There was a time when René Clair was considered one of the most important names in film. An experimental filmmaker who came along as part of the Dadaist movement in art in the 1920s, Clair went on to become a popular filmmaker and one of the chief architects of the sound film in France with three key films: Sous les Toits de Paris (1929), Le Million (1930) and, perhaps his masterpiece, À Nous la Liberté (1931). But tastes and fashions in film history change, and you rarely hear Clair even mentioned in passing these days—despite the fact that all three of his early talkies are available on DVD in the Criterion Collection. It’s really too bad. Modern viewers are missing a lot—not just in terms of film history, but in sheer creative entertainment. In fact, his historic importance as a pioneer of sound is exaggerated. Unlike his Hollywood contemporaries who insisted on freeing the sound camera, Clair’s solution to the demands of the talkies was to shoot as much as possible silent and put a soundtrack—often rather crude—on later. À Nous la Liberté certainly makes use of this technique—so much so that it qualifies as probably the closest the sound film ever came to making a silent comedy.
But there’s much more to this quirky left-wing musical satire than its technical achievement. First of all, it’s one of the most surprisingly political films of its time. Indeed, the film is mere inches away from being an endorsement of pure communism, in that it pictures the dehumanization of humanity through assembly-line work being solved by automation. (In Clair’s perfect world, the worker seems to be paid even after the actual job has been automated out of existence.) The main thrust of Clair’s satire is the idea that rich capitalists are crooks. In this case, it’s quite literal, since escaped convict Emile (Henri Marchand) follows up his stint in prison making toys on an assembly line by founding a successful phonograph company in which the workers are treated exactly like convicts. His success is threatened when his old cellmate, Louis (Raymond Cordy), shows up. The threat, however, turns out to be Emile’s path to personal salvation.
There’s an unusual homoerotic quality to the two ex-convicts’ relationship that isn’t dispelled by Louis’ hopeless infatuation with factory worker Jeanne (Rolla France), but neither is the quality stressed. It simply is. The depiction of the phonograph factory is brilliant—so brilliant, in fact, that it obviously influenced Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). And so obvious was the influence that the producers of À Nous la Liberté sued Chaplin for plagiarism. But since Clair considered it an honor to have influenced Chaplin, the suit went nowhere. See the film for yourself. Wildly funny, endlessly creative, experimental and utterly charming, it is a too-often overlooked classic.