Rene´ Clair seems to have become the forgotten man of French cinema. While the egalitarian expansiveness of Renoir's joi du vivre appeals to audiences, and especially critics, they also prefer the fancifulness of Cocteau, the existential sobriety of Melville, and the monastic severity of Bresson to Clair's whimsical comedy. A sympathetic Andrew Sarris dubbed Clair a "Fringe Benefit," but while summarizing his career added that, "it must be reported honestly that Clair's decline began before he left France." Clair doesn't even have his own website, which should fall between Cimino, Michael and Clark, Larry on Yahoo's director sites list.
This seeming disdain comes despite the fact
that Clair had his roots in surrealism, a presumably prestigious intellectual
background, though he didn't view himself as a "joiner." And like
Renoir he eventually came to American. But here, his smoothly professional
style made for films (And Then There Were
None, I Married a Witch, The Flame of New Orleans) that, while
more polished, were arguably less interesting than Renoir's jangled neurotic
American affairs (Swamp Water, Woman on the Beach, The Southerner), part of the difference between a mere metteur en scene and a true auteur. Clair has not been honored with
many critical studies nor is he revived at museums or festivals, like Marcel
Carne´ with Children of Paradise.
Instead, Clair comes across as another Carol Reed, whose directorial freefall
into decrepit projects is not as unusual a career arc as film fans like to
The Criterion Collection has modestly
rectified this critical neglect. Criterion, which numbers its DVDs like the
immediate collectors items they become, and which tends to release its director
collections in pairs (two Sturges, two Sirks, two Formans), has now come out
with two Clairs, Sous les toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris) from 1930 and `A nous la liberte´ (1932).
`A nous la liberte´ is probably
Clair's most famous and respected film, a comedy about two friendly criminals
who meet up years later when one has just left prison and the other has worked
his way up from clerk to head of a phonograph company. It bears the distinction
of inspiring a lawsuit: the producers sued Charlie Chaplin for lifting much of Modern Times from liberte´. All this is summarized on the disc, which also features
an interview with the widow Clair, two deleted scenes, and the added bonus of
Clair's short, Entr'acte. Most
important is that the film has been digitally restored in both sound and image.
Thus, one can see plainly that, hmmmm, maybe Sarris and
Clair's detractors are correct. Liberte´
is really a silent comedy with a certain social edge (prison life and factory
life are not that different). In fact, there is more singing and dancing in
this film than there is plain speech. But behind the deft surface you can sense
the lure of shallowness that was later to afflict Clair's work. The best way to
isolate Clair's deficits is to compare Entr'acte
with that other great surrealistic short, Un Chien andalou, the first a weird mélange of aggression and
death disguised as a Méli`es comedy, the second an uncompromising attack on
Roofs, on the other hand, is a thoroughly realistic tale set in a thoroughly artificial setting: a vision of Paris created entirely on a set. Much the stronger and better of the two films, Clair's first sound picture also anticipated in many ways Carne´'s Paradise, and even Luhrmann's lurid Moulin Rouge. It's about two men of the street, a criminal and a street singer, who vie for the attention of what can only be a prostitute. As in liberte´ (and the films of Raoul Walsh), male friendship transcends the vagaries imposed by Woman. And like liberte´ it is a "film with music" (like the others made in collaboration with cinematographer Georges P`erinal and costumer Roger Meerson) that defies the expectations of its sound hungry audiences. It was cunning of Clair to focus liberte´ on a phonograph manufacturer just as it is clever of him in Roofs to pose arguments between two buddies behind glass doors, denying the viewer the banality of speech for the triumph of effect. Clair deserves his day in the sun, and Criterion provides it with two excellent and lasting discs.
This review originally appeared in the inaugural issue of the literary newspaper Black Lamb in September, 2002.