From the beginning, Jean Renoir embraced dualities. One wants to say he played with them, and that’s often true, but he also took them seriously. When these two things are happening at the same time, his work is imbued with a magic that still casts a spell, just as it did over French New Wave filmmakers of the 1960s who rightly took him as a father figure.
A striking example of contrasting impulses, his first film on his own, La fille de l’eau (Whirlpool of Fate, 1925) is one of his open-air works—a heroine’s journey out in the world—but at its heart is a dream sequence and very theatrical. That set Renoir’s aesthetic course. Naturalism or neo-realism are rightly associated with him in the 1930s but the love of theatre that became especially vibrant in his 1950s movies generally plays a part in the earlier ones, while those later ones are not simply artifice—French Cancan (1955) would be alluring if it simply observed the behavioral beauty of Françoise Arnoul.
Equally, and vital in The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936), Renoir’s evident affection for the characters and worlds he creates does not preclude a tough-minded engagement with realities, whether of personal relationships or stinging social and political currents.
So, The Crime of Monsieur Lange is famously born out of the emerging Popular Front in France and anticipates its political force and influence before emerging fascism would destroy it by the end of the 1930s (forcing this director into exile). The story, developed by Renoir and Jean Castanier and made into a graceful screenplay with the collaboration of no less than Jacques Prévert in pre-Marcel Carné days, winds up as an imaginative, entertaining fable about society’s necessary struggle against evil, always there within its fabric and either getting the upper hand or being destroyed. The moral questions around this could not be more serious, indeed challenging—and that’s there in the film. But Renoir recognizes that the space of the screen is its own privileged space, in which our thoughts and responses can roam freely, so, at one with the film’s characters to whom the flashback story is told, we can “bless” the crime of the title and the vulnerable lovers who cross the gray windswept beach in the final images without resolving the moral dilemma of any killing of one human being by another.
The politics, while at the movie’s heart, play throughout as an undercurrent, the film itself experienced as a gentle melodrama, characteristically charming and not without a touch of romanticism. As its intentions are mixed, so also are its tone and aesthetics. It has real locations and an ambiance of the Parisian world of the time, but the courtyard and apartments where much of the action takes place also feels like an elaborate set, where evolving affections and harmonies, the machinations of the morally bankrupt publisher Batala (Jules Berry), and a later move by characters to become a communal ensemble create a deeply drawn artistic reality within a vibrant real world. And if there is finally a murder, there is also time for a song, and for the hero’s dreams of his imagined hero, Arizona Jim, and his whimsically created Mexican girl. It is not only intentions that play at different levels in the movie, but moods, always artfully in balance in the mise en scène.
In a sophisticated structure like this one it’s hard to say what’s most important, but a few things do jump out. First, there is the organization within scenes, often pressing characters close in interiors but allowing for a lot of fluid reframing as they move about. But the small rooms in the courtyard set can also contain an individual’s dreams, so it’s a joy when Renoir lingers on Amédée Lange (René Lefèvre) writing his Arizona Jim adventures beneath that wonderful map, no less than his varied interactions with Valentine (Florelle), or a hidden, shadowed embrace of Charlie (Maurice Baquet) and Estelle (Nadia Sibirskaïa) early in the movie. Always passionate about formal and stylistic things, though not obsessively showy about it, Renoir will in key moments like the climax orchestrate the staging of a scene with elaborate, complex camera movement. Here, Lange is left stunned by Batala—“back from the dead,” as the saying goes, and as malevolently self-serving as ever—who descends from the office to find Valentine in the courtyard and, a bit manic in his resurrection, makes an unwanted sexual move on this one time lover; from outside, the camera traces Lange’s own path downward but then in the courtyard diverges to move in a circle in the opposite direction until it has come around to where Lange himself meets the other two and shoots and kills Batala. It is an unexpected moment for them all and one in which Lange becomes not the Arizona Jim of his innocent fantasy but a less pure hero addressing the darker complexity of violent justice, one who looks forward more to the Western heroes of the 1950s.
And Batala, it must be said, has some of the Mephistophelean aspect of the villains of Bend of the River (1952), Seven Men from Now (1956), or 3:10 to Yuma (1957). It would be comforting to say that someone so thoroughly corrupt and purely self- interested and with more than a touch of narcissism would come across simply as a monster, but it’s one of the interesting mysteries of movies, given an inevitable contemporary resonance as this is written, that a real man with these qualities could seem more like a grotesque cartoon, while Batala, as brilliantly incarnated by Jules Berry, is in his way kind of engaging and even has some shading. A privileged moment—more than a moment because it lasts nearly five minutes in the middle of the movie—has Batala accompanied to the train station for his earlier escape by the mistress, Edith (Sylvia Bataille), who he has not treated well but who loves him. In a few indelible scenes—a two-shot in the café where he tells her that a woman alone crying on a train platform will soon draw sympathetic attention, a shot from inside the train as she passionately says goodbye from outside, and finally the image of her alone on the platform crying in a two-shot with another approaching man, ending in a memorable forward tracking shot as they walk away together—Renoir seems not only to affirm Batala’s insight (which cost him nothing but may have let Edith go more gently after all) but to lift the whole movie from any strict intention of getting to the moral point. As if that weren’t enough, these minutes of the film, when they come back to the central courtyard narrative, continue with Valentine’s song to Amédée in cosy two shot “Au jour, le jour; à la nuit, la nuit.” It’s always the greatest filmmakers who trust to follow the deeper feeling of a moment and find their art there, more than in even the most deliberated ideas—of which Renoir always had more than his share.
From his silents through his earlier sound films in the 1930s Renoir had been working towards a movie like this, one that seemed to have all his qualities at once, and realized in a way that feels at once relaxed and concise. In satisfying balance, he is socially purposeful without ever being didactic while infusing this captivating story with a rich weave of nuance and feeling that remains ageless.