The career of Jean Renoir is littered with iconic masterpieces like La Chienne, Boudu Saved from Drowning, La Grande Illusion, The Human Beast, The Rules of the Game, The River or French Cancan, it is easy to disregard a film like Le Crime de Monsieur Lange which describes the peregrination of a Parisian building in the 1930s. However, when looking deeper into it, this early Renoir remains a most remarkable testimony of artistic accomplishment.
Monsieur Lange (René Lefèvre, Body of My Enemy) is a publishing house clerk who writes cheap Western novels in his spare time. When his untrustworthy, salacious boss, Batala (Jules Berry, Le Jour Se Lève) avoids his debt collectors by pretending to be dead, Lange and his co-workers take over the business themselves and thrive on the popularity of Lange's pulp stories. Meanwhile Lange falls deeply in love with his neighbour Valentine (Florelle, L'opéra de quat'sous).
As indicated in the insightful featurette offered by StudioCanal on this recently released disc, it is easy to limit Le Crime de Monsieur Lange to its political statement, profoundly linked to the spirit of the contemporary Popular Front - an alliance of left-wing movements during the interwar period in France - despite the large portion of truth in the assessment even down to its origins.
In the early 1930s, Jacques Becker (Le Trou), still a Second Unit Director at the time, had collaborated several times with Production Designer Jean Castanyer (Boudu Saved from Drowning), and they had both moved closer to the group October, a protest theatre troupe of communist or anarchist sensibility, among whose members was Jacques Prévert (Children of Paradise). During this period, Becker and Castanyer worked on a script, called Sur la Cour (literally ‘On the courtyard’), about a cooperative formed by printers and laundresses. But for imprecise reasons, the producer who was funding the project, André Halley Desfontaines (Becker’s Paris Frills), decided to offer the project to Renoir, who accepted to direct it (Becker, who had been Renoir’s assistant for many years before this event, would be very disappointed by the director’s decision and wouldn't forgive him until years later). Prévert then joined Renoir in reworking the initial screenplay and they both brought their influences of the time to it.
The finished film scrupulously follows this scenario which is both militant and educational; facing an infamous boss, a group of idealists (Lefèvre and Florelle, their respective co-workers, and a wealthy heir played by Henry Guisol (The Story of the Count of Monte Cristo) unite to join a collective project of self-management. Le Crime de Monsieur Lange firstly proposes chiselled dialogue which serve the purpose of the story and nourish the libertarian and enthusiastic impulses of the characters. Above all, by its very structure, the film presents to a popular jury (the customers of the hotel where Valentine and Lange find refuge, but also the audience itself) the moral question of the guilt of the latter actually displayed in the film’s title.
But even if there are lessons that one can continue to ponder decades later, Le Crime de Monsieur Lange must not be reduced to a snapshot or the political orientation of its makers, or even of the very particular situation experienced by France on the verge of the electoral successes of the Popular Front. What strikes most is more the incredible vitality, and the methodical enthusiasm with which Renoir decides to film this story. From the beginning, the viewer is immersed in the bubbling of this courtyard, through the continuous movement of protagonists or devices. Indeed, Renoir lets his actors move out of frame to better find them through the use of panoramic shots or the clever use of appearances and disappearances. Each time these processes are used, the perfect logic of the collective enterprise is illustrated; more than the individuals that inhabit it, the courtyard itself seems to influence the behaviour of the characters.
Renoir also brings a decisive touch to the story with the use of a formidable troupe of comedians from diverse backgrounds, dominated, both literally and figuratively, by Berry as Batala, a character who still represents, even today, the archetype of the swine boss, and that we would all dream to make disappear. Without any subtlety (but for our greatest pleasure), Berry composes an indispensably detestable character, who supports the ideological project of the film as much as it offers him some of his most eminently cinematic moments.
Le Crime de Monsieur Lange was released in the UK by Studio Canal on 27th August.
The film seems to have been rather efficiently restored, even if the quality of the work achieved is not obvious on the DVD copy I reviewed. Many shots look quite blurry but this is not massively detrimental to the overall viewing experience.
On the sound side, the DVD features two audio track options, French and German Mono Dolby Digital which are pretty decent despite the age of the film. Again, it is difficult to assess the work done on the DVD copy but there is nothing detrimental to the overall viewing experience. The disc also includes subtitles in English, German and French.
On the bonus side, StudioCanal has only included one interesting extra: Lange, or the spirit of the Popular Front (29 min, in French with English subtitles). In this new featurette from French cinema expert Dominique Maillet, Renoir’s biographer Pascal Mérigeau and Prévert specialist André Heinrich discuss the project’s gestation, the link between the film and French politics of the 1930s, Renoir’s personality, Prévert’s role on the script, the importance of scriptwriters in French 30s cinema, the actors and the reception of the film.