A NOUS LA LIBERTE (René Clair, 1932)

Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose . . . — Kris Kristofferson

Chaplin’s inspiration for Modern Times (1936), René Clair’s À nous la liberté satirically considers the nature of true happiness.
     Louis and Emile, prison inmates, escape. What do they do with their freedom? Louis works hard, eventually becoming the owner of an automated factory mass-manufacturing gramophones: happy leisure for the masses that robotizes workers in the production process. Content with getting by, Emile ends up working in Louis’s factory. Confronted with Emile’s simpler example, and fearful of exposure and reincarceration, Louis turns over the factory to his workers and partners again with Emile—two tramps destined for the open road.
     The opening two-shot sequence inside the prison is brilliant. Two long rows of seated inmates face one another, including Emile and Louis. Each man hand-carves a wooden horse: the inspiration for Louis’s future assembly line. The tracking camera surveys each row, the illusion of freedom that the extensively moving camera imparts being undercut by two things: the mise-en-scène of forced labor; the cut in between the two opposite rows of worker-inmates, which enforces the parallelism of their efforts, trapping each side in a kind of mirror. The men start singing—“spontaneously” by habit, tossing music into a barrel of irony for the film’s duration. Apparently singing flowers—Nature’s unbridled joy—may be the result of misguided human projection; a singing girl is only lip-synching to a gramophone record! Since the film, betwixt silent and sound film, is a kind of interrupted musical, the form itself flows from this irony.
     Colder, less engaging than Clair’s other early sound work, the film nonetheless contains a stunning passage illustrating locked-in, reflexive behavior: as paper money pours down, a distant, overhead view of humanity in riotous (com)motion.

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