René Clair Francis Birrell - Essay

Francis Birrell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 plot, not to illustrate the theme. For Clair composes in sound-space. The film is perhaps a trifle long. I felt it might have been better had it been a quarter of an hour shorter. Still, it is extremely funny, immensely various, and intellectually sound. Clair is free to do what he wants, to choose his theme, to write his scenarios, to pick his musicians and his painters, to use what actors he likes, to get along without stars. He is, in fact, captain of his own quarter-deck, as practically no one is in the film-world. He is not handicapped before he starts with ready-made themes, bought by somebody else, from sloppy novels or worn-out comedies. He is allowed, in fact, to be a creator. Perhaps even more than for his actual productions Clair is important to us for having in his own art attained the liberty he predicates in his latest film, the liberty both to think and to design. It is not mere chance that his actors are announced on the screen in the order of their appearance. They are subordinated officially to the director. The hierarchy is observed. Yet, of course, Clair can make them act delightfully, and we all, too, are charmed to recognise several friends out of the Million. Yet the main attraction of A Nous La Liberté is the spectacle it offers of a subtle and completely untrammelled intelligence, working freely in its own material. (p. 230)

Francis Birrell, "Two Film Directors," in The New Statesman & Nation (© 1932 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. III, No. 52, February 20, 1932, pp. 230-31.∗