René Clair Critical Essays

Introduction

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.)