Two friends, Emile (Marchand) and Louis (Cordy), plot a prison break. Only Louis escapes. He works his way from record salesman to become the wealthy owner of a phonograph factory (a clear nod to French industrialist Charles Pathé and his career trajectory). He oversees a production line, where workers are reduced to automatons. Emile eventually makes it out of prison and gets work at the factory. At first, he is unaware who the owner is, but eventually the two are reunited. Fearful of his past being exposed by former convicts from the prison, now gangsters, Louis decides to give his factory to the workers. The final scene shows the now idyllic factory – it has become completely automated, and so the workers sit and play cards. Louis and Emile leave for the freedom of the open road as the title song plays.
À nous la liberté is a landmark in the history of film comedy. Its deft use of sound and its pioneering production design combine to create a scathingly satirical critique of the dehumanising nature of industrialisation and the iniquities of the capitalist system. Filmed when the world was feeling the biting effects of the Great Depression, Clair’s work now seems remarkably prescient – anticipating not just Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), but also Jacques Tati’s similar satires of modernisation in My Uncle (1958) and Playtime (1967). By exposing the myths of mechanical efficiency that swept across Europe after the First World War, À nous la liberté is one of a number of films released in the early 1930s that reflect France’s climate of economic austerity (Toni (1934), L’Atalante (1934)). Moreover, it proposes a radical ideological alternative – only by liberating oneself from the pressures of social and economic oppression can one find true happiness.
Like Clair’s earlier silent works, The Crazy Ray (1924) and An Italian Straw Hat (1927), and his three other early sound films – Under the Roofs of Paris (1930), Le Million (1931) and Bastille Day (1932) – À nous la liberté shows an impeccable sense of comic timing. Clair would often shoot long sequences without a script, giving his actors freedom to improvise and invent. The film may seem loose, and its narrative slight, almost insubstantial (like Le Million, with its search for a lost lottery ticket, or best friends involved with the same girl in Under the Roofs), but there’s an exuberance and a universality in all of Clair’s films. À nous la liberté may be an elegant divertissement, but is a rich storehouse of breezy satire, recurring character types, balletic camera moves, and above all glinting humanism. Add a bit of slapstick – Emile’s pursuit of Jeanne is a whir of ingenuity – and it’s clear that Clair always sides with ordinary people and their simple predicaments.1
Clair’s work is rich with sound and choreographed movement, comprising ‘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’ (Atkinson 2012). The commercial and critical success of these works cemented Clair’s position in the post-silent French film industry, and in their History of the Film, first published in French in 1935, critics Maurice Bardèche and Robert Brasillach described him as ‘the only film man in France whose work displayed both purpose and progress’ (Bardèche and Brasillach 1938: 334).
It is worth remembering Clair was deeply sceptical about the arrival of sound. He feared industrial centralisation and commercial imperatives would lead to the eclipse of the dreamy surreal images of French 1920 impressionist cinema and replace the visual with incessant, banal chatter, and archly theatrical dialogue. Yet, while many of his con12 À nous la liberté/Freedom is ours (1931) temporaries were content with synchronising sound to recorded dialogue, Clair saw the potential of sound to enhance a film’s visual fabric, and not diminish it. He became resourceful with sound, understanding its implications and possibilities, and experimenting with music and aural effects despite the rudimentary nature of sound recording and synchronisation. His early sound films do not sacrifice visual virtuosity to sound; instead, the inclusion of popular songs, sound effects and dialogue lend a deeper texture. They are transitional films, bridging the post-silent, pre-talkie world, and sketching out the direction French cinema might wish to take.
À nous la liberté is a musical in the sense that the characters sing at various times, but the songs and the music are fully integrated into the narrative in an unobtrusive, organic way. In this sense, the term ‘musical’ doesn’t quite capture the aural complexity of the film. It might better be described as a film sonore – a sound film rather than a talking film. There’s very little dialogue, and aside from a few brief song sequences – including the film’s catchy title track – the film relies more on the aural cues and motifs of Georges Auric’s score, who had previously composed Jean Cocteau’s dreamlike Blood of a Poet (1931). We hear odd sound effects and uses of recorded sound throughout: the sound of assemblyline mechanisation is achieved musically, and the sound of prisoners in wooden clogs becomes a rhythmic beat. Clair also riffs on the visual possibilities of sound, such as the scene when Jeanne’s shoe sounds like a ringing alarm clock, or when a flower appears to start singing to Emile. These surreal juxtapositions maintain Clair’s link to the visual, while simultaneously exploring the newfound capabilities of sound technology. Sound, for Clair, is not just background scene-setting or romantic accompaniment, but something that can be incorporated into the narrative to create moments of genuine astonishment. Take the scene when Emile is reproached by a prison guard with the words ‘You’re not working? Don’t you know that.’ The sentence is then completed by a teacher, telling his bored pupils that ‘one must work, because work is freedom.’ This is the very definition of a ‘shock cut’ – space and time are elided through the imaginative deployment of sound editing. The school, like the factory, and the prison, are repositories of the dominant ideology, and are governed by the technological possibilities of sound: not only are the workers dictated to via recorded messages and unseen button-pushing masters, but, as Kramer notes, the very process of reproducing sound (the phonograph) represents the immediate cause of the workers’ enslavement (Kramer 1984: 144).
The Kafkaesque production design was created by Russian-born designer, Lazare Meerson, who collaborated extensively with Clair on his early sound films and became a key instigator of the look of French film in the 1930s. The factory exterior in À nous la liberté is replicated in full Art Deco mode. Art Deco was not just beloved by Hollywood producers – many French films of this period incorporate the stylish, uncluttered aesthetics of Deco as a shorthand symbol for modernity and urban sophistication. In À nous la liberté Meerson’s use of strong geometric linearity and Deco’s intimidating reliance upon glass and steel is integrated into both the factory and the prison sets. Meerson’s enormous sets often dwarf the humans lost in them, making explicit the link between work and imprisonment.
For Clair, industrial society not only made you unhappy, but it led to a life of anonymous regimentation. The opening sequence of À nous la liberté takes place in a prison. We see inmates assembling toy horses while sitting behind a vast table. Clair uses a series of lateral tracking shots down tables of workers – this is dehumanising labour, but not much different from working in the phonograph factory. Indeed, the later factory scenes are deliberately framed and edited to remind us of these initial exchanges – this, says Clair, is the ‘worker as prisoner’ at the start of the 1930s. Such political undertones are explicit throughout: indeed, À nous la liberté plays out like a socialist tract, poking fun at the rich. Sometimes the symbolism can be a little heavy-handed: employees trudge through the factory like the slave class from Metropolis (1927), and when they eat they move their hands to their mouths in rhythmic synchronisation. Later, Louis offers Emile a large wad of cash, only for blood to drip onto the money from a cut on Emile’s hand. On other occasions, scenes come complete with more acerbic satirical inflections. Nowhere is this clearer than in the finale, when Louis makes an inaugural speech at his newly mechanised factory in a strong wind. A suitcase full of money is blown open, and tuxedoed dignitaries clamour after the notes, rather than listen to the remainder of the ceremony. It’s a giddily choreographed sequence, worthy of Keaton, and a reminder that Clair’s characters resembled marionettes in a comic dance, with the director visibly pulling the strings, orchestrating the set-up and the punch-line.2
Clair’s humanist streak asserts itself at the end, and À nous la liberté becomes an ode to friendship. The reappearance of a long-lost friend is sufficient to reawaken Louis’s love of life, and, as he throws a bottle of wine through the ridiculous life-size portrait he has had commissioned, bonds of friendship are reasserted. For Clair, the end result of mechanisation is a vision of utopia that may seem naive to modern audiences, but perfectly in tune with its socially concerned times. À nous la liberté ends with the factory fully automated, which allows the workers (but, crucially, not the industrialists who now own it) to while away the hours singing and fishing. Emile and Louis’ final gesture – handing over the factory to the workers, and then heading off into the sunset – is an anarchist one. From now on, the simplicity of the open road, with its promises of mateship and freedom, bright skies and inviting horizons, is the preferred way of life.
À nous la liberté was influential. The next year, Jean Renoir made Boudu Saved from Drowning, in which Michel Simon’s hirsute clochard collided with a bourgeois world but floated off down the river as the credits rolled, happy to remain penniless, but free. Renoir returned to similar themes again in 1936, in The Crime of Monsieur Lange, with the workers controlling the means of production in a printing plant collective. Hollywood also took notice: Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932) took a satirical swipe at capitalism through a comic look at a perfume business in Paris and its wealthy owners. In 1933 Lewis Milestone directed Al Jolson’s embrace of the hobo lifestyle in Hallelujah, I’m a Bum, romanticising the Great Depression; then came Modern Times (1936), which repeated some of Clair’s visual gags. It isn’t difficult to see why Clair’s production company Tobis filed a plagiarism lawsuit against the film. Chaplin argued he had never seen Clair’s film, while Clair – thoroughly embarrassed by the whole affair – simply noted that ‘all of us flow from Chaplin’.
1. Liam O’Leary, ‘À nous la liberté’, Film Reference, www.filmreference.com/Films-A-An/A-Nousla-Libert.html (accessed 27 April 2012).
2. Edward Baron Turk has compared Clair to the eighteenth-century French dramatist, Marivaux: the works of both are characterised by verbal wit, ironic distance, easy grace, and elegance. See Edward Baron Turk, Child of Paradise: Marcel Carné and the Golden Age of French Cinema, Cambridge, MA, and London, Harvard University Press, pp. 29–34.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: France. Production Company: Tobis. Director and screenwriter: René Clair. Cinematographer: Georges Périnal. Music: Georges Auric. Production Designer: Lazare Meerson. Editor: René Le Hénaff. Cast: Henri Marchand (Emile), Raymond Cordy (Louis), Rolla France (Jeanne), Paul Ollivier (Jeanne’s uncle).]
Michael Atkinson, ‘À nous la liberté’, The Criterion Collection, www.criterion.com/current/posts/ 216 (accessed 27 April 2012). Barthélemy Amengual, René Clair, Paris, Seghers, 1969.
Maurice Bardèche and Robert Brasillach, History of the Film, trans. Iris Barry, London, Allen & Unwin, 1938. Pierre Billard, Le Mystère René Clair, Paris, Plon, 1998.
R. C. Dale, The Films of René Clair, 2 volumes, Metuchen, New Jersey, Scarecrow, 1986.
Christopher Faulkner, ‘René Clair, Marcel Pagnol and the Social Dimension of Speech’, Screen, 35 (2), 1994, pp. 157–70.
Naomi Greene, René Clair: A Guide to References and Resources, Boston, G. K. Hall, 1985.
Steven Philip Kramer, ‘René Clair: Situation and Sensibility in À Nous la Liberté’, Literature/Film Quarterly 12 (2), 1984, pp. 142–4.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.