Like rivers or the moment to come just after this moment, you can’t step into the same Jean Renoir film twice. Whether the release of this restoration marks your first or your 50th time seeing The Crime of Monsieur Lange — the master’s 1936 collectivist lulu and certainly the most warmly humane film ever made about killing your boss — its glittering bustle of motion and character always offers new and piercing details. What, this time, will prick you?
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Renoir collaborated on the story with the agitprop Left Bank theater troupe First Groupe Octobre, shaping a satiric romance in which horndog skinflint magazine publisher Batala (an inventively detestable Jules Berry) is monstrous to his employees, especially women, whom he paws at relentlessly. (On occasion, he’ll dispatch a young subordinate to love up a man to help smooth over a business deal.) Offsetting his horribleness: The doughty proletariat inhabiting the flats around his offices, a spirited coterie of janitors and laundry workers, innkeepers and typesetters, street kids and sex workers, and one Monsieur Lange (Rene Lefevre). He is the dream-struck author of pulp westerns who, thanks to a nasty turn of Batala’s fortunes, suddenly sees his work at last published.
His corny “Arizona Jim” stories are a hit, of course. Soon, screaming kids are rushing the newsstands to score the latest, but that’s small relief to Lange, who soon discovers that Batala has been shoehorning passages into the tales promoting the pep pills of a sponsor. That’s hardly the nastiest of Batala’s sins, of course, but Renoir’s radical collaborators presumably were much less resigned than we are today to product placement. Whirling around this comic drama are briskly amusing affairs of the heart: A cyclist in Lange’s building loves the young woman that Lange brags about sleeping with despite having in truth been rebuffed; head washerwoman Valentine (Florelle), meanwhile, falls for Lange, and the general high spirits encourage us not to hold the fantasist’s big talk against him.
Batala will die, of course — twice, in a way. But for all the pathos of the final scenes, which involve a drunk crying for help in the streets and nobody heeding him, the film’s genius is in its restless tumult, its parade of faces and wisecracks and subplots, its sense of its leads not actually being much more interesting than any of the extras teeming around them. Renoir and his crew famously emphasize this through their technical innovations: The camera roves with rare freedom across a lavish courtyard set, eyeing the life layered all around it with persuasive urban density, and several sequences broke new ground in depth of field photography. Rather than showy or distracting, the technique is inviting.
As in Renoir’s mature masterpieces, the prevailing spirit is of a brilliantly controlled spontaneity, a breezy sublimity, that sense that any character can vault into the frame at any time and push the story someplace new – but never on a tangent, and always someplace thematically appropriate. This time, as always, I was moved by the enormous generosity of Renoir and screenwriter Jacques Prevert (Port of Shadows, Children of Paradise), how they find joy even in the villain of the piece. But even more so, they feel for the villain’s victims, the women he torments — his abuse never is laughed off. Their sympathies — for the workers, the harassed, the screwed-over, the lonely, for the very idea of community — are the ones we still wish our species would embrace today.