villain, he could be opposed and resisted openly.
The issue is that the beguiling depravity of the capitalist not only wreaks injustice upon us, it seduces us into complicity in that injustice. We excuse him as not so much an immoralist as merely amoral—beyond the realm of sin and punishment. Like Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Batala is an ebullient, seemingly unrestrainable force that both disrupts social order and serves as the engine that keeps it running. The only way to put him out of business is to put him down, to destroy him altogether—and yet (again like Don Giovanni) one cannot imagine the movie continuing much beyond his death; it would be sapped of all vitality, just like that strangely unaffecting ensemble that closes the original version of Mozart’s opera.
This is precisely where I see Le Crime de Monsieur Lange as being far more complicated and far less congenial in its politics than is usually recognized. Notice that the collective is not established in Batala’s presence. It’s erected in his absence. One almost cannot imagine the mechanism that would allow such a collective to form in defiance of the engrossing blandishments of the charismatic capitalist. For all of its outsized successes, Lange realizes immediately that the collective (despite its numbers, despite its financial solvency) is far too fragile to withstand the perfidious pleasantries of Batala. So, Lange murders Batala in the courtyard. The audience’s surrogates in the frame of the film (a group of men in a lodging where Lange and Valentine stay in their flight from the crime) judge the murder justifiable and allow the lovers to cross the border, thus escaping the law and punishment. This, it seems to me, suggests that capitalism, for all of its flaws and depredations and inequities, cannot simply be toppled through organization and good will. In this film, the Communist Manifesto’s celebrated slogan, “Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!” would have to be seriously amended. You can lose those chains only if the capitalist opposition is absent or eradicated through murderous force. This is not the most heartening clarion call for the prospects of the Popular Front.
From a technical point of view, Le Crime de Monsieur Lange is notable for three scenes. Two involve depth of field (the manner of shooting a scene so that both the foreground and background are reasonably in focus, thus expanding the range of what the viewer can see and allowing multiple layers of action to unfold simultaneously) and the other employs a rather bizarre panning shot. All three of these scenes can be read as part of the political viewpoint of the film (with all of its complexity and built-in skepticism, as outlined above).
The two scenes involving depth of field both center on Charles (Maurice Baquet), the concierge’s son and Estelle’s boyfriend. Charles performs acrobatics on his bicycle, much to the chagrin of his father. He apparently becomes rather careless and sandwiches himself between two trucks, breaking his leg. A car with the hurt boy pulls up to the boarding house (Charles had refused to go to the hospital). The occupants of the building complex pour into the street to see the young man who sits silent, looking rather bewildered in the back of the car. Renoir strikes an amazing balance of focus in the scene. We see into the car from the side (the camera is placed in the street). In the foreground are several young boys who, turned away from the camera, peer into the window at Charles. We see Charles in profile in the backseat to the left of the screen. Meanwhile, various figures emerge from the building in the background and enter the car’s open door (the one further away from the camera, on the other side of the car) so that we see their faces as they check on Charles. A man from the printing office calmly asks Charles how he’s doing. He’s brusquely pushed aside by Charles’s frantic mother, who’s replaced by the befuddled and frustrated father. Soon Valentine and Estelle enter the car. The car seems to have an incredible capacity for access. Finally, Lange gets in and orders the driver to the hospital.
The scene, it seems to me, sets Charles in fairly stark opposition to Batala. Far more than Lange (who, of necessity, is in a less morally stable position), Charles is the innocent counterpart to Batala’s perfidy. Whereas Batala constantly moves and distracts attention away from his person (manipulating the concerns of others for his personal gain), Charles is the stationary object of communal concern. Batala isolates each of his victims (this is most evident in the rape scene when he prevents Estelle from leaving the room and escaping his clutches) whereas Charles (through no real effort, but merely by being a victim of his own carelessness) unites them, bringing them into each other’s sustaining presence. Renoir’s setting of the scene, his camera’s ability to encompass and embrace the entirety of the situation and the people in it, motivated by empathy, becomes emblematic of the fellow-feeling and communal care that the ideal of socialism posits as the proper foundation for social order. But even here Batala haunts the edges of the gathering. When Estelle faints, Batala declares he will look after her “sweet little body”. Valentine objects that Estelle is a “good girl”. “That’s what you say,” Batala sneers, and scoops Estelle into his arms.
The second scene that features depth of field takes place after Batala has left the scene and is presumed dead. Estelle now knows she is pregnant and plans to abandon the town. Lange pries an advertisement away from the building which had closed Charles (who has been secluded in his room for months) off from the open air of the courtyard. One would think that his father, the concierge, would have seen to this long ago but, characteristic of that ridiculous figure, he actually objects to Lange’s removal of the item, claiming they require a written order. Nonetheless, Lange tears the board away and we see its removal from the point of view of Charles’s room, as he lies on the bed. The moment it’s lifted away is a subtly stunning cinematic feat.
Having just been faced with a flat obscurity, our view immediately opens out on to the modestly grand expanse of the courtyard. The layers of visual experience (from the foreground Charles and his dog to the middleground Lange and Meurnier to the background window of the laundry with its occupants also visible) all unite in the embrace of the community (not coincidentally, the collective was formed in the immediately preceding scene). As people clear from the middleground area, Charles asks after Estelle. Lange recedes into the background, goes to the window of the laundry, lifts Estelle out of it, and she comes forward to Charles. Again, Charles is the focus of communal care. Estelle confesses that she’s pregnant. When Charles discovers that it’s Batala’s child he dismisses the pregnancy (and implicitly the sexual assault) as far less serious than his injured limb. Like his leg, he declares laughing, everything will soon be fine. In the very next scene we learn that the child is stillborn and when a comical character laments the child’s passing, the community laughs uproariously at his (misplaced?) solemnity.
Again, the social utopia that the film attempts to construct through the ideal of the collective cannot withstand any actual friction or dissonance arising through the incursions of capitalist depredations upon the innocent. The rape and the child’s death are simply dismissed through laughter; consequences are evaded (or ignored) but the film barely acknowledges that this evasion is predicated upon the death of another innocent. For all of its surface vivacity and goodwill, the image of the collective in Le Crime de Monsieur Lange is founded upon a series of rather disturbing elisions and refusals to face up to the reality of life’s darker recesses.
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The most celebrated filmic moment is the murder itself and for good reason. Batala, after his aborted conversation with Lange, strides into the courtyard, convinced that his guile will once again carry the day. He encounters Valentine and attempts to seduce her. The camera pans up and over to the window of the office where we see through the gauzy translucence of the window dressing the silhouetted figure of Lange. He moves to the left, into the office space. The camera follows his movements in a long pan. Sometimes he’s in view, sometimes we merely stare at the wall, but the movement itself is inexorable, ceaseless. It tracks him as he descends the staircase and enters the courtyard. We hear Batala’s teasing of Valentine mixed with the enthusiastic revelry of the collective.
But then something remarkable happens. As Lange bears directly down on Batala, the camera swings in an extravagant circular pan in the opposite direction until it reconnects with Lange (now from behind) as he narrows the distance between himself and the suddenly shocked Batala. The move blatantly calls attention to itself and demands some attempt at justification. Why execute such an outlandish pan at the very moment of urgency? Of course, it’s not a slow pan and in that sense perhaps it’s meant to heighten the urgency. Other critics have claimed that it’s meant to demonstrate that the ensuing murder is on behalf of the collective. Certainly, the sounds of the continuing party contribute to that reading, but the pan itself fails to take in a single human being from the time it leaves Lange until it falls upon Batala and Valentine.
Notably the pan is not, as it is sometimes perceived to be, a complete 360-degree circle. If it were, we would return to the spot where Lange was standing rather than alighting upon his back as he marches toward his victim. As we saw in the earlier depth-of-field scenes, this film is constructed around the notion of a community in a mutually supportive system that often involves encircling—particularly around the innocent Charles (whom I posited as the counterpole to Batala). The circle, a balanced whole with no designated beginning or ending, is the perfect symbol for the socialist ideal the film hopes to represent and wishes to find in the Popular Front. Indeed, the courtyard itself is a kind of circle, an architectural detail emphasized both by Lange’s descent from the office and by the aberrant swing of the panning camera. But the camera does not execute a completed circle. It is intercepted by the directedness of Lange’s line of assault.
Importantly, the camera does not endorse that line—which, symbolically, is the attempt to manifest in reality Lange’s Western fantasies of a hero that metes out justice with the barrel of a gun (the illusion that justice is straightforward). Instead, the camera swings in a wide arc, attempting to inscribe the ideal communal circle that it has sought to document (or better yet, to will into being) throughout the film. But it fails. It’s interrupted by the motion toward a moment of excessive violence that the film seeks to justify but ultimately cannot. The circle is broken and its centripetal, communal force cannot hold without resorting to the elimination of any external threat. Having no internal strategies for coping with capitalist predation, Lange resorts to murder and while the pan might seek to explain away the murder as being on behalf of the community, its failure to suture its motion, to complete the circle, serves as a marker of the aberrant excess that murder entails. For a film so resolute in its efforts to portray an idealized community based on mutuality and shared concern, in the end, Le Crime de Monsieur Lange sends us careening. The act of violence doesn’t repudiate the depravity of the capitalist, it endorses it. The world is askew and there’s no way to set it right.