Sunday, December 3, 2017

Rene Clair's early films part 4

À nous la liberté (Give us freedom! 1931)

In a 1931 essay entitled "The Talkies Talk Too Much," René Clair wrote,
I am dreaming of the conflict between the visions of a man's soul and the mechanization of life which daily grows more potent. I visualize a dreamer, a romantic, a vagabond, and I want to set him in my film against a background of tremendous mechanism. [1]
In À nous la liberté, the dreamer, the romantic, the vagabond is Emile (Henri Marchand). When we first meet him he is in prison, sharing a cell with Louis (Raymond Cordy). Prison life is regimented, surveilled. The men are marched everywhere in lockstep while stern guards observe their every move.

Strict silence is enforced among the prisoners, whether at the workbench (where they are making children's toys—objects that symbolize innocence and freedom) or at the prison mess hall. It is a system intended to crush hope.

The workbench:

The prison mess:

But Emile and Louis have a plan: with smuggled implements they are cutting through the bars of their cell in a bid to escape. As Emile—standing on Louis's shoulders so that he can reach the window—is cutting through the bars, he cuts himself. Louis binds Emile's wound with his handkerchief. The prison scenes unfold without dialogue, but Clair portrays the almost tender relationship between Emile and Louis with visual economy.

When they make their break, Louis is able to heave himself over the prison's inner wall, but Emile is spotted and the alarm is sounded. Emile realizes that by the time he makes it over the inner wall to join Louis they will both be caught. He throws the rope to Louis with the cry "À nous la liberté!"; they both realize that Emile is sacrificing himself. Louis gets away; Emile is recaptured and returned to the prison (and, no doubt, a longer sentence).

On the outside, we follow Louis's progress in a series of dissolves that cover a few minutes of screen time and years of diegetic time. We see him transformed from a sidewalk record salesman into a phonograph shop proprietor, the owner of the "Palace of Records" (a vast emporium with a fleet of logoed delivery trucks and lackeys to light his cigarettes and open his limousine door), and finally into the boss of a huge phonograph factory employing armies of assembly-line workers.

The factory day is remarkably similar to that of the prison. Long lines of men in uniform, watched over by guards:

The assembly line:

The cafeteria:

A vagabond is lounging in a field near the factory, leaning on his elbow and loafing at his ease, observing a spear of summer grass.

His view is soon blocked by the boots and uniforms of two representatives of law and order. They have a message for him, one echoed by businessmen, politicians and schoolteachers:

School, work, and prison: institutions of confinement, coercion and enforced conformity.

The vagabond, of course, is Emile, who has finally been released from prison, and who must be helped by the two policemen to see that work means liberty.

Emile ultimately finds his way to a job in the phonograph factory, but his dreamy nature, suspicion of authority and inability to perform the repetitive work at speed bring cascading chaos to the regimented and Taylorized efficiency of the assembly line.

Emile is hauled before the boss for punishment. To his amazement, the boss is his old cellmate. Louis pretends not to recognize Emile; taking him to his private office, Louis tries threats and bribes to get rid of him. But when Louis notices that Emile's wrist has been cut, he binds the wound with his handkerchief, as he'd done in prison, and his fellow-feeling returns:

Emile reawakens Louis's conscience, and helps him to realize that being a big boss is also a form of imprisonment. Both men want to find a way to regain their freedom, but discover that it is not attainable without difficulties and sacrifice.

The rich man who is alternately cold and warm towards his vagabond companion may remind you of Chaplin's City Lights (1931), while the chaos on the assembly line may suggest Chaplin's Modern Times (1936). In fact, Clair's production company, Tobis Film, sued Chaplin over the similarities between Modern Times and Clair's film. Clair refused to participate in the suit; he admired Chaplin and was deeply embarrassed by the plagiarism accusations against him. It's also clear that if there were any borrowings, they went both ways. Chaplin, in fact, said that he had never seen Clair's film, while Clair stated in an interview with Le Soir that "I, myself, owe him very much; and besides, if he has borrowed a few ideas from me, he has done me a great honor." [2]

Clair would go on to write and direct two more films in France, Quatorze Juillet (Bastille Day, 1933) and Le dernier milliardaire (The Last Billionaire, 1934), neither of which I've had the opportunity to see. In the mid-1930s he moved to England and made two films with producer Alexander Korda, and as World War II loomed he travelled to America and directed films in Hollywood, including The Flame of New Orleans (1941, with Marlene Dietrich), I Married a Witch (1942, with Veronica Lake), and And Then There Were None (1945, with Roland Young). He returned to France after the war and continued to make films until the mid-1960s; he died in 1981 at age 82.

Perhaps Clair's wartime American period will be the subject of a future post. But À nous la liberté remains his great masterpiece, and essential viewing. It is available on DVD and via streaming through the Criterion Collection; the Criterion Collection DVD also includes Entr'acte, discussed in the first post in this series.

Other posts in this series:
The early films of Rene Clair part 3: Le Million (1931)
The early films of Rene Clair part 2: Sous les toits de Paris (1930)
The early films of Rene Clair part 1: Entr'acte (1924) and The Italian Straw Hat (1928)

  1. Quoted (with slight modification) in Celia McGerr, René Clair, Twayne Publishers, 1980, p. 101.
  2. Quoted in Jeffrey Vance, Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema, Abrams, 2003, p. 225.

No comments :

Post a Comment