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À nous la liberté: The Criterion Collection

On October 6, 1927 Warner Brothers' The Jazz Singer made its first public showing and the "sound revolution" began. As with any artistic transition period, some brilliant directors foundered in that sea change between the silent years' refined artistry — the mature and highly developed editing and purely visual narrative — and the "talkies'" potential to widen a film's canvas of expression and subject matter. Chaplin resisted full acceptance of sound for as long as he could. In France, however, director René Clair, one of the continent's predominant silent directors (The Italian Straw Hat), embraced the possibilities of sound while still honoring the conventions and advantages perfected by the pre-audio artists, particularly Chaplin. The most notable sound-era titles within Clair's mixed body of work (his later American period was at best banal) are three early films: 1930's Sous le toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris), '31's Le million, and '32's À nous la liberté (Give Us Liberty). Each displays Clair's mastery of artful whimsy by mixing sound (especially song), sweet-faced storytelling, and visual skill. Pay particular attention to his innovative use of sound. Claire employed dialogue mindfully, as a paintbrush used only when necessary, thus avoiding the gregariousness of so many of his contemporaries. Moreover, he pioneered the integration of sound and music as their own worthy entities to enhance the viewing experience rather than as mere dependents to the visuals.

À nous la liberté's story is a comic fable as light and formally structured as a children's picture-book tale. Two prison convicts, Louis (Raymond Cordy) and Emile (Henri Marchand), plot an escape together. The plan is a partial success, with only Louis getting away to freedom beyond the prison walls. Thanks to some comic good fortune and clever chicanery, he sets himself up as a sidewalk phonograph salesmen and in short order rises to the directorship of a fabulously successful phonograph manufacturing company. Like a bespectacled Jean Valjean, Louis' new identity and tycoon success keep him out of prison and within the upper crust of society. Eventually Emile gains employment at Louis' plant, where he recognizes his former cellmate and friend. When Emile — an endearing "little tramp" embodiment of carefree personal freedom — reveals himself to Louis, this intrusion from his secret past alarms the captain of industry, who tries to bribe Emile into leaving and remaining silent. But their loving friendship trumps everything else, and it's not long before Louis' wife (an unfaithful society swell) and associates notice the changes triggered by the ubiquitous presence of industrialist Louis' scruffy pal. Eventually the local mob blackmails Louis with photographic evidence of his former identity, and Louis' life crumbles as gangsters and the police alike come closing in at the same time he is to be publicly honored as a distinguished citizen. But "success" on society's terms is itself a cellblock of chains and shackles, and by shedding its wealth and trappings Louis and Emile gain the ultimate freedom — and the film an agreeably naive fadeout — as anonymous tramps singing together on the open road with no particular destination other than liberté! in mind.

À nous la liberté strives to be two contrapuntal things. The first is a light-as-meringue semi-musical about love (Emile falls for a factory girl) and the power of friendship. The next is an early screen expression of a growing social concern — the fear that an individual's quality of life and liberty were threatened by society's relentless surge toward mechanization. That fear of wage-slavery, and its core humanistic spirit, prevailed everywhere, most strongly in France. À nous la liberté tries to find the balance point between charming entertainment and social satire, and while it does both well by turns, we get the feeling that Claire wasn't always comfortable juggling a tennis ball simultaneously with a whirring chainsaw. The depiction of prison life as routine drudgery relieved by group sing-alongs is whimsical but also cloying, and equating regimented daily employment with a prisoner's life is awfully blunt. We watch blood drip onto wads of cash, and Louis' spacious CEO office is as sterile as the interior of a bank vault. When Louis chucks his aristocratic existence for genuine happiness in a vagabond's tra-la-la liberation on the road with his best friend, the scene teeters on the brink of preciousness. Yet Claire's life-is-a-song celebration works. (Its message against selling out one's soul would rally today's teenagers.) We can imagine Preston Sturges taking notes while watching it, then casting Gene Kelly as Emile and Donald O'Connor as Louis.

Its social-leftist satire against automated dehumanization seemed to impress Chaplin, whose more renowned classic Modern Times ('36) appeared to lift Clair's conveyor belt gag and other key moments. Although Chaplin and his studio insisted that they had not seen Clair's film, À nous la liberté's German production company, Tobis, filed a plagiarism lawsuit against Chaplin. The protracted controversy lasted a decade (through World War II) before finally settling out of court. Clair himself wanted nothing to do with the suit. He declared that "All of us flow" from Chaplin, and that "I was honored if he was inspired by my film."

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This DVD edition of À nous la liberté is everything we've come to expect from Criterion. The new digital transfer is created from a 35mm composite fine-grain master. The strong DD 1.0 soundtrack is 24-bit mastered, with audio restoration used to eliminate pops, hiss, and crackle. The sprightly musical score by George Auric, one of the earliest and best of film scores, is especially well served. The new optional English subtitle translation of the original French dialogue track is improved over previous editions.

Alongside the 83-minute feature, the disc offers two deleted scenes, including Emile's lovely pastoral layabout with a clutch of singing flowers. A March 2002 audio essay by film historian David Robinson provides info on the lawsuit against Chaplin's Modern Times. A 1998 video interview with Madame Bronja Clair, René's wife, recalls his art and personal life in cozy detail.

Also here is Entr'acte (1924), a 20-minute toy of trick photography and playful humor that was a seminal film of the Surrealist movement and brought together three great French artists of the time — Francis Picabia, Erik Satie, and Clair.

Michael Atkinson, film critic for The Village Voice, provides an informative essay in the pullout slipsheet. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne



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