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Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

RENÉ CLAIR’S A NOUS LA LIBERTÉ (1931)

René Clair’s occasionally funny, always sweet A NOUS LA LIBERTÉ (French, 1931), is part musical (operetta, in fact) and part socialist tract.  beginning as it does in a  prison where inmates are working on an assembly line, the worker as prisoner motif is off and running.  Also off and running are Louis (Raymond Cordy) and Emile (Henri Marchand), enterprising prison escapees.  They are separated early on, and Louis, through happy circumstance and a little hard work, becomes the boss at a small phonograph store.  Soon he is C.E.O. (more an emperor) of a giant phonograph corporation.  The company is run like a prison, and the employees march in as though they were the slave class from METROPOLIS (1926).  The cold realism of the prison and corporation (factory) scenes is aided immeasurably by the production design of Lazare Meerson, whose art direction was the first foreign achievement ever nominated for an American Academy Award.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons (aside from its rather obvious politics) Charles Chaplin was so taken by the film.  He borrowed many sequences for his 1936 classic MODERN TIMES, though Chaplin’s production design for that film (provided by Charles D. Hall and J. Russell Spencer) was often surreal and nightmarish. 

Years after the prison break, when Emile meets up with Louis, the tycoon fears he will be blackmailed by his old friend about his convict past.  Another symbolic swipe is taken at capitalism when, after the misunderstanding turns physical, Louis tries to present Emile with an impressive wad of cash.  Blood drips on the money from a cut on Emile’s hand, and director-writer Clair tells us exactly what he thinks of capitalism’s ill-gotten gains.  Like the empty picture frames that adorn the shop Louis enters early in the film, the system offers little in the way of substance.  This idea is wittily conveyed at the climax, when all manner of people chase after cash stolen from Louis, as it blows wildly in the wind-all symbolizing the endless money chase, as Clair sees it, of the capitalist system, and the “winds of change” he hopes are on the horizon.  When Louis really is blackmailed by unsavory people from his past, he does what Clair must feel is the only decent thing… 

In the end the corporation moves to total mechanization, and the men are employed only to supervise the machines.  The film’s final proclamation is a crazy one: It is only when released from labor that mankind finds true happiness.  And Louis?  He throws it all away to live the life of a transient.  With his old friend Emile, he takes to the road, liberated from the love of money.  In a moment of blissful irony, Louis finds his own utopia as he shares his few remaining coins with Emile-a reminder of the thousands he offered him out of fear earlier. 

Stylistically, A NOUS LA LIBERTÉ is as unusual as it is simple.  Aside from the scant dialogue and brief song sequences, the film is virtually silent.  Musical cues serve as the sound of marching feet and blowing wind.  This is to highlight the importance of music in the film’s plot as well as in life (as Clair sees it).  No traffic sounds, no crowd noises, everything is cut to the bare minimum.  It is a simple life René Clair longs for and the best way to present this message is with cinematic simplicity.  His politics may seem naive in this day and age, but his technique remains as sharp today as it was in 1931.

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June 16, 2010 Posted by | Charles Chaplin, French cinema, Henri Marchand, Raymond Cordy, RENÉ CLAIR, socialist cinema | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment