Archive for the ‘Jean Renoir’ Category

“The Crime of Monsieur Lange” (1936)

August 18, 2011

It’s a matter of settled faith for me that the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are actually named Jean Renoir, William Faulkner and Bob Dylan, so I see it as a boon for all mankind that Renoir’s The Crime of Monsieur Lange is finally available on DVD. To me it’s more than just “a great film”—it’s almost the pure embodiment of everything I like about movies, right down to its modest budget.

Amédée Lange (René Lefèvre) is a dreamy, unassertive clerk in Paris who spends his nights alone writing stories about “Arizona Jim”, his fictional cowboy hero who deals out trouble to bandit and Indian alike. But by day Lange must submit to his employer, the comic-book publisher Batala—a fast-talking, double-dealing cobra played by Jules Berry, and one of the great satanic bosses in cinema history. Batala mercilessly exploits his workers, stealing their time and ideas and labor, but saving his greatest efforts for the female employees whom he wishes to bed. When he’s reportedly killed in a train wreck, his old employees don’t waste a second on crocodile tears, choosing instead to celebrate their freedom by  converting the dead man’s company into a worker-owned cooperative. It isn’t long before their honest labors make “Arizona Jim” a hit across France, and its success causes Batala, who’s only been hiding from his creditors, to return from the dead like a Goldman Sachs vice-president, ready to reassert the status quo.

If it sounds like there’s a lesson here, you’re onto something.

The scriptwriter Jacques Prévert filled out this simple story with a host of  characters, all of whom have their own feelings and concerns: a sassy, maternal blonde who takes an interest in the newly invigorated Lange; a naïve laundress (the achingly beautiful Nadia Sibirskaïa) and her boyfriend, who have to decide what to do after Batala knocks the girl up; a homely streetwalker who strolls into the action for a single scene, bringing out a side of the timid Lange we wouldn’t have suspected otherwise. (One of the movie’s most pleasing qualities is its sane attitude towards sex.) Renoir, too, was feeling his oats, using playful wipes to transition between scenes (and even through walls), following the delivery boy on a heady bike ride through the streets of 1936 Paris, and capturing the final confrontation between Lange and Batala in a single sinuous shot that’s been fucking with the heads of movie critics ever since.

In theory at least*, The Crime of Monsieur Lange could work splendidly as an Americanized remake. I’m not holding my breath for that to happen, though, because it’s so obviously a communist film, even if it’s “communist” in the most positive, small-c sense of the word. Renoir made Lange following the Popular Front’s victory in the 1936 elections—one of those halcyon moments in history, the way November 2008 was for America, where hope and reason briefly flourish before weariness and rage set in again. Today The Crime of Monsieur Lange necessarily looks slight beside the behemoths Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, nor is it the near-perfect distillation of emotion that  A Day in the Country is. But it blazed a trail for the great democratic comedies of Sturges, Altman and Demme, while its warmth, high spirits and palpably civilized values are as pleasing as ever.

* In 1986 Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning was Americanized as Down and Out in Beverly Hills, with painfully predictable results: director Paul Mazursky hammered away at Boudu’s trenchant and poetic takes on class and conformity until a Bette Midler comedy fell out of it.

“Grand Illusion” (1937)

December 3, 2010

Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion throws many people for a loop the first time they see it. Its reputation as one of the great works of cinema leads them to expect an eye-popper like Citizen Kane, or a Bicycle Thieves that distills to perfect transparency some aspect of human experience. Instead they find an apparently formless drama performed in a melange of acting styles, a supremely melancholy film that’s crowned by a note of tentative affirmation, a work that’s both a plea for ecumenical brotherhood and a surprisingly felt lament for the passing of the aristocracy. Even the film’s reputation as an “anti-war classic” is misleading – it doesn’t have a didactic bone in its body.

Set in World War I, the film follows a pair of French soldiers who are taken prisoner by the Germans and transferred through a series of POW camps, and chronicles their interactions with each other, their fellow prisoners, and their German captors. Superficially the movie is something of a shaggy-dog tale: characters disappear and reappear with a minimal amount of explanation, and elaborately planned events – a camp show, an escape – are abandoned or aborted at the last moment. But as the movie goes on its connections keep multiplying, deepening, and eventually the seemingly haphazard events evolve into a tightly-knit meditation on all the man-made barriers – class, nationality, language, religion – that separate people from each other.

The main characters stand at slight angles to each other that highlight their similarities and differences. The two career officers, the captive Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and the German commandant Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), recognize that the war heralds the end of the Old Order that they represent. The mechanic Marechal (Jean Gabin), the Jewish couturier Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), and the other common soldiers have more earthly concerns of regular human beings: home and food and sex. Culture as Boeldieu and Rauffenstein know it isn’t part of their world. When the Czarina sends the POWs a crate full of books, the soldiers, enraged at not finding vodka in the shipment, begin rioting and set the books on fire. The one common soldier who has an education – he spends his time in captivity translating Pindar – is ostracized by his fellow prisoners. Even Rauffenstein, rendered incapable by his heritage of recognizing any bond with such a specimen, gives the man a withering look and murmurs, “Poor Pindar.”

Boeldieu can see the historical transition as a joke at his own expense, but Rauffenstein is himself a prisoner to the old forms and divisions. Trapped inside the steel plating that binds up his war wounds, he can’t look on the inheritors of his world with Boeldieu’s equanimity. He pronounces their names – “a Rosenthal, a Marechal” – as one might say “a louse, a vermin,” and belittles them as the “happy gifts of the French Revolution.” It is Boeldieu’s embrace of historical inevitability that sets the final chain of events in motion. He can be seen unlimbering himself throughout the film: by degrees he stops pulling rank (and attitude) on Marechal and Rosenthal, and by the end he is defending them to Rauffenstein when he knows what heresy that sounds like to the German’s ear. When it comes time for Marechal and Rosenthal to escape the fortress, it’s left to Boeldieu to distract the Germans while his comrades carry out their plan. Boldieu’s seeming madness forces the hand of the uncomprehending Rauffenstein, and what results is tantamount to a double suicide. In its aftermath Rauffenstein moves to the frail geranium that he’s nurtured in his quarters and liberates it – his last connection to his own humanity – from its stem.

Renoir is at his best near Grand Illusion’s end when Marechal and Rosenthal figuratively reenter the world by taking refuge in a farmhouse inhabited by a war widow (Dita Parlo) and her young daughter. The sequence, only some ten minutes long, teems with quiet epiphanies, stirs layer after layer of emotion. A German soldier knocking on the window for directions takes an extra moment to soak in the domestic atmosphere before resuming his march into the night. Marechal and the woman sip at each other’s existences by trying on phrases in their opposing tongues. Rosenthal, catching the two in a morning-after pose, preempts any chance of awkwardness by advancing with a light civility to shake hands with the lovers – and shakes the woman’s hand first.

Grand Illusion is a cornucopia of great acting in different styles. Von Stroheim, a fabled director in his own right, gives a performance worthy of Renoir’s complex conception of Rauffenstein: the delicacy with which he entertains the prisoners at his table conveys the civilized values that Renoir found admirable in the elite, yet his fatal lack of resilience is expressed in the rigidity with which he throws back a shot of cognac. As the superficially starchy Boeldieu, Fresnay employs a dry flintiness that has a comic side effect, as when he takes in Gabin’s vulgar yawn with a savory astonishment. Early on his mien is so convincing in its gravity that we’re almost as shocked as Rauffenstein when Boeldieu begins his Pan-like capering among the castle ramparts during the escape attempt. And the scenes in which Boeldieu and Rauffenstein take refuge in each others’ company are indelible. Left to their own, the two men converse in a specially toned language that’s intended only for one another’s ears, betraying their privileged upbringing with unconscious lapses into English; when they plop down on a window-seat for a chat about the good old days, with Boeldieu curling one leg underneath his body, they have the familiarity of sorority sisters.

Gabin and Dalio give the film’s most naturalistic performances, befitting their status as a new earthy aristocracy. Gabin never strays beyond the salt-of-the-earth contours of Marechal’s character, but he’s magnetic just the same. Dalio, as Rosenthal, gives the least conspicuous of Grand Illusion’s great performances. Early on he appears to be a negligible figure, but in the film’s last third he emerges as the film’s most worldly and assured character. The other miraculous performance belongs to Parlo, who conveys the widow’s aching loneliness with a minimum of dialogue. In one moment she catches Gabin staring at her as she’s scrubbing the floor on her knees, and in the simple act of straightening up at the waist she expresses in turn the woman’s initial mortification, a resentful challenge, and finally a frank return of his sexual interest.

More than sixty years after it was made, Grand Illusion remains one of cinema’s great achievements. Sitting at a potent intersection of the dramatic and the poetic, just as the German war machine was readying for another onslaught on all of Europe, the movie is itself like Rauffenstein’s geranium: an impossible piece of beauty blooming in the unlikeliest of places.

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