Wednesday, 19 December 2012



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1931 - France (Film Sonores Tobis)

DIRECTOR: René Clair
SCRIPT:  René Clair
PHOTOGRAPHY: Georges Périnal
MUSIC: Georges Auric

     My word, I was so ready to hate this film I should probably hang my head in shame and think about what I've (nearly) done. In my defence though I'd like to say that all I had to start with was the year, 'freedom' in the title and a glimpse of a review (I avoid reading about films before watching them so that I don't get my opinion influenced too much) from which my eye fished out words like 'left-wing', 'socialist' and 'propaganda'. My heart sank and was not far from knocking out a sizeable hole in the bottom of the Mariana Trench but then I have spotted another word that made me stop recoiling from the anticipated terror. A 'comedy' it said. And with that single word a tiny flicker lit up at the end of the tunnel. Thankfully it wasn't a train either.

Credit, where credit's due. I've had my issues and grievances with some of the films I had to watch so far, but there were also those I found myself very lucky to discover. A NOUS LA LIBERTE is one of those. And it's not just satisfying, it's not just OK for its age, it is simply and without a doubt a very good film. I have stressed it here already, probably more than once, that it doesn't matter how important a film might have been on the day of release. If that date was, say, sixty years ago and since then the film has done nothing more than just age without much grace, its place is in the history books (of film-making, no need to push the Korean War aside) but awarding it a status of 'must see' today, based only on its historical significance is pointless. It's the universality, the relevance that allow us to brand certain films as timeless. What is necessary is the message and artistic language that can travel across the cultures as well as generations. And to show an example of what I'm talking about... Ladies and gentlemen! I give you: A NOUS LA LIBERTE. What surprised me most about this film is that one could take the script and with hardly any changes make it into a film today. The result would be probably a little bit quirky and definitely artistic, but I don't think many people would realise how old the script was. Not only that, there are images and ideas there that could serve as a social commentary as well today as they did in 1931. Plus some prophetic glimpse into a near future, no doubt incidental, but still capable of sending a chill down your spine. There'll be time to talk about it later though.

For now let's start with the element that is first there to be noticed - the visual side. Being no expert in the classic, black and white cinema, I still have seen a fair share of old films, mainly years ago an the television when there was hardly anything to watch at all. That gave me a general perception of the old cinema as being rather dull and to be perfectly honest, the even the films I've watched so far for this project (12 ANGRY MEN, THE 39 STEPS, and THE 42nd STREET) did little or nothing to change that. I mean, I'm perfectly aware that this is nothing more than misconception but still, the overwhelming majority of the classic cinema looks like all care for visuals went into either sequins or highlighting faces against shadows. A NOUS LA LIBERTE defies that paradigm and with a great success at that. In fact, not only monsieur Clair gives a picture that is as much of a delight to look at as the story is to follow, he also draws his inspirations from the very best. I get the feeling there's still a little bit of the German Expressionism still lurking in the shadows but the absolute pièce de résistance here is without a doubt modernism. René Clair is really trying to make Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier proud. And it's not just the décor, it is also a medium to convey one of the messages of the film. The stark, monumental, overpowering modernist architecture is used here to portray and build a bridge between two places of dehumanisation and oppression - the prison and the factory. Also the lavish house of a typical parvenu - Loius, is arranged in the style of Art Deco, which even further accentuates the disparity between the old-fashioned world of humanistic values of Louis and Emile, and the modern world of industrialisation and enslavement stemming both from dehumanising world of mass production, but also from the stifling conventions of society. And yet, even though the point René Clair is making is far from trivial, he still manages to present it in a light-hearted and amusing way. Especially the good old slapstick works here its absolute treat. And this lightness, this fantastic sense of humour makes the difference. Without it we would most surely have ended up with a hard to digest piece of propaganda while what we do get instead is a beautiful, smart and accomplished satire.

Another thing I loved about this film is how firmly it wedges itself between the influences it constructs itself upon and the ripples it has caused itself since. While it draws from such works as METROPOLIS visually or Verne's PARIS AU XXe SIECLE ideologically (among others of course, I'm only mentioning those I believe will make me look more intelligent), there are also scenes that made me think of graphical style of Jean Giraud (I might be over-interpreting here, that's true, but if I'm right then at least I get a chance to claim the credit for something). It could also be tempting to start drawing parallels between Clair's message and Marxism, but personally, I wouldn't go that far. While they do seem to have some common ground when criticising the capitalism and its exploitation of the individual, Marxism is far more ideologically heavy with its class struggle and macroeconomic implications which in case of the communist artists manifested itself in the awestruck love for a large scale storytelling and in-your-face banner waving. Clair's approach is much more intimate and subtle. It is deeply humanistic, but not ideological. Clair doesn't pit revolution against capitalism, he opposes friendship against dehumanisation, while any possible political blanks are left to be filled in by the viewer. It's a commendable move, thanks to which Clair avoids falling into the trap of  the brutal sermon-preaching, which is something Bertolucci should have done, which only confirms what I've said about Marxist artists having no sense of humour.

I have also mentioned a prophetic property of this film, which actually consists of two elements. One of them is the parallel between the prison and the factory. In the film that comparison is made very clearly, there's no hinting, no reading between the lines. And it's tragic to see that eighty years since Clair tried to warn us about the dangers of heartless industrialisation, for many people especially in Asia (Foxconn's factories could be a perfect example here, you could even draw another parallel between Clair's phonographs and Apple's iPads) this is actually true. The other one is even more grim. In the film we see children in school being indoctrinated by being taught the same song that is also sung by the inmates and the factory workers. The two lines that caught my attention specifically were: work is necessary, work is freedom. As incidental as it must be, an instant comparison with ARBEIT MACHT FREI sprung to my mind and gave an extra (even if fuelled by a hindsight René Clair could not have possessed) depth to the imagery of forced labour and exploitation.

To summarise then, with great pleasure I must admit that I was very, very wrong to assume the worst before watching the film. I'm sure I'm going to do it again in the future though as I much prefer to be pleasantly surprised than bitterly disappointed. A NOUS LA LIBERTE is a brilliant film that has hardly aged in its core message and can still please today's viewer with its carefully created, artistic visuals. Eighty one years from the première it still remains a picture that has the capacity to please, inspire and teach, both the ordinary viewer and the filmmaker. I'd like to see Michael Bay to achieve that.*

Previously on 1001 FILMS TO SEE AND NOT DIE: Project A, Part II ('A' Gai Wak Jup Jap), Jackie Chan, 1978
Next on the list: A One And A Two (Yi Yi) - Edward Yang, 2000
And after that: Open Your Eyes (Abre Los Ojos), Alejandro Amenabar, 1997

* Figure of speach. I couldn't care less about what Michael Bay is going to achieve.

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