A Nous La Liberte (1931): Rene Clair’s French Masterpiece

A Nous La Liberte, Rene Clair’s poignant satire on the dehumanization of industrial workers is not only one of the director’s best films, but it’s also a prophetic one. This French film preceded Chaplin’s indictment of the industrial revolution in “Modern Times.”

Along with his first sound films, Sous les toits de Paris (1930) and Le Million (1931), À nous la liberté shows Clair in top form, continuing to experiment with the possibilities of new film medium.

Clair’s humorous movie centers on the friendship between two prison inmates, Louis (Raymond Cordy), who escapes and becomes a phonograph company tycoon, and Emile (Henri Marchand), who, after escaping, is hired at his friend’s factory.

Shooting without a script and allowing his actors freedom to improvise, Clair gives the film an admirably loose and fluid structure.

Georges Auric’ music is extremely effective since the movements of the assembly lines of actors are choreographed to its sounds.

Clair’s message is an angry one, albeit done with a lot of charm. À nous la liberté offers sharp commentary of modern, industrial society by depicting working conditions that are similar to those prevailing in prison. In his memoirs, Clair described it as a “bitter pill that would be more easily swallowed when coated with diverting music.

Oscar Alert

Of all its achievements, the film earned an Oscar nomination for Lazare Meerson’s Interior Decoration; the winner, however, was the American film, “Transatlantic.”‘

Detailed Plot

In the first scene, following an image of a toy horse, prisoners in jail are observed singing La liberté, c’est pour les heureux,” (“Freedom is for the Happy”) as they work. After dinner, they go back to their cell, and Louis and Émile sing the title song as they saw off the prison window. Émile cuts himself, and Louis kindly mends the wound.

Trying to escape, Louis gets over the wall, but Émile is not successful. Louis then steals and rides off on a bicycle, heading into a village. Ironically, the biker he knocked over was in a bicycle race, so Louis is now the winner. Louis enters a store and cries for help. After being unbound, Louis explains that a thief robbed the store and ran off with the money, which leaves him alone there
Louis transforms himself into a well-attired gentleman, pretending to be the owner of a factory that produces record players. Images of the assembly line look like the earlier prison’s assembly line.

Émile, now out of prison, wakes up to a beautiful day. A flower sings “Ami, l’ombre de la prison a cédé la place au soleil” = “Friend, the shadow of prison has given way to the sun.” A cop instructs Émile to get to work, but he is thrown into jail for resisting arrest. Through the prison window, he observes flowers, and a woman named Jeanne singing. He tries to hang himself, but the weak gate falls on his head, enabling him to escape.

Jeanne emerges from the apartment with her overly-protective uncle, who pulls her away from Émile, who sadly realizes that Jeanne has a boyfriend, Paul. Émile makes his way into the factory and lands in the recruitment department. A recorded song (“Vous qui desire l’emploi” = You, who desires employment”) instructs him on how to be measured, weighed, and fingerprinted. In the next scene we see Émile back on an assembly line, this time assembling phonographs.

Upon seeing Jeanne also working in the factory, Émile becomes absent minded, causing great consternation and humor on the assembly line. This scene at the assembly line served as the inspiration for the opening scene of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times.

A guard tries to stop Émile from talking to Jeanne and they chase after him. Louis shows up, but he does not remember his prison friend and thus takes him into his office. Émile cuts himself, and Louis tends to his wound with his handkerchief, a similar gesture to the one in prison. Celebrating friendship, Émile and sings a reprise of the title song.

At a dinner party at Louis’s house, his wife Maud and her lover seem indifferent, but Louis and Émile don’t care, bursting in another reprise of the title song, as the two dance in front of a damaged painting of Louis. Maud leaves the house, and Louis is thrilled
Back at the factory, Émile makes overtures to Jeanne, and the guards send him back to Louis’s office. Louis invites Jeanne and her uncle into his office to explain Émile’s interest, offering them some money.

Louis arrives at home, only to discover his servants tied up by ex-convicts who are now gangsters. They sing before revealing their goal of extorting money from Louis, threatening to reveal he’s an escaped convict. When the gangsters ask to see Louis’s factory, he leads them into his office and entraps them.

Meanwhile, pursued by guards, Émile accidentally opens the office and the gangsters leave. Émile and the gangsters chase after Louis, who chases after the ex-con who took a suitcase with money. Apprehended, the gangsters show the police Louis’s photo as a convict.

At the inauguration of the new factory, Louis gives a speech about the virtues of productivity. A deaf old man cuts the ribbon, and a chorus sings a march, “Gloire au bonheur” (“Hail to happiness”). The cop realizes that Louis is an escaped ex-convict, and plans to apprehend him. Louis then gives the factory to the workers.

The wind blows the money that was in Louis’s suitcase on the factory’s roof. Louis goes after the money, leading into a chaotic chase after it. The last scene shows the factory, where the automated machines do all the work. Most of the workers are dancing and singing the song “Ami, l’ombre de la prison” which blends into “Viens, toi que j’aimerai” as we see Jeanne and Paul, happily dancing with each other. A cut takes us to Louis and Émile, now tramps, entertaining people on a roadside by singing the title song.

Cast

Henri Marchand as Emile
Raymond Cordy as Louis
Rolla France as Jeanne
Paul Ollivier as L’Oncle
Jacques Shelly as Paul
Andre Michaud as Le Contremaitre
Germaine Aussey as Maud – La Femme De Louis
Leon Lorin as Le Vieux Monsieur Sourd
William Burke as L’Ancien Detenu
Vincent Hyspa as Le Vieil Orateur

Credits

Running time; 104 Minutes
Black-and-white
Directed, written by Rene Clair
Camera: Georges Perinal
Editing: Rene Clair, Rene Le Henaff
Music: Georges Auric