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Like many artists, René Clair has been the victim of the canon wars. Once considered one of the greatest of French filmmakers, Clair was lambasted by the aboriginal Cahiers du cinéma crowd for studio-bound artifice, lightweight story hyperconstruction, and all-too-quintessentially French cuteness, and his reputation plummeted into a critical darkness from which it as yet to fully re-emerge. Comparisons to Vigo and Renoir—made often during the politique des auteurs heyday—are daunting, inevitable, and unfair; Clair never possessed the former’s primal elementalism nor the latter’s complexity, but he shouldn’t have to. Clair’s films—particularly his early French work, as opposed to his sweet but placid Hollywood movies—have a distinct charm to them that stands alone. Today, he comes off as a fabulously empathic, inventive, stylish, unique cinematic sensibility, as generous as Renoir (perhaps to the degree of naiveté) and as lyrical as Vigo (although more modernist), but the master of all things particularly Clairian. He has rarely been mentioned as a giant figure in the last 40 years, but I wouldn’t trade his utterly entrancing masterpiece À Nous la Liberté for any five Chaplins, Pagnols, or Lubitschs.
Chaplin is a vital comparison, not only because his catapulting self-aggrandizement and vain sentimentality exemplifies what Clair always gracefully avoided, but because Modern Times (1936) thieved from À Nous la Liberté so baldly that Tobis, Clair’s production company, filed a plagiarism lawsuit. What’s more, Clair achieved astonishing innovations at the beginnings of the sound era (equaled only by Fritz Lang and Rouben Mamoulian), a territory Chaplin was too timid to broach for another decade, when technology made it effortless. Clair’s five early masterpieces—The Italian Straw Hat (1927), Under the Roofs of Paris (1930), Le Million (1931), À Nous la Liberté, and Quatorze Juillet (1932)—are filthy with formal élan, wild sound (the silent Italian Straw Hat notwithstanding), and choreographed movement, and if anything they’ve gained an antique daydreaminess with the years. Together the films comprise a window on a particular lost black and white neverworld—bouncy with melody, soaked in spring light, wistful about the conflicted relationship between serendipity and love.
Reportedly, Clair was dissatisfied with Liberté, due to a restrictive shooting schedule, but it’s his loveliest and most lyrical film, an undogmatic collision between irreverent freedom and the will of commerce that remains slyly backloaded with a reply to industrial capitalism and socialism both. (The iconography grows more intoxicating when you fold in the shot that Clair cut out—the hobo’s flower singing the movie’s theme up at him—and which is included in the DVD’s ancillary materials.) Our sad-eyed hero (Henri Marchand), having left behind a regimented prison life only to be soon sucked unwittingly into the identically regimented routine of a factory worker, is as pure an agent of anarchy as any persona from Buñuel’s L’Age d’Or or Vigo’s Zero de Conduite—not an anarchist in its popularly conceived destructive sense, but an innocent, a mild-mannered wild thing obeying the laws of his heart and careless of social order. His brotherly counterpart (Raymond Cordy), an escaped convict-turned-captain of industry, is responsible for creating his record player mills in the exact image of the prison’s punishment (including guards, sung propaganda, and systematized eating rites)—or is he? We’re never told how long these two spent in prison, or for what crimes; perhaps the onus falls on society’s success with institutional conditioning. What other form of organization would they have known? (An assembly-line cock-up so acutely grips our own fear of control systems gone awry that it was lifted not only by Chaplin, but also by Chuck Jones, Lucille Ball, and Terry Gilliam.) Indeed, Cordy’s industrialist is seemingly free of guilt, though he will eventually recognize the injustice of wage-slavery and, after initiating a mechanization of the factory that would’ve eliminated virtually every job, donate the whole megillah to the workers. In the end, the previously roboticized laborers are fishing en masse and dancing the afternoon away, a spectacularly naive vision that, in a movie that semi-quotes Marx (“Work means liberty!”) in its depiction of totalitarian rule, embodies an unmistakable sense of defiance and hope. Pre-fascistic, expressly dismissive of both Stalinism and industrial dehumanization (Liberté’s world is a seamless commingling of both), Clair’s film holds only the anarchistic principle of liberty sacred. Climactically, the two ragamuffins abandon progress altogether and scamper off into the landscape, leaving behind money and power, and treasuring only the length of the day and the possibility of happiness.
Happiness—how might one attain it? With factories? À Nous la Liberté is in a sense a definitively radical film. It may be tamer than Vigo’s preadolescent assault, but its arena is adult. It may be less libidinous than Buñuel’s wild ride, but its vectors are less caricatured, more directly representative of actual social forces (although, like L’Age d’Or, Liberté is largely prefigured on the frustration of romantic desire—Marchand’s puppyish Everyman falls for a secretary after a single glimpse, but his pursuit of her has all the gravity of a Harpo Marx fixation.) Whereas both the supposedly antithetical ideologies of capitalism and socialism agree that work is indeed liberty, Clair argues that freedom is freedom, for the individual to define individually. Despite the memorable late sequence wherein a crowd of top-hatted corporate vultures scramble through a courtyard after wind-blown money, Clair’s target isn’t the nouveau riche, but the very notion of social control. Still, Á Nous la Liberté isn’t a critical film—it’s a celebration, a living, life-is-a-song proof of the alternatives. Better to own nothing in a field of singing flowers than to sell your life for the right to live.
Michael Atkinson is a film critic for the Village Voice, and his new book is Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema (Limelight Editions).