Wednesday, September 01, 2004

A Nous la Liberte Directed by Rene Clair

It is now fairly common knowledge that Charlie Chaplin ripped off Rene Clair's A Nous la Liberte when he made his 1936 film, Modern Times. The story goes that Tobias, Clair's production company, filed suit against Chaplin but Clair called the whole gig off, citing Chaplin as one of his favorite directors. This isn't an argument or a comparison of the two films - I'll leave that one to Michael Atkinson of Village Voice fame. No, A Nous la Liberte and Modern Times are remarkably different. So much, in fact, that they can hardly be compared excepting their industrial overtones. And even those vary 'twixt the two.

The film opens with two prisoners planning some form of escape. We know them only as #'s 155 & 119. Their habitat is extremely efficient. Men are metered off in straight lines, their mealtime is neatly rationed, and every move is closely monitored. Remarkably, they manage to make an escape attempt. By using 155 to support himself, 119 is able to slowly cut through the metal bars of the elevated prison window. Once out, the jig is up. After 155 scales the first of two walls, the spotlight is fixed on 119. After realizing that there is no escape for him, 119 gives up his chance at freedom to tell 155 to flee. Rather he yells, "Run for it, Louis." 155 (heretofore Louis) retorts, "Thank you Emile." Both of these men have managed to escape. 119 is no longer 119 - he is Emile. Regardless of residence, he is Emile. 155, on the other hand, has the better end of lollipop - being both Louis and Free.

Out in the free world, Louis works himself up to the position of CEO of a phonograph company. The film never tells us how long Louis spent in prison, but I gather it was awhile. As soon as he gets to the outside world, he recreates the prison. Louis builds a factory replete with strict lines, heavily portioned and mechanized meals, and (get this) guards to monitor the workers' progress. Clearly there was something of the prison that stayed with Louis. We find out later that Emile has escaped prison and landed himself a job at Louis' factory. The meeting between the two ex-cons is one of the more endearing heterosexual meetings between men that I've seen on film.

Later on there are the unavoidable trappings of an early sound comedy: Louis is confronted by former "affiliates" (of the criminal sort, if ya' get me) and is threatened with the loss of his company, there is a chase scene that smacks of Keystone, and the two pals end up more or less where they started: rather destitute with only each other. So what does it all mean? What does it add up to? Well, under all of this is the mantle of capitalist bashing. Every character in the film, sans Emile, chases money exclusively. The best scene features a valise full of loose 1000-Franc notes strewn about a courtyard and roughly 100 bourgeois, tuxedo clad men clamoring after said notes. The camera bobs with frenetic ecstasy, watching these gentlemen tear at each other for money that does not belong to them. But I don't know what to make of the ending: whereas Modern Times condemns the machine, Clair dares to capitalize it - Machine. The workers are shown as happy and docile now that the machine (Louis' final invention) has come to replace them. They bask in their simple life of fishing and singing, content to live an idle day. Perhaps, despite the fantastic rip at the upper-class in the courtyard scene, the film's real goal is show freedom. What it is, the film finally realizes, is different for everyone. A socialist might argue that to be able to work is freedom. Clair would argue that the choice of whether to work or not is true freedom.


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