Nothing could be lighter or more buoyant than René Clair’s warm-hearted musical-comedy parodying operetta/opera, Le million.
The brilliant opening shot travels weightlessly along Parisian tenement rooftops; alternative lives to those in Clair’s preceding film, Sous les toits de Paris (1930), will be shown to us. Romance is in the air—and revelry. Their sleep interrupted, two men slip and slide across the roofs to peer into the jubilant apartment. (Among those dancing, we fleetingly glimpse a bridal gown.) What is going on? “Haven’t you heard what happened?” a reveler asks, looking up. “No.” The revelers sing to the pair of insomniacs, beginning their account of the day that’s now coming to a close. As the scene dissolves to an interior one that morning, we realize that we the audience are represented by the two men on the roof. Is this reality, or are we asleep, dreaming? Obviously a gorgeous fabrication (Clair’s resident genius set designer, Lazare Meerson, at work again), the rooftops and windows had begged this same question. At the movies, are we not all dreamers?
Some “dreams” that we encounter in movie theaters are complex. Its string of dupings and misleading appearances slyly commenting on a frantic race to locate a winning lottery ticket inside a poor boy’s lost jacket, Le million is about tenuous rather than assured lives. Heavily in-debt artist Michel (René Lefèvre, epitomizing the charm of youth) must find and hold onto that jacket of his! Among other things, this will lead to one of the funniest passages in creation: on the opera house stage, the mime of a rugby scrum.
We dreamers get the happy ending we want—ah, but we’re ever mindful of the social reality from which we and our co-dreamer, Clair, have effected young Michel’s escape.
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