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A NOUS LA LIBERTE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Henri Marchand, Raymond Cordy, Rolla France
Director:  Rene Clair
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  83 Minutes
Release Date:  August 20, 2002

Film ***

Seems like I learn something new every week with a Criterion DVD release.  I never knew, for example, that the studio that produced Rene Clair’s A Nous la Liberte actually sued Charlie Chaplin and United Artists for plagiarism over Chaplin’s later film, Modern Times, which is probably my favorite of all of Chaplin’s films!  Interestingly and fairly enough, the disc includes a printed essay, which charges that Chaplin was in fact guilty, and an on-disc audio essay, which takes the position he was innocent.

Whether or not Clair was an influence on Chaplin, one need only to watch A Nous to understand that Chaplin was certainly an influence on Clair…a fact he freely and openly admitted (he even refused to take part in his studio’s lawsuit).  Although Clair was experimenting and succeeded with sound films years before Chaplin decided to try his first talkie, one can still sense the inspiration in the characters and their slapstick, their open and endearing humanity, and even in their message, though Clair waters his down quite a bit for the sake of charm.

The film tells a simple tale of two prison inmates, Emile (Marchand) and Louis (Cordy), who stage a daring escape near the beginning.  Emile eventually becomes the head of a phonograph factory (how?  I’m not sure, but I guess if Jean Valjean can go from escaped convict to mayor, Emile can become a successful industrialist).  His path crosses again with Louis, who has been a factory employee in the same time period.  Scenes of factory work suggest that such degrading labor isn’t that much different from being in prison!

Emile begins to help Louis realize his dreams, including his distracting love for Jeanne (France), whose presence caused some mishaps in the factory.  But Emile’s secret is always in danger of exposure…he’s always one step away from losing it all and returning to prison!

I’ve re-read my last paragraphs and realize I’ve made the film sound too serious.  It’s anything but.  Clair’s stylistic touches include characters bursting into song at amusing moments, lots of slapstick, action choreographed humorously, and so on.  The presence of the two leading men is also comical…they never let any potential seriousness derail the delight of the film.

Clair makes a statement about dehumanization, but in a rather subtle way…it’s almost as if he’d rather the message be lost than to have his audience not enjoy the goings on in the movie.  Chaplin, with Modern Times, wasn’t at all timid about his message.  He did all but stand on a soapbox and openly declare it for all to hear.

Rene Clair lacked the pure genius of Chaplin, although his work shows some of the same intuition for comedy and humanity.  A Nous la Liberte is a picture content to be nothing more than an entertaining lark.  It succeeds at that…you’ll have a smile on your face from start to finish when you watch.

Video ***1/2

Criterion succeeds yet again in bringing a classic film to DVD and making it look better than ever.  Seventy years old?  Surprisingly, it doesn’t look it.  The black and white photography renders cleanly and crisply, with sharp images and strong detail.  The print is in remarkable shape as well…only a very few minor instances of dirt or splotches on the film.  Compared with other films from the early 30s, this offering is practically immaculate, and one film fans will greatly appreciate.

Audio **

The mono soundtrack comes across with cleanness and clarity…very little noise despite the fact that the original sound was recorded on record, with dialogue and music seemingly clear throughout.  The film is too old to merit a reference quality soundtrack, but given its age, this is still a more than suitable effort.

Features ***

The disc contains two deleted scenes that were excised by Clair himself…one takes place at a party, and the other more famous one involves a singing flower (silly, but charming).  There is also the aforementioned audio essay by film historian David Robinson concerning the plagiarism lawsuit against Chaplin, and a 1998 interview with Madame Bronja Clair, wife of Rene.  It’s an intimate look at both her and Clair, told through her memories and items Clair collected over the years.  Best of all is the 20 minute silent short Entr’acte, made by Clair and artist Francis Picabia.  It’s an energetic, surreal short that is pure cinematic delight…it alone is worth the purchase of the disc!

Summary:

Criterion has once again sifted for gold, found it, and polished it up for all the world to see.  A Nous la Liberte is a pleasing comic gem from the early days of talkies, filled with charm, music and humor, all presented on a good looking and nicely packaged disc for fans and students alike.