À Nous la Liberté (1931 France 95mins)
Source: CAC Prod Co: Tobis Dir, Scr, Ed: René Clair Phot: Georges Périnal Art Dir: Lazare Meerson Mus: Georges Auric
Cast: Raymond Cordy, Henri Marchand, Rolla France, Paul Oliver.
Emil and Louis form a friendship in gaol. When they attempt to escape, Emil is caught but Louis gets away. He enjoys a rapid Valjean-like progression from vagabond to pillar of the community, rising to industrial magnate after he comes up with the newest thing in phonographs (you know, that clunky apparatus your grandmother used to play her 78s on). When Emil is released he is just a vagabond. Harrassed by gendarmes, he hides in an employment queue and finds himself in Louis’ vast state-of-the-art factory.
Conditions on the assembly line aren’t all that different from gaol, and after some comic misadventures (including an extended gag Chaplin borrowed in Modern Times) the friends are re-united. Louis likes the wealth and power of being a big boss but, still a larrikin at heart, he can’t stomach the pomp that goes with it. He is poised to launch the next new thing in the progress of capitalism: automation (and you thought it was a new idea?). This is while the children of the proletariat are being taught to sing the French equivalent of “Arbeit macht Frei.”
Enter the villains, a bunch of ex-convicts intent on blackmailing Louis. After that, things happen faster (they were already fast!) and Emil and Louis resume their old life, vagabonds again – but not before the workplace of the future is ceremonially opened by a host of uppercrust honourables.
In one of the most brilliant comedy sequences in cinema history the tension builds as they hold their dignified positions while banknotes from Louis’s misplaced hoard drift past on the breeze. The speechmaker drones on, more money descends, the breeze increases, the tension increases. In a contest between greed and honour you know which is going to be the winner: the top-hatted assembly explodes into a disorderly rabble (unlike prisoners and factory workers who are orderly rabble) chasing a blizzard of banknotes.
Does this synopsis make À nous la liberté sound like a left wing polemic? It isn’t. Despite Clair recalling that he was “close to the Left” in those days, he ended up a member of the Academie Francaise! Political economy was only the raw material of this film, comedy was the product. Indeed, Louis’s last act as magnate – nothing less than solution of the class war – is so unbelievable (not fantastic, not impossible, just unbelievable) that the film was banned in the USSR.
À nous la liberté is a landmark in the history of film comedy because it’s funny, yet it is too satirical for farce, too farcical for satire. And it is a landmark in the history of sound film. Back in 1931 when almost all film directors in every country were cautiously using the new technology as a recording medium, Clair was exploring it as a creative medium. This was in addition to his use of Auric’s music. The composition of film music and the sensitivity of its application to the narrative are different arts, not always in harmony(!). À nous la liberté set a new standard for them in the formative years of sound film.
No account of this film would be complete without praise for the production design by Lazare Meerson. In a studio-made film most of what meets our eye (though we may not focus on it) is the work of the designer. Meerson’s vision of prison and factory, streetscape and salon, commands our attention, provokes our imagination, then yields precedence to the other arts of the narrative.
The exact nature of Clair’s humour is problematic. He doesn’t treat his characters as puppets, and part of his charm is that he bestows idiosyncrasy on characters who are little more than stereotypes. But he doesn’t convey that affection for his characters which we relish in the films of another comic writer-director, Preston Sturges. At the risk of oxymoron, Clair’s comedy has great exuberance but not a lot of joy. That doesn’t make them less funny, just colder – what John Russell Taylor called “demented clockwork.”