René Clair Essay - Critical Essays

Clair, René


René Clair 1898–1981

(Born René Chomette) French director, critic, novelist, and actor.

Clair's films are deeply human, juxtaposing satire, comedy, sentiment, and fantasy. Throughout, his primary intent is to present the essential goodness of humanity. As Raymond Spottiswoode wrote in 1933, "[Clair] excels in the fluidity of his action and the fertility of his ideas. Even in his worst films an occasional shrewd observation reveals a sensitive mind, obscured sometimes by sentimentality and sometimes untrammelled and riotous."

Clair was a journalist before becoming an actor. Though he eventually tired of acting, Clair found filmmaking irresistible, and he left his job as a writer to assist director Jacques de Baroncelli. The experience Clair gained enabled him to make his first film, Paris qui dort (The Crazy Ray). Its graceful energy is repeated in subsequent works which reveal his dedication to the surreal. The study of movement in Paris qui dort was considered impressive, and cubist painter Francis Picabia asked Clair to make a film to be shown between acts of a production by the Swedish Ballet. The resultant film, Entr'acte, displays Clair's fondness for sight gags and bourgeois satire, elements which distinguish much of his later work.

Clair loved silent cinema, considering it the pure cinema of images. He was so disturbed by the advent of sound in the late 1920s that he considered abandoning filmmaking. However, Clair soon learned to use sound as a complement to visual images. Sous les toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris), his first sound film, reflects a new thematic as well as technical aspect. Clair chose to concentrate on the working class while creating aural images rather than dialogue. Le million returns to Clair's interest in surrealism, and its juxtaposition of reality and fantasy met with universal acclaim. À nous la liberté studies the conflict between a man's soul and the increasing automation of society. When his next films were also poorly received and he was in need of financing, Clair moved to Britain.

The Ghost Goes West, his first British film, was successful, but Clair's light, sure touch was not in evidence in subsequent works, and he returned to France. During the production of a new film, World War II began, and Clair reluctantly moved his family to Hollywood. Clair's work in the United States is generally considered undistinguished, and most critics agree that the American context did not suit Clair, despite the technological advantages available in Hollywood.

Clair returned to France in 1946 and began to make more personal films. Les belles-de-nuit serves as a final return to his world of fantasy. Many consider it a rediscovery of the sentiments of his early films and, in some ways, a metaphoric film about film. In 1960, Clair became the first filmmaker to be elected to the Académie Française solely on the basis of his achievement in cinema. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 103.)

Jean-George Auriol

[At the head of the young French school of directors] there is without hesitation René Clair, whose first film, made in 1922, with unbelievably limited means, Paris qui dort, remains still the only French comic film that can be shown along with the old Max Linder films, which have almost all disappeared today. René Clair amazed all eyes with the film he made, on a scenario by Picabia, for a scene in the Swedish Ballet in 1922—I am speaking of Entr'acte. This short and admirable bit of mystification has such spontaneous movement and such real richness that it can be considered as a chef-d'oeuvre. Clair next sought to react against the theatrical cinema, so generally admired in France, through films that were full of movement and without literary pretensions. Then, after directing a number of films that were more to his taste, but sufficiently ordinary to obtain a financial success, he is now reduced to the point of taking refuge in facile, elegant plays, and transposing into the French style the marvelous buffoonery of Keaton or the easier passages in the admirable humor of Chaplin. (p. 260)

Jean-George Auriol, "Whither the French Cinema" (translation revised by Maria McD. Jolas for this publication), translated by Maria McD. Jolas, in transition (copyright, 1929, by transition), No. 15, February, 1929, pp. 257-63.∗

Alexander Bakshy

[René Clair] enjoys the combined benefits of talent and good fortune. He has produced ["Sous les Toits de Paris,"] a picture that in many ways is a little masterpiece, and he has been lucky enough to be the first artist in a field that has been dominated by Hollywood robots. Indeed, so great is one's relief and delight at seeing a fresh mind, unencumbered with hollow conventions and equipped with taste, subtle wit, and imaginative insight, apply itself to fashioning a work of art that the shortcomings of the picture inevitably recede into the background. There I shall leave them for the moment, to stress the more important fact—the fascination and charm of René Clair's offspring.

The quality of the picture is revealed almost from its opening scenes…. The length of the [opening] song, the dulness of the music, and the solemnity of the singing would have been enough to condemn this scene for any Hollywood talkie. But here comes the miracle of art. By introducing a slight action, so slight that it is almost entirely confined to an exchange of glances between the peddler and a prowling pickpocket, the artist sets off the vital force. Instantly the characters become intensely alive, the singing acquires the quality of suspense, and the whole scene begins to sparkle with humor and to throb with the pulse of human life. By vivifying touches such as this, one scene after another is transformed into a palpitating reality…. [This]...

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National Board Of Review Magazine

It may be that [Sous Les Toits de Paris] will not circulate widely through America because foreign tongues are not considered remunerative adjuncts to motion pictures except in localities where there is a definite audience of foreign extraction. It is a pity, for France has not sent us a more delightful movie than this one. As a matter of fact enjoying the picture depends very little on being able to understand French…. (p. 13)

Out of very slight material comes a gay and charming picture. Its atmosphere recalls the good old "Vie de Boheme," but there is a vast difference between the lightly loving Bohemians of Murger's day and the similar gentry with whom M. Clair has concerned himself. (pp. 13-14)

Sentiment has been saltily mixed with cheerful cynicism, and the rather commonplace tale of flirtation and light-hearted faith-lessness never runs into danger of becoming tearful or tragic….

What gives solidity and its greatest charm to all this is the background and atmosphere of Paris—the French Paris untouched by tourists and never seen in movies….

But the enthusiastic analyst of the cinema will find a double pleasure in this picture through watching the way it has been made…. Most of all he will perhaps be struck by the sparing but immensely suggestive employment of actual dialogue. There is hardly more speech than there used to be titles in the best of the silent films, and yet you are satisfied you have heard all that was worth hearing—certainly all that was necessary to hear. It is far more movie than talkie, which exercises the imagination and rests the ear. M. Clair has used the best of the new form without losing any of the good of the old. (p. 14)

"Exceptional Photoplays: 'Sous les toits de Paris'," in National Board of Review Magazine (copyright, 1931), Vol. VI, No. 2, February, 1931, pp. 13-14.

James Shelley Hamilton

[Le Million] is indescribably gay and amusing, done in a style that is partly French, but chiefly René Clair's own…. In Le Million he has gone in for fewer subtleties—just swift straight comedy that flirts with what is sometimes rather contemptuously called slap-stick. Through it all he has scattered some lively tunes that quicken the pace rather than halt it, and in his rapid stride he manages, lightly but pointedly, to have some fun with various things: with greed and infidelity, to name the more serious ones, with gangsters and gangster films, with football and collegiate films, and most gleefully of all with that solem-old institution, grand opera….

If a funnier, more original and individual screen comedy is to be looked for to follow Le Million, there is no one in sight to expect it from but René Clair himself. (p. 14)

James Shelley Hamilton, "'Le Million'," in National Board of Review Magazine, Vol. VI, No. 6, June, 1931, pp. 13-14.

Alexander Bakshy

Rene Clair's "Le Million" …, like his earlier "Sous les Toits de Paris," is one of those rare pictures that make you their willing captive immersed in their mood and letting yourself be carried away on the wings of their fancy. In "Le Million" the fancy is much more exuberant than it was in the other picture, but it enforces submission upon you just as effectively, so that like everybody else around you, you inevitably exclaim: "What charm! What invention! What fun!" This spontaneous reaction, confirmed by the laudations you hear on all sides, is sufficient proof of the unique qualities of the film. It is the work of an artist who sees beyond the obvious and who can view the comedy of life with a good-natured...

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Francis Fergusson

[If René Clair's] Le Million is better than most Hollywood comedies, it is because he is still supported by the Molière formula, which is far better theatre than our own funny-paper slapsticks. Le Million is the story of a young man who wins a lottery, and loses his winning ticket, which everyone in Paris then tries to steal. By chopping this film into a series of neatly built scenes; but putting it all in a snappy rhythm, like a quick march, and setting part of it to music; and by using his settings like the traditional French stage with three doors, out of which angry people are always popping, René Clair shows that he is simply transferring the old comedy to the screen. In this he is successful...

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C. A. Lejeune

[Clair's] films achieve a peculiarly happy combination of instinct and training that I have never quite seen paralleled in the cinema; you find it in his conversation too, and in his approach to a story, and in his attitude towards the accidents of life. He has an infectious, rather ingenuous sense of fun that leaps all the time to meet a comic conclusion already suggested by his practical experience of technique; he is at once spontaneous and considered, fantastic and yet curiously precise. The tradition of laughter which he has created for Europe is akin to, and yet distinct from, the laughter of American slapstick; it is based on an acceptance of the school of Sennett, but expressed in an individual and spirited...

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Francis Birrell

A Nous La Liberté is, as the title suggests, a pictorial discussion of the problem of liberty, in which the cameraman is aided by the disillusioned airs of Auric. Clair treats the modern world in terms of modern sensibility. A convict evidently lacks liberty. An employee in a Taylorised world is barely distinguishable from a convict. The owner of the factory is too busy to have a minute to himself, and if he buys a smart wife, he merely exists to decorate her dinner table….

These ideas are, in a way, literary. But they are realised by visual means. A Nous La Liberté is not a talkie, but a sound-film, based on a definite rhythm. There is a little talking to help through the necessary...

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Philippe Soupault

[In order to judge fairly "A Nous la Liberté"] we must consider it from two different points of view. We must look at both its technique and its ideas. Technically this film is distinguished for its great freshness, novelty and interesting cinematic suggestions. On the other hand, the director might perhaps be reproached for having tied a string of gags together, which weakened the general effect and unity of his picture. However, the details have been carefully chosen, and the gags are rather ingenious. The most remarkable thing about the film is the way in which René Clair has employed the sound effects of the movietone. In the matter of sound there are possibilities shown here which forecast a completely new...

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Margaret Marshall

[With "A Nous la Liberté"] René Clair establishes himself as the most accomplished and intelligent exponent of the art of the cinema. This is not to say that he is unsurpassed in all aspects of film-making. The Russians provide richer photography; the Lubitsch "touch" has a human warmth that Clair lacks—and probably scorns. The interesting fact about M. Clair is that he has mastered his technique as a whole so thorougly that he is now able to employ it freely in creating a style of his own. In his hands the film, about which so little in the way of definition or scope has been understood, much less formulated, emerges almost for the first time as a separate and fully developed form of artistic expression.


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Charles Davy

In René Clair's A Nous la Liberté a comparison was suggested between life in prison and life in a mass-production gramophone factory. Clair, it was said, would have liked to press this comparison home, but his backers wanted light entertainment, not social pungency. Possibly, in directing Le Dernier Milliardaire, he was similarly handicapped, for whenever the stage is set for satire—and it often is—he is inclined to sheer off towards farcical fantasy. Le Dernier Milliardaire has many delightful moments, but it suffers badly from a curious incoherence, probably because the conventions of its artificial world are never clearly defined….

There are a good many … touches of...

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James Shelley Hamilton

Clair has somehow come to be looked on as a satirist, though he hasn't an atom of the passion and indignation that puts the force into all great satire. For the most part he has found his fellow men, particularly his countrymen, odd and amusing creatures, whose petty ways he enjoys making an amiable show of on the screen. If the people are simple and not too malicious (like many of his Parisian underworld characters and his vagabonds) he is apt to be kindly and rather gentle with them, though completely frank. With middle-class pretentiousness and arrogance his portraiture moves definitely toward caricature, with a sharp, witty edge. Hitherto he has kept his locale in France, and his plots generally farcical.


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It may be admitted that the first French talkie of any real importance, Sous les Toits de Paris, displayed faults inevitable at that period, for it made use of music and also of silence in rather haphazard fashion. The introduction of the street singer, who keeps the film perfectly static while he sings his lines, was almost obligatory at the time…. Every detail is based on real life, the most vulgar incidents of real life. But if we compare this realism with that of the settings in German pictures, we see that in them the realism was dignified by a loving care for lighting and by a prodigious use of the pictorial medium. Theirs was the realism of a painter; but René Clair's realism is, as before, that of...

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Mark Van Doren

"The Ghost Goes West" is more amusing and more imaginative than the average film of whatever provenance, and indeed the audience of which I was a part laughed loud and long. But that is perhaps the point. It laughed too loud and long, and laughed in the wrong places—provided there is any meaning in the reference one naturally makes to Clair's earlier work, where the finest kind of balance was maintained between the ridiculous and the delicate, between the false and the true, between exaggeration and exquisiteness. "Sous les Toits de Paris" maintained those balances so skilfully that it came as near to perfection as any conceivable film of its kind—and there has actually never been another of its kind, as there has...

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Roger Manvell

Clair has a happy time with [the delightful situation in The Italian Straw Hat], which provides the motivation for his incredible collection of 1895 bourgeois characters. The realism of the film lies in the settings and in the formalities of the wedding, in all those things people do to make them seem important and dignified in their own eyes….

As a piece of story telling the film moves slowly enough, but it contains so much carefully contrived humour and is so well acted … that it survives repeated viewings. (p. 220)

[All through the film episodes] are worked out with little need for captions or dialogue. That the film is both too slow and too long for popular...

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Gavin Lambert

Les Belles-de-Nuit contains elements of the earlier Clair, as there are constant elements in the work of any individual artist, but its material is entirely different. In Sous les Toits and the others, a formal pattern was imposed on simple everyday incidents; here, as in La Beauté du Diable, the material itself is deliberately formal, and if Clair returns directly to any personal source at all, it is, rather, to one of his first silent films, Le Voyage Imaginaire. But his art now is most nearly like that of an eighteenth century philosophical French conte (a period and a manner which he has always admired), and it gives the same kind of pleasure. The characters are not intimately...

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Alexander Singer

Belles de la Nuit is one of René Clair's dream-reality mixtures in which a young music teacher … struggles to become a successful composer, find true love, fend off the machine age, retain his sanity. All this with one foot in kaleidoscopic dreams and the other on a banana peel.

The belles of the title are four beautiful women [the music teacher] meets in his dreams. They belong to different periods in French history, the salient characteristics of which are broadly satirized. These lovelies, of course, are inspired versions of the women he knows in real life….

Clair keeps his melange from flying apart by interweaving recurring elements. Each shift to an earlier period...

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Gavin Lambert

[Clair remarked that the dramatic problem of Les Grandes Manoeuvres] lies in its change of mood halfway through; what begins as a comedy of seduction ends as a tragedy of love. (p. 146)

Through Armand's discarded loves Clair introduces us to various conditions of life in the town, sketching in unwitting cuckolds, indignant fathers and jealous rivals with light, penetrating strokes. Up to the time that Armand and Marie-Louise realise they are in love, indeed, the development on both levels—their relationship, and the background of provincial busybodies, gossips and interested parties—is faultless. The sense of period is exact but unostentatious; using colour for the first time, Clair...

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Lotte H. Eisner

[Once more in Les Grandes Manoeuvres] Clair exploits his extraordinary gift for suggesting subtle comical traits with a skillful virtuosity that, by means of image itself, brings humorous innuendos to the surface—effects that were somewhat neglected in his previous sound films. Again he juggles with purely visual understatements, with ellipses derived from sheer optical transition, with fine contrasts, counterpoints born out of terse and rhythmical editing. Subsidiary characters are not relegated to the ranks of shadowy extras; minute touches reveal them directly. His work is thereby instilled with life and movement. Les Grandes Manoeuvres is a film of glances that pierce the facade of a materially...

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Peter John Dyer

René Clair is one of those few, very rare directors whose films gain by seeing twice and cannot be properly estimated until that second visit. His shaded, delicate style, with its thin but determinate narrative line, suggests more than it reveals….

Clair's highly individual work has developed identifiably. He is never a stranger. His career has not taken sudden twists and bouleversements. Porte des Lilas, with its refusal to surprise or astonish, its parsimonious exteriors, its dislike of technical bravura, is a formula film—the Clair formula of classicism….

This story has a charming and tentative beauty in its relationships, in its feeling for...

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Louis Marcorelles

"Every man has a past. For every generation there are a few years to which it always returns to rediscover its own youth", wrote René Clair some years ago. The remark admirably sums up the spirit of his latest film, Porte des Lilas … and I should like to supplement it with this extract from an interview which took place during the production: "… the carefree atmosphere we once enjoyed no longer exists. I want to re-create it"…. [The] marked, though respectful, reserve of the younger generation suggest both Clair's fidelity to his rose-coloured world, and his deliberate determination in some degree to close his eyes to the passage of time. (pp. 145-46)

In the 'thirties Clair resolved his...

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Brenda Davies

Even in his days as an innovator René Clair was firmly rooted in cinema tradition. It should come as no surprise therefore to find him making a thoroughly traditional French bucolic comedy. What is rather unexpected about Tout l'Or du Monde … is that its lineage appears to be from Joffroi through Clochemerle and the [Jacques] Tati films rather than through his own early work. It is positively earthy and almost totally lacking in the characteristic Clair element of fantasy. Nevertheless the theme and the gentle satire with which it is treated both have their relation to the earlier Clair, and he has retained all his ability to work up a series of gags on the slenderest of threads. (p. 145)...

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Gordon Gow

The light touch is something we experience all too rarely in films nowadays, and it takes a master like René Clair to remind us how satisfactory it can be…. [It] has been reported on the one hand that the story of Tout l'Or du Monde is based on fact and really happened in France not long ago, and on the other that Clair had had such a subject in mind way back in the early 1930s just after he finished A nous la Liberté….

Working on the assumption that Clair has been cogitating all this since the early 1930s, one gathers that what held him up so long was a fear that the resultant film might prove a bit static; a fear that turns out to have been well founded. About halfway through,...

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Raymond Durgnat

Les Fetes Galantes is certainly pleasant to look at, as bright uniforms rush, in those smoothly counterpointed columns of Clair's farces, across battlefields, up and down corridors round trenches, in and out of a picturesque castle, in every possible direction and dimension.

Yet that's all the movie is—bright and pretty. What makes it so thin is not, as Clair possibly hoped, the intensity with which he suggests the unreality or reality. Its unreality, alas, is primarily that which arises when a dried-up creator has recourse to stereotypes of the least interesting sort, and manipulates them through the most obvious situations. The film is never real enough for its unreality to be interesting....

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Harriet R. Polt

[Les Deux Timides] is only 66 minutes long, but they're 66 minutes of delight. It's hard to describe how a film which has all the elements of slapstick and general mayhem (fire-crackers, fake bandits, wife-beating, two court trials, and so forth) can at the same time be so guileless and tender. This tenderness, an integral part of Clair's style, will be recognized by those familiar with Le Million and A Nous La Liberté. It also derives from the spirit of Max Linder (rather than of Chaplin)…. The humor, at any rate, is uproarious, while devoid of that slightly sadistic turn inherent in so many comedies….

But what remains most impressive about the film is Clair's camera and...

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Jill Forbes

Paris qui dort reveals aspects of the director which tend to get buried in the genial exuberance of his more well-known sound movies. It is quite explicitly a film about film, about the joy and possibilities of handling a medium which still seems fresh…. Paris is the monuments of the Second Empire and the International Exhibitions celebrating the progress of technology—but also a city transformed by the magical properties of the camera lens. The Eiffel Tower in close-up, viewed section by section, ceases to be the symbol of thrusting commercialism and becomes a pattern of criss-cross lines, an inexhaustible adult playground. Material objects, like clocks in the street or a radio loudspeaker, are seen in...

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Lucy Fischer

For Clair the essence of the cinema was its relation to the marvelous—to dream, imagination, and fantasy. Cinema for Clair was fundamentally a poetic medium, liberated from the constraints of a mimetic relation to reality. For him the truly seminal cinematic tradition was that of Méliès and magic….

Somehow for Clair this vision of the cinema was predicated on the notion of silence. Sound carried the weight of reality and would have the power to disturb the fragile poetic ambience central to the cinematic experience…. (p. 36)

For Clair the cinema was primarily a visual form and the adoption of speech brought with it the threat of enslaving visual material to verbal. (p. 37)...

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Richard Cobb

Clair is the poet of the Paris night: a bluish sensuous night of dark velvet, carrying a whiff of powder and the promise of adventure, indeed, a perfectly convincing evocation of the Parisian night of the 1930s….

[The] abiding attraction of René Clair is not merely a matter of nostalgia, though there must always be plenty of that, because he is a period piece. He evokes the easy, unsuspecting sociability of a city the inhabitants of which share a common slang and most basic assumptions, and enjoy a wide area of mutual encounter: the café, the street, the market, the staircase, the shop. No one is especially afraid of anyone else; and nearly all can converse in an imaginative and...

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Tom Milne

Although the balletic wit over which Clair's critics once went into ecstasies has been looking increasingly fragile for some years now, the charm is still undeniably there [in Le Million], though in moments rather than in overall conception…. [There] is no doubt that, historically, Clair must be credited with developing the musical style brought to perfection by [Rouben] Mamoulian in Love Me Tonight. But where Mamoulian's fantasy seemed to be liberated by the camera's musical role, with Clair the process is almost entirely mechanical. Shots are governed less by any musical rhythm (or indeed by any impulse or motivation in the characters) than by a mathematical process whereby a shot of someone running...

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John Pym

The fragile but enduring beauty of Sous les Toits de Paris stems not so much from Lazare Meerson's gleaming designs, the virtuoso, scene-setting camera movements or the charming effervescence of its slight plot, as from Clair's tone: the gay urbanity with which his hero Albert, a man with a most precarious profession, accepts—with a mixture of regret and cheerfulness—the loss of Pola. Although Clair's escalating frivolity occasionally threatens to turn into self-indulgence …, the film's controlled and justly famous set-pieces remain as fresh, suffused with light and as gently amusing as they ever were…. Although Clair has been accused of an awkwardly mechanistic approach to comedy, too great a fondness...

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The Crazy Ray [Paris qui dort] is a visual essay on [motion]. The film denies motion and obstructs it; it creates it where it didn't exist, and constantly juxtaposes the mobile to the immobile. His camera moves in and out of the tower, dances around it and glides up and down it—and in so doing endows this massively stationary object with lightness and mobility. Conversely, he takes human beings, twists them into shapes and poses, and has his camera record their immobility under the ray's force…. (p. 36)

Entr'acte is Clair's most delightfully obnoxious film, twenty minutes of cheerful audacity and high spirits. While revealing Clair's talent and virtuoso command of formal technique,...

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