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If the 1920s began in a heady embrace of Age of Steel Modernism and naive optimism that industrialization would make life better, the '30s were marked by a swing away from that mechanized mystique. Rene Clair's airborne comedy, A nous la liberte (1931), is a landmark in this sub-genre, although it's curious to think of so deliciously buoyant a film as anything connoting heaviness of any sort, much less that of a landmark.
Clair (1898-1981) was the pastry chef of French cinema and paid a heavy price in loss of reputation after being attacked in Cahiers du Cinema for being too artifice-bound and not serious enough. But Clair, who began as a critic and could theorize with the best of them, stayed with elegant, propulsive stylization and produced a handful of films still unrivaled in their charm and elan for those capable of perceiving the difference between light-handed and light-headed.
A nous la liberte is his crowning achievement. It's worth remembering that his first film was a short Dada ballet, Entr'acte (1924), filmed on the roof of a theater on the Avenue Montaigne with Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and Darius Milhaud in the cast. Clair's film esthetic cantered hand-in-hand alongside French modern painting and the anti-Wagnerian, anti-Impressionist agenda of the French composers known as Les Six, who prized lucidity, clarity and line.
Realizing what Jacques Ibert's bubbly music had done for his silent film of the Labiche-Michel stage farce, An Italian Straw Hat (Un chapeau de paille d'Italie, (1928), Clair brought Georges Auric of Les Six aboard to help him navigate cinema's new world of sound, resourcefully hurdling many of the problems with the composer's aid. Clair was to refer to A nous la liberte as an operetta, letting it ride Auric's lively tempos, punctuated by stylized sounds of the real world, like wooden-clog-wearing prisoners marching in step.
Because its satire is gentle, that doesn't mean it's not incisive, even as it makes us laugh. It begins in a prison, where convicts assemble wooden toy horses, zeroes in on two cellmate buddies, Raymond Cordy's bold, spirited Louis, and Henri Marchand's gentle dreamer, Emile, then cuts to their planned prison break. Louis makes it, Emile doesn't. The desperation is kept comic when the fleeing Louis collides with a bicycle racer, hops on the bike, wins a race, and never looks back.
In no time, he becomes a rich industrialist, manufacturing record-players, living in a mansion with a trophy wife, chauffeured in a limo, wearing an emblematic top hat. Echoing his bike escape, he's successful because he jumps on a good thing, then runs his business along the same institutional lines he learned in prison. The workers are virtually indistinguishable from the prisoners. They're regimented, wear numbers, robotically work the same kind of assembly line, watched over by guards.
Meanwhile, the hapless Chaplinesque Emile is released, only to be steered into a low-level job at Louis's factory. When they come face to face, Louis frankly welcomes Emile's reappearance. The genial, devil-may-care plutocrat is a step away from realizing he has only replicated his own life in prison, even if at a much higher income level. When he and Emile pelt a formal portrait of his reinvented self, it seems the most fun he's had in ages.
Clearly, another breakout is in order. But not before Louis invents automation and turns the place over to his workers, who spend their days fishing and dancing while machines make the record-players. Louis flees again with Emile, broke but happy. The repudiation is not only of dehumanizing industrialization, but of capitalism. Clair's giddily choreographed sequence of top-hatted geezers creakily chasing 100,000-franc notes (Louis's getaway stash) in a windblown courtyard is the purest, most balletic picture of mindless capitalist greed ever put on screen.
A nous la liberte vindicates in the most delightful way what Clair called his faith in the autonomous reality of the concocted image allowing him to outlast his detractors. He dared himself by playing silent movie figures against the sleek, machined Bauhaus esthetic so brilliantly evoked by his designer, Lazare Meerson. Clair scored big, bigger than the holder of the winning lottery ticket he had everyone chase so merrily in Le Million (1931), more liberatingly than the romantics in his captivating Sous les toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris, 1930) both eminently worth seeking out.
The film world knew Clair was on to something. In 1932, Jean Renoir made Boudu sauve des eaux (Boudu Saved from Drowning), with Michel Simon's bum an unlikely yet potent anti-bourgeois tempter. In 1933, Lewis Milestone directed Al Jolson's embrace of the park-bench lifestyle in Hallelujah, I'm a Bum. In 1936, Renoir gave the workers the control of the means of production in a printing plant in Le crime de monsieur Lange. In 1936, Charlie Chaplin capped the genre with the film the world remembers it by, Modern Times.
Tobis, the company that distributed A nous la liberte, sued Chaplin for plagiarism. Clair was not a party to the suit. He said he considered Chaplin's film a compliment, earning Chaplin's lifelong friendship. The suit dragged on for years, with Chaplin eventually settling by paying an undisclosed amount. The fast-paced scampering, exquisite studio artifice and charming Frenchness of A nous la liberte remind us where the dropouts, slackers and other free spirits of later generations were born.
Producer: Frank Clifford, Alexandre Kamenka, Roger Le Bon
Director: Rene Clair
Screenplay: Rene Clair
Cinematography: Georges Perinal
Film Editing: Rene Le Henaff
Art Direction: Lazare Meerson
Music: Georges Auric
Cast: Raymond Cordy (Louis), Henri Marchand (Emile), Rolla France (Jeanne), Paul Ollivier (L'oncle), Jacques Shelly (Paul), Andre Michaud (Le contremaitre).
by Jay Carr
The Films of Rene Clair: R.C. Dale, Scarecrow Press, 1986
A nous la liberte (screenplay): Rene Clair, Simon & Schuster, 1970
A nous la liberte: John Flaus, Senses of Cinema film journal
Rene Clair author-legislator: Noel Herpe, Senses of Cinema film journal
A nous la liberte: Review by Mordaunt Hall, New York Times, May 28, 1932