À Nous la Liberté [DVD]
Director : René Clair
Screenplay : René Clair
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1931
Stars : Raymond Cordy (Louis), Henri Marchand (Emile), Paul Olivier (Paul Imaque), André Michaud (Foreman), Rolla France (Jeanne), Germaine Aussey (Maud), Léon Lorin (Deaf Old Man)
One of the great ironies of René Clair's À Nous la Liberté is that it is widely considered to be a groundbreaking movie in pioneering the use of sound, yet Clair had initially been one of the staunchest opponents to making the movies talk.
Yet, as Arthur Knight suggests in The Liveliest Art, "Perhaps the first director to appreciate fully the implications of sound was the Frenchman René Clair," a statement that is confirmed throughout À Nous la Liberté, a delightfully radical farce about freeing oneself from the controls of social and economic oppression (the title translates roughly to "Liberty for us"). Although it appears relatively primitive by today's multitrack, THX standards, Clair's use of carefully selected sound effects and his employment of jaunty musical numbers to supplement, not determine, the film's visual flow constituted a significant development in the then-controversial movement to marry once and for all sound and image.
It helps that À Nous la Liberté is a smart and funny social satire about modernization, a theme that would also be used to great effect by such comedic cinematic luminaries as Charlie Chaplin (whose Modern Times was spuriously accused of plagiarizing À Nous la Liberté by the film's production company) and Jacques Tati (Mon Oncle, Playtime). The first half of the 20th century saw an unprecedented rise in mechanization, which had its benefits in increased standards of living, comfort, and convenience. Yet, as many have pointed out, making the world mechanical and automating even the most basic activities has brought with it a price, as well, namely our humanity.
Clair found a perfectly distilled visual metaphor for the mechanization/dehumanization relation in the assembly line, that great marvel of Fordist invention that allowed for faster and cheaper production through repetition and standardization. The opening shot of À Nous la Liberté takes place in a prison, in which we see prisoners whiling away the hours putting together toy horses along a long, assembly-line-like table. When they eat, it is again at a long table, their hand movements from plate to mouth a synchronization that could only be choreographed by repetition day in and day out. And, when they get up to leave, it is in regimented fashion, one following after the other.
It is here that we meet the film's two protagonists, Louis (Raymond Cordy) and Emile (Henri Marchand), who stand out immediately because they have the audacity to wink at each other and show signs of life. Having hatched a scheme to escape prison, they are halfway out when the plan falls apart; Louis makes it over the wall to freedom while Emile, the smaller and sadder of the two, sacrifices himself and goes back to prison.
On the outside, Louis begins selling phonographs, quickly rising up to become the 1930s version of a media magnate (his character was, in fact, based on Charles Pathé, a French movie tycoon who got his start selling phonographs). Louis presides over a huge corporation that builds more and more factories to churn out more and more phonographs quicker and quicker (it is not surprising that Clair would focus on the production of phonographs, the initial technology for replaying recorded sound). Louis achieves this by employing in the factory the same regimented routines of life he suffered in the slammer, a none-too-subtle way of showing how both constitute a life behind bars.
Emile is later released from prison and lives happily as a vagrant, that is, until he finds himself in one of Louis' factories and comes face to face with his old prison buddy. At first, Louis tries to get rid of his old friend; but, after being with Emile, who is portrayed as the ultimate free spirit, his stuffy, legitimate-businessman exterior quickly melts. The rest of the movie follows a series of increasingly slapstick incidents involving Emile's desperate-hearted pursuit of a factory secretary, which results in a chaotic climax in which top-hated businessmen scurry around chasing money in the wind while Louis turns his factories over to the workers.
Throughout À Nous la Liberté, Clair structures his story along musical lines, giving his gags and slapstick situations a rhythm and flow. The delectable musical score by Georges Auric, who had previously scored Jean Cocteau's fantastical Blood of a Poet (1931), gives the movie an upbeat tone and helps it move through some of the more extreme transitions (Clair, already a master at visuals, adds to the flow with his use of match cuts and dissolves). The film is a musical in the sense that the characters sing at various times, often variations on the film's theme song, yet the songs and the music always feel fully integrated into the narrative, something that was rare among early "talkies" in which the allure of synchronized sound often drew filmmakers into visual laziness and narrative sloppiness.
In addition to being a trailblazer in the use of sound, René Clair is also considered to be one of the pioneers of modern comedy, particularly in French film. An Italian Straw Hat (1927), which is considered his silent masterpiece, already proved that he had an expert sense of timing, and in À Nous la Liberté he weds that to pressing issues facing the rapidly modernizing culture. Of course, the pairing of timely social issues with broad-based comedy was not exactly new, but Clair brought it to the level of art in the same way Charlie Chaplin did. The spare, modernist set designs in À Nous la Liberté and Clair's thoughtful compositions add to the film's overall sense of the simple (some might say naïve) joys found only in the freedom of making one's life one's own.
|À Nous la Liberté: Criterion Collection DVD|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment|
|Release Date||August 20, 2002|
| 1.33:1 (Academy Aspect Ratio)|
Judging from the image quality on this disc, one would never suspect that À Nous la Liberté is over seven decades old. The transfer was made from a 35mm composite fine-grain master, which much have been in nearly immaculate condition because there is no reference in the liner notes to digital restoration. The black-and-white image is clear (there is some visible grain, but this is typical of older movies that used film stocks with larger grain structure) and largely free of age marks, scratches, or dirt. There are a few small stains here and there, a couple of slightly abrupt transitions that suggest a few frames might be missing, and a slight flicker in some images, but otherwise this is as good as one can expect from a movie that is only slightly newer than the advent of synchronized motion-picture sound.
| French Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
As À Nous la Liberté is noted in the history books mainly for its pioneering use of sound, it was a joy to find that the one-channel Dolby Digital monaural soundtrack sounds as good as the image looks. Having been restored with audio restoration tools and mastered at 24-bit, the soundtrack is as crisp and clear as it was in 1931. Of course, to those used to modern soundtrack standards, it will still sound awkward and archaic at times (most notably the lack of ambient sound effects), but one must take into account the film's historical context.
| Two deleted scenes|
The two deleted scenes included here, "The Singing Flower" (which runs about 2 minutes) and "The Magic Park" (which runs about 5 minutes), were originally part of the film when it premiered in 1931, but René Clair eventually cut both of them of his own free will (he was known for revisiting and reworking his earlier films from time to time). The image quality of these scenes is much rougher than the film itself, as they were obviously taken from other prints (no prints made since 1950 have contained both scenes, and none since the early 1930s have contained "The Magic Park" scene). Each scene is accompanied by an informative textual introduction that explains when and why it was cut.
Entr'acte 1924 short film
Audio essay on the Tobis v. Chaplin Affair
Video interview with Madame Bronja Clair
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick