The Crime of Monsieur Lange

4 11 2009

Seen as social polemic or allegory, The Crime of Monsieur Lange is flat and obvious. The central drama is book-ended in such a way that the film takes the shape of a court case, with the theater-audience playing jury to the titular criminal, listening to the narrative outlined by the hero’s lover/lawyer, who chronicles the events that led to the murder with ostensible impartiality. She claims to only reveal the cold facts, while her listeners – a group patrons at an inn – examine the tale and subsequently decide whether to call the police on Monsieur Lange or allow for his escape. This happens at the beginning, which means the brunt of the plot is shown as one long spoken reminisce. Because we receive the narrative in such a manner, we are equal to the inn’s patrons, overhearing the story of woe and death in order to finally judge the killer. Predictably – given Renoir’s contemporary leftist dalliances, as well as the participation of October Group figurehead Jacques Prevert – the story of woe and death ends up fitting into the archetypal mold of ‘little worker exploited by big boss,’ complete with the rise of a cooperative and the downfall of a greedy ruler and his stringently hierarchical system. All well and good, nothing to see here, right?

Well, no, that would be wrong. This is actually a beautiful film, consistently delectable. The basic narrative structure, as written above, does cheapen the film somewhat, reducing its beauty to a couple of basic themes and ideas, but the beauty is still there and it is the beauty of all Renoir: movement and mannerisms, characters interacting in rich ways across the frame, the camera flying around (there are two shots in particular that are acrobatic acts of hold-your-breath wonderment, as the camera peeks into windows, rising and falling to catch action on both the first and second floors of the publishing house – each one of these shots is almost a world onto itself, a dance of bodies, a catalog of complex rhythms), a universe that is always active and dynamic, with the camera trying to keep up, trying to capture the greatest amount of detail. It helps that the film mostly concentrates on just one location: our immersion into the celluloid is aided by the camera’s willingness to spend so much time exploring the publishing house and environs. Also gratifying is the frankness with which the film tackles stuff like dead newborns, premarital relationships, and sexual harassment. There is no sensationalizing and, in fact, characters often react in unnervingly cavalier fashion to developments that even most modern films would treat with serious-faced gravitas. In one scene, a young man discovers that his sweet darling is pregnant from big boss, who more or less raped her a few scenes prior. What does the young man do? He laughs! Why? Because big boss recently died, or so he thinks, and her being pregnant from a dead guy is apparently hilarious. He loves her and that’s all that really matters. There’s very little dwelling on propriety, since these humble characters have no use for it. What matters is what they can do to help themselves and live happily, not what morality might dictate about their personal worth. When an older man suggests that the sweet darling is a slut – though not in so many words – the protagonists reprimand the dull fogie accordingly.

There is something else that’s relevant about this frankness and that is that it allows Renoir’s acting style to flourish. His technique is to have very expressive characters, whose hands and faces are free to gesticulate around and imply myriads of feelings. There is no place, then, for emotional rigidity and conservative moralizing. It is much more important for every individual to constantly reinforce his or her own uniqueness through physical communication. Every person is someone to investigate and observe, someone to interact with, someone with whom to travel the suggestive itineraries scribbled on the air by their swaying bodies. Their freedom is ours, too.

About Monsieur Lange: He’s an idealistic writer of pulp westerns stuck in a cynical milieu, a predecessor to both Holly Martins in The Third Man (minus the ‘foreigness’ that is so central to Carol Reed’s fish-out-of-water scenario) and Andre Jurieux in The Rules of the Game: a naive, adventurous male who suffers a tragic fate and who, despite having the film’s plot revolve around him, is very much led into a pit by surrounding forces. This might seem incongruous with Monsieur Lange. The murder is his decision. He is not technically coerced into it, even if there are contextual pressures. Yet, one gets the impression that Lange is unaware of the potential consequences of his deed. He is introduced as an oblivious boy with his head in the fictional clouds of his wild imaginings. Considering the socialist themes purveyed by the aforementioned narrative structure, Lange occupies the role of leftist hero, killing big boss to keep the proletariat dream alive. But he is a strange leftist hero: utterly uninterested in reality (his vision of Old West America is constructed with minimum historical research and maximum childlike fantasy) and decidedly unenthusiastic about his newfound turn as socialist soldier. His reaction after big boss’s demise is a dazed and curt “so easy” – not words befitting of a hero, but of an uncertain and simple boy who was not ready to kill, who is amazed that he has killed, and who barely understands how the violent event came and went before he could realize what it meant. He is not a fighter for social justice, except unwittingly. He is a writer who is merely happy that he can regularly unveil his fiction for the jubilation of children – for he is also a child, if an over-grown one.

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