Murder and Merrymaking: The "Seen" of the Crime in Renoir's 1930s Cinema

By Golsan, Katherine | Film Criticism, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Murder and Merrymaking: The "Seen" of the Crime in Renoir's 1930s Cinema


Golsan, Katherine, Film Criticism


In French cinema of the 1930s, murder of both men and women recurs with striking frequency and provides the shattering climax in a number of important films. Jean Renoir's 1931 La Chienne inaugurates a proto-noir atmosphere and plot structure in an urban tale of prostitution and murder, and this dark deed figures in almost all of his films throughout the decade from Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1935) to La Regle du jeu (1939). Other directors were drawn to murder as well. Julien Duvivier's 1937 Gueule d'amour and his original tragic version of La Belle equipe (1936) explore in detail the misogynistic drive to murder cruel and incompliant women. As the decade wore on, with the political and social failure of the leftist ideals of the Popular Front government and the shift to a much more somber vision in Poetic Realist cinema, epitomized by such Carne-Prevert creations as Quai des brumes (1938) and Le Jour se love (1939), murder became more prominent as a shorthand for the bleak, fatalistic vision of a France headed for war and defeat. Writ large across these scenarios are representations of not only the extreme social tensions of 1930s France, but of a pervasive threat to masculinity in a society in the throes of a patriarchal crisis. (1)

Films in the latter half of the decade, in particular, foreground both class and gender as sites of patriarchal malaise. Noel Burch and Genevieve Sellier have argued that these films typically share an underlying dynamic. A triangulated love relationship pits an older, often reprehensible, more socially powerful father figure against a lower-class, frequently marginalized protagonist (most famously incarnated by Jean Gabin) who seeks violent revenge on a representative of the exploitative petit bourgeois milieu. (2) The threat to patriarchy takes the form of both a generational conflict between males and a destabilization of gender roles. This paradigm offers a compelling explanation for the presence of murder in so many films.

If murder is quite often used as a cipher for the crippling effects of a threatened patriarchy throughout the decade, is there any reason to single out Renoir's films as distinctive in this vein? Do they have a different slant on the scenarios that pit "fathers" against "sons," or a different take on the prevalent misogynistic logic that "justifies" murder as a desperate response to the threat of psychic castration? Renoir's 1938 Poetic Realist adaptation of Zola's La Bete humaine, starring Jean Gabin, is closely modeled on these stereotypical scenarios of 1930s cinema, as it involves the abuse of a young woman by a powerful father figure, the threat of impotence, a murder plan devised to free the couple from a deadlocked triangulated structure, and the final murder of a castrating woman.

However, the generalities of the paradigm cannot fully address the striking particularities of the representation of murder in this film, and in other Renoir films of the period. In his most productive and creative decade, murder appears in films of very different tone and subject. Even more crucial, however, is the way in which the murder scene is constructed. With predictable regularity, the scene of the crime incorporates a social gathering as an amplification and enrichment of the filmic space and auditory context. This coupling of violence with a festive group more or less implicated in the crime characterizes his unique handling of murder, and the cinematographic structuring of the "seen" of the crime determines not only the spectator's position but is critical for situating the significance of the murder within a broader social framework.

The aesthetic and social import of the cinematography of murder scenes in Renoir's films has not gone unnoticed. The most memorable example is Andre Bazin's reading of the circularity of the murder scene in Le Crime de Monsieur Lange as a formal rendering of the movie's entire structure. (3) This same scene with its 270-degree pan immediately prior to Lange's shooting of Batala has been revisited innumerable times along the lines of Michel Serceau's recasting of its circularity in terms of Renoir's leftist political commitment to the social model of the cooperative (61-9). …

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