René Clair is considered to be one of the pioneers of modern comedy, particularly in French film. His An Italian Straw Hat (1927), which is considered his silent masterpiece, shows his consummate sense of timing, and there is ample evidence of it in this movie also.
The title translates roughly to “Liberty for us”. It is memorable for many reasons. 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. There is little real dialogue, music being often relied upon to do the “talking.” The film however backward when compared to the present multitrack, THX standards constituted a significant development in the then-controversial movement to marry once and for all sound and image. One of the great ironies of René Clair was that he like Chaplin, had initially been one of the staunchest opponents to making the movies talk.
À Nous la Liberté is also memorable for paving the way for Charlie Chaplin (whose Modern Times was accused of plagiarizing À Nous la Liberté by the film’s production company) and Jacques Tati (Mon Oncle, Playtime). It is a smart and funny social satire about modernization, a theme that was apt and timely for a world reeling from the Great Depression. It also showed a radical idea of freeing oneself from the controls of social and economic oppression.
‘The tale itself, M. Clair’s own account of two prison pals, first inside and then away from jail, is sufficiently lucid, but the manipulation of the incidents is quite another matter. The characters frequently give vent to their thoughts in song, whether they are behind the bars, in a factory or in a banquet hall. And unlike M. Clair’s previous hilarious contribution, “Le Million,” the humor in this new venture, despite its farcical nature, is provocative of thought rather than laughter’. M. Hall, NY times 1932
Life behind the bars is as regimented and dehumanizing as a blue-collar worker whose life is spent about an assembly line. 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.
How Louis avoids detection is delectable. The convict, once in the street, bowls over a speeding cyclist. While the dazed man is on the ground, Louis, who has disrobed down to his underwear, rides away on the bicycle. And Louis is greeted by a throng as the winner of the cycling race.
Once free Louis begins selling phonographs, quickly rising up to become the 1930s version of a media magnate, a dig at 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. The prison life has at least taught him to wear a straight jacket of another sort and thanks to Mr. Ford. It is a none too subtle way of showing how dull and monotonous modern life can be.’ Quality time, anyone?
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.
In the final fade-out Louis and Emile have discovered liberty away from prison and work—they are happy tramps, glad to get a few sous with which to buy bread.
‘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.’( film desk review:james kendrick)
Henri Marchand gives a commendable performance as Emile, and Raymond Cardy is capital as the more vigorous Louis. Rolla France is pleasing as Jeanne, and Paul Olivier is excellent as the girl’s uncle.
A NOUS, LA LIBERTE, written and directed by Rene Clair;
Emile . . . . . Henri Marchand
Louis . . . . . Raymond Cardy
Jeanne . . . . . Rolla France
The Uncle . . . . . Paul Olivier
Paul . . . . . Jacques Shelly
The Foreman . . . . . Andre Micaud
Maud . . . . . Germaine Aussey
An Old Man . . . . . Leon Lorin
An Old Convict . . . . . William Burke
An Orator . . . . . Vincent Hyspa
Similar movies: City Lights, Modern Times, Playtime,The Shawshank Redemption