Jun 3, 2018

The 44th Seattle International Film Festival: Jean Renoir's Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1936)

It was impressive to see a full theater for the Sunday afternoon screening of Jean Renoir’s Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1936). I didn't expect this lesser known work of the director to get such a turnout. The film played at SIFF Cinema Uptown for the third weekend of the 44th Seattle International Film Festival.

René Lefèvre is the titular Lange, a publishing company clerk who longs to find an audience for his Arizona Jim cowboy stories. He’s never been to the American West, but clearly the movies and a big imagination have given him lots of ideas. His salacious boss Batala (Jules Berry) decides to publish the stories, but tricks the young man into signing away his rights to them.

Batala then appears to die in a train wreck, inspiring the workers at the publishing company to continue on as a collective. Together, they make the Arizona Jim stories a sensation. When their devious boss makes a surprise return, Lange becomes determined to keep the rights to his work at any cost.

Renoir’s leftist ode to socialism brought him both praise and danger as Germany began to advance upon France. When encouraged by the Communist party, he was happy to make more films in that vein as a way to fight fascism. He secured a visa to the United States when the Nazis also showed interest in his filming talent.

Monsieur Lange is Renoir in the middle of his career, on the edge of making his greatest work. While films like La Chienne (1931) and Boudo Saved from Drowning (1932) had plenty of bite, the director would soon take his talent for poking at social convention and human absurdity to a transcendent level with films like La Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939). This production sits balanced between those two periods.

Renoir captures a typically busy cast of characters, always in motion or conversation, rarely taking time to reflect on their actions. They don’t have the charm of his later ensembles, where even the most shallow characters have some power to seduce, but they are funny and sweet. You want them to succeed. 

Though Lefèvre’s passion for his cowboy world is endearing, the rest of his personality is a bit of a blank compared to his costars. You find yourself caring more for his ideals, or the happiness of his devoted girlfriend Valentine (Florelle), than him.

It was a treat to see this rarely screened film in a restored print. While there were some moments where the image would get fuzzy, it was of essentially consistent clarity and the sound was remarkably good.

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