The angel’s crime

Colin Davis on the ethical devastation of Renoir’s Le Crime de Monsieur Lange

Ever since Plato banned poets from the city, philosophers have been trying to find ways of letting them back in. Poets may not be such bad sorts after all. Their pretty rhymes might help underline a point, or they may even contain some insight of their own, so long as it is clear that the philosopher has the final word on its value. The novel and, in the last hundred years, film might also have their occasional philosophical uses, and those of us in lesser disciplines should be suitably grateful to our philosophical colleagues for helping us out from time to time.

Recently, though, some aberrant souls amongst the philosophers have been saying strange things. What if we might actually learn something by watching films, and not just the difficult, dull, serious films by Tarkovsky or Bergman or Godard, but the unpretentious ones we actually enjoy watching, with silly plots, car chases, special effects, romance and moronic characters? Might it be, as a surprising number of recent publications have taken to claiming, that film is inherently philosophical, that it might somehow be said to think? Could The Matrix be as profound as the Critique of Pure Reason?

The interpretive assumptions behind this assessment of film’s philosophical import can be traced back to the influence of Heidegger’s later writings, even if Heidegger himself might have had little sympathy for it. Heidegger proposed a resolution of the ancient quarrel between philosophy and literature which made thought and poetry into the twin summits of human achievement, different from one another but of equal dignity. This goes together with the conviction that eminent works of art will repay a high level of attention by giving something back to the patient thinker. Heidegger sought to listen to poems in order to hear the echo of a primordial, forgotten truth. The poem knows something, and if you listen to it carefully enough it may be willing to share its knowledge with you.

This has nothing to do with traditional literary scholarship or commentary, though Heidegger drew on them when it suited him. Rather, Heidegger’s devotion to poetry depended on the possibility of an intense encounter between thinker and poem which should take place outside restrictive academic norms. Heidegger knew full well that he would seem to some to be pressing the poem too hard, seeking out nuggets of meaning through excessive, unregulated interpretive acts. Heidegger’s point was that it is only by taking the poem seriously, at the risk of taking it too seriously, that it might consent to yield its secrets. Luckily for him, he didn’t have to worry much about the constraints of peer review.

Whereas Heidegger thought mostly about poetry, it is only a small step to extend the same intense attention to other art forms, including cinema. Heidegger might not have liked this trivialisation of his approach, but it is in the nature of ideas to spin out of the control of any individual thinker, however prestigious he may be. High and low art are now scrutinised not just for what we might learn about them but also for what we might learn from them. When Slavoj Žižek insists that vulgar sentimental literature knows things that Kant didn’t, his typically provocative claim in fact makes explicit the stance towards popular culture which motivates his writing. And he is not alone. Žižek’s interest in film in particular is shared by thinkers as diverse and, in their different ways, as important as Gilles Deleuze and Stanley Cavell, both of whom have devoted substantial works to film. Their shared assumption is that the work of art has a philosophical depth which cannot be ascribed to the intentions of any individual artist. It knows more than its creator might plausibly be said to have known. It speaks from a position of otherness, of utter strangeness, which ensures that its potential to signify is inexhaustible.

To say that film thinks would be banal if it were merely a way of saying that the ideas of directors, scriptwriters, actors or producers are reflected in films. Obviously they are, sometimes. But if it is meaningful to claim, in Stanley Cavell’s phrase, that “film exists in a state of philosophy”, it cannot just be because filmmakers have particular views on the world. There must be more to it than that. A philosophical approach to film, in something like an extended Heideggerian sense, would be disappointing if it were merely a form of auteurism which established the filmmaker as the sole source of the work.

In fact philosophical film criticism does not need to go down this route; the solution is much simpler. Philosophy at its best deals with humanly important issues. Film at its best, and sometimes even at its worst, also deals with humanly important issues. What is real and what is false? What do we know for sure? Might our world turn out to be radically different from what we thought it to be? How do or should we relate to others? Is there a meaning which binds together our experiences? What is it like to feel love, or pain, or hatred? What survives of us when we are dead? Given this commonality of concerns, it should not be surprising that film and philosophy might sometimes have something to say to one another.

At the same time, if film is philosophical, its thinking cannot be, or it cannot only be, located in its dialogue. It may also be in a gesture or a facial expression, the development or obstruction of a narrative, the balancing or unbalancing of a frame, or a camera movement; it may be in the editing, a film’s repetitions and incongruities, or apparently fortuitous occurrences such as a cloud which passes above a character’s head or a shaft of sun in a rain-drenched day.

The film I want to talk about here is Jean Renoir’s Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, which was made in 1935 and released in 1936. The film begins with the arrival of Lange, an escaping murderer, at an inn close to the border between France and an unnamed other country which is probably Belgium. The landlord and customers at the inn debate whether or not to hand him over to the authorities, and while he sleeps, his girlfriend Valentine recounts his story. Most of the film is then recounted in flashback. Before his crime Lange spent his nights composing cowboy stories about his heroic alter ego Arizona Jim; by day he worked for a dishonest, womanising publisher named Batala. Having agreed to publish Lange’s stories, Batala absconded in the face of escalating debts and he was believed to have been killed in a train crash. The abandoned workers decided to run the publishing house as a cooperative, which went on to make a huge success out of the Arizona Jim series. Disguised as a priest, Batala returned and announced his intention to re-assume control of his business. Lange shot him and escaped with Valentine. Back in the present, the men at the inn decide to let Lange go, and the final shot of the film shows him and Valentine after they have crossed the border, turning and waving to the camera.

Le Crime de Monsieur Lange is most frequently read in the light of Renoir’s support for the left-wing Popular Front movement which was formed in 1935 and briefly held power in France after winning parliamentary elections in 1936. In this account, the film expresses hope for a new social dispensation based on the union of workers. Lange’s crime is committed for the collective good, to prevent the return of the old exploitative capitalist order. By not handing him over to the authorities, the occupants of the border inn constitute a kind of impromptu people’s jury which recognises that justice transcends legality, so that although Lange has committed a crime he should not be punished. The film, then, is a product of a moment of political optimism. It can be linked with the generous humanism of Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937) and contrasted with his more sombre masterpieces of the later 1930s, La Bête humaine (1938) and La Règle du jeu (1939), which reflect the collapse of the Popular Front and the inexorable approach of war.

This political reading has a lot to be said for it, but it does not account for aspects of the film which make of it, I want to suggest, a bleaker meditation on ethical disarray. To put it in a nutshell, I do not believe that the film’s enquiry into moral action is resolved as tidily and optimistically as the political interpretation of Lange’s act might hope. I can sketch this rapidly by picking out some features of the film which suggest a different kind of conclusion. It is in some of its odder, incongruous features that the significance of this or any film is most interestingly to be tracked.

The opening discussion at the inn is a case in point, as it is both whimsical and, in my view, deeply serious. The landlord insists that no one has the right to kill. A customer says that he has killed – in his dreams. As the discussion heats up, it is suggested that Lange may have killed someone bad. And what if it was his mother, someone adds. Is the nature of the crime changed by the identity of the victim? And finally, an old man interjects, what if it was God the Father whom he killed?

At this point we might recall that Lange’s name designates him as an angel (l’ange). Is he a fallen angel or a wholly good being, despite the fact that he is a killer? Is his crime the murder of God? The echo of Nietzsche in the reference to the killing of God adds a new dimension of significance to the discussion. It propels the participants into a wholly indeterminate space where familiar laws of morality no longer hold. The landlord is reminded that he is not an examining magistrate. There is no authority and no secure principle here, in this liminal space, to resolve the questions of guilt, justice and punishment.

The film’s ethical reflection is picked up in the final confrontation between Lange and Batala, which leads to Batala’s murder. The fact that when Batala returns he is dressed as a priest adds to the uncanny atmosphere throughout the sequence. I want here to pick out one brief moment from the scene in which a camera angle, an improvisation and a facial gesture collude to raise the stakes of the exchange. Batala has revealed his intention to take control of the cooperative and shown Lange the gun he kept in his desk. At this point there is an improvised departure from the script written by Jacques Prévert. In the script, Lange says to Batala: “I should kill you.” In the film Lange says no such thing. Instead, the camera films Batala from a low angle. A sudden seriousness comes over Batala; his face adopts an expression which may be a sneer; he glances quickly to one side, raises his eyebrows and says: “You should kill me.” An instant later Batala regains his manic exuberance. When Lange asks him who would miss him if he were dead, he replies with a teasing flourish: “Women!”

I take Batala’s sudden seriousness to be the key moment of the film. The camera angle elevates his stature, making him dominate the screen and obliging us to look at him from below, from a position of physical, intellectual and moral inferiority. His facial expression hovers between disdain for lesser mortals and confident, commanding power. It is as if he can hardly bear to state the obvious to beings too stupid to work it out for themselves. But his message is a moral scandal in that it directly reverses the biblical commandment not to commit murder. If Lange had said “I should kill you”, as he does in Prévert’s script, this would be merely the reflection of a man about to take drastic action. Batala’s arrogation of the thought makes it infinitely more resonant. The staging of Batala’s “You should kill me” emphasises his authority, yet here that authority suicidally calls for its own annihilation. If Lange is an angel who kills God the Father, he does so at God’s bidding, with a weapon that God has provided. Is his “You should kill me” an order or a recommendation? In any case it recognises that the norms of human interaction no longer apply. Something is happening here which tears morality from its secure mooring and projects us into uncharted territory. All rules are suspended. In the film’s opening scene we are reminded that no examining magistrate is present; this has now escalated to become a greater metaphysical absence, as the film develops its earlier reference to the murder of God. If God is dead, if God has willed and commanded his own death, what moral nightmare awaits us? Something has happened for which nothing has prepared us; its meaning is as yet unfathomed.

In the film’s closing shot we see Lange and Valentine from behind, walking away from the camera along a desolate, deserted beach. They turn and wave, a little nervously perhaps, to those who have accompanied them and to the spectator, before resuming their journey into the distance, hand in hand. They have crossed a border. Trivially, this is the border between France and, presumably, Belgium. More importantly, it is the border between a familiar, known world and a place which is featureless and bleak. They are together but look uncertain when they face the audience for a final time. As they finally walk away from us, they are ethical subjects in a devastated world, with nothing to guide them and no idea what to expect.

Colin Davis is professor of French at Royal Holloway, University of London, and author of Scenes of Love and Murder: Renoir, Film and Philosophy (Wallflower Press)

  1. commenting on the title alone, i will say organic circuitry is free, and it is the material of ones body, some say that a body is a temple and a temple a house of or for god, so what would the prime movement of the dynamic be if there is dynamic pre-existant, in the world, or nature, or the solar, system. or the greater mysteries of life

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