Saturday, July 6, 2013

FI: A Nous La Liberte

À nous la liberté
France, 1931
Written and Directed by René Clair

When the Cahiers du cinéma crew began their ascent in the 1950's, René Clair was one of the directors they tended to shun as outmoded and artificial. Like many filmmakers who came of age in the silent era, Clair preferred visual storytelling and tight control, working in studios well after cinema took to the streets. But since his heyday, Clair's work has been under constant reappraisal, and it seems like his deft touch and fanciful tone are more widely considered assets, rather than liabilities, now. His funny, music-filled social farce À nous la liberté is a great example of a silent master using early sound to great effect. Though the musical motifs, with lyrical as well as instrumental hooks, are tuned to be crowd-pleasing—unlike, say, the leitmotifs in Fritz Lang's M—they are used to similar ends, leading the story and presaging character beats.

Louis (Raymond Cordy) and Emile (Henri Marchand) are convicts who attempt an escape, though only Louis succeeds. He goes on to prosper as a captain of industry, and eventually Emile ends up working at his phonograph plant. The parallels between the prison assembly line and that in Louis's factory are clear—modern capitalism makes prisoners of us all. Despite this, the film is less about serious social satire than the value that friendship and trust have over wealth and power; indeed, the film distrusts all institutions and strikes a warmly humanistic (if not entirely "happy") chord. A breeze to follow and watch, À nous la liberté stands proudly next to the work of Laurel and Hardy, as well as the Chaplin films by which it was influenced and which, in turn, it may have influenced down the line*.

*The Criterion DVD features an audio essay by David Robinson about a decade-long plagiarism suit brought by Liberté's production company against Chaplin because of similarities between it and Chaplin's Modern Times. Clair, for his part, did not agree with the suit and was honored if Chaplin had, in fact, been influenced by his picture. The suit was eventually settled out of court, despite Chaplin and his studio maintaining they had never seen Liberté.

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