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Contrary to popular opinion, the French really do possess an undeniable charm.

Close on the heels of the Criterion Collection’s premiere of French director René Clair’s Le Million on DVD comes that company’s tandem release of two more Clair films from the early sound era.

Clair De Lunacy

Criterion doubles up on Rene Clair
Criterion doubles up on Rene Clair

Sous Les Toits de Paris (“Under the Roofs of Paris”) from 1930 and A Nous La Liberté (roughly translated as “Freedom For Us”) from the following year round out this trio of films in perfect two-part harmony. The resulting duet vocalizes a sound portrait of a post-card Paris that no longer exists, accompanied by a visual instrumentation of such curious, ancient strings once familiar to audiences as gaiety, wit, and whimsy. Like vintage bottles of champagne dredged up from a dank cellar, these two movies explode with a musty yet tickling effervescence.

Unlike many early talkies (which often seem dreary and stage-bound, not to mention talky), Sous Les Toits de Paris and A Nous La Liberté seem to jump-start the potential of this nascent technology by retaining the dizzying mobility of late silent cinema. One could almost say that René Clair was an innovator who made silent musicals with sound and dialogue. The camera here is never nailed to the floor beneath a microphone that encircles the actors’ heads like a noose. Instead, the camera sweeps above the chimney tops of gray Paree with the swagger of a roving, rapacious eye.

The new medium’s pursuit of synchronized speech is muted here in favor of a lilting mélange of music, song, and off-screen sound effects not always in accordance with the action mouthed aloud before our eyes. Audiovisual verisimilitude resonates instead from ambiance and ambient sound; hearing the unseen can be just as evocative as the more demonstrative pairing of image and synchronized dialogue.

Three-Way Two-Timing

Sous Les Toits de Paris is a medley of romantic vignettes vinaigrettes set amidst a Parisian demi-monde aflutter with the vagaries of the human heart, be one vagabond lover, gangster, or small-time crook.

Albert (Albert Préjean) is a street musician who conducts curbside sing-a-longs for handouts. While he’s passing the hat, a petty pickpocket named Fred (Gaston Modot) pilfers the pocketbooks of female onlookers. Both set their sights on Pola (Pola Illery), a sweet, tart sweetheart with spit curls, bee-stung lips, and a sharp mouth. Pola’s affection alternates between her competing suitors with the calibrated swing of a metronome, then changes beat entirely when she falls for Albert’s best friend Louis (Edmond Gréville).

Falsely convicted of stealing, Albert is conveniently caged in the clink where he continues to chirp away like a jailbird. Three-way two-timing throws the whole rhythm off, resulting in the madcap pandemonium of slapstick comedy, frantic chase scenes, and jealous befuddlement. Love is always the same old refrain: a broken record of skipping heartbeats and shards of joy.

It is just this heady lightness and seemingly insubstantial simplicity that give this film its swooning staying power. Self-contained yet expansive, the Paris depicted here is a soufflé whipped up from the most common ingredients. Such overblown clichés as berets, accordions, and the corner boullangerie coalesce with ingenious insouciance. This is the glittering, grimy Paris of the imagination, a confectionary world erected from a pre-fab iconography whose authenticity can only be conjured within the confines of a sound stage movie-set. Sous Les Toits de Paris is a miniature dream of baguettes and bagatelles.

Jailhouse Rock

A Nous La Liberté, like the previous film, is held aloft by virtue of its buoyancy and charm. Yet this similarity is deceiving. Like a cup of cappuccino, there’s something a touch more robust floating beneath the froth.

The machine age is in full throttle, and nearly every aspect of life, from work to school to criminal justice, is geared for maximum productivity under strict controls. The film opens to the tune of a jaunty military march as the camera unfurls along a conveyor belt carrying a procession of uniform toy horses before a phalanx of frantic fingers. Yet the hands of these assembly line Babes in Toyland are those of prisoners, not factory workers, even if everyone does whistle while they work. This is Sing Along in Sing Sing, where the inmates while away the monotony in melodious toil.

One restless inmate Emil (Henri Marchand) decides to step out of the chorus and high-kick the can, leaving behind his friend and co-conspirator, Louis (Raymond Cordy). Emil scales the wall beneath the vaudeville glare of the prison guards’ spotlight, and he’s soon on the road to the big-time: Freedom. With elliptical ease, no sooner has Emil sprung the big house than he’s traded prison stripes for pin stripes: Emil has shot straight to the head of industrial giant LU with implausible panache, where he imperiously presides over a factory that cranks out phonographs and records by the thousands.

When Louis follows suit and springs from the joint himself, the escaped convict finds freedom doing time on the assembly line of LU. All hell breaks loose at 78 rpm when Louis smells something fishy about the big cheese and threatens to blow his cover. After a heated conference behind closed doors, Emil and Luis emerge thick as thieves, newly merged and geared up for a major corporate shake-up. After all, joie de vivre is irresistible; business obligations are not.

Emil and Louis proceed to lob a cream pie in the poker face of boardroom decorum, and the company crumbles within seconds as structure gives way to unfettered impulse. Keystone Cops and robber barons duke it out while our giddy anarchists skip out of town toward the river – and as far away as they can get from the entrapments of power, success, and social ambition. They’d rather be fishing.

Factory Fresh

A Nous La Liberté, like the merchandise it depicts so merrily rolling along the production line, is an industrial creation itself. By the early 1930’s, the dream factory was in full swing, whether in Hollywood or in Europe. The movie is perfectly assembled, molded from a number of hands, and mass-produced for guaranteed pleasure and quick consumption.

Yet there is nothing mechanized or perfunctory about this tuneful picture. The film’s portrayal of standardized regimentation is ingeniously alluded to in the interchangeability of its sets (the prison shop and factory are virtually identical in appearance, function, and oppressive dehumanization). All activity is accompanied to the catchy, repetitive lyrics of “Work is obligatory…because work means liberty.” Whether punishment or play, forced labor or nine-to-five servitude, this melodic little ditty presages (in retrospect, of course) the cruel irony of the concentration camp motto “Arbeit macht Frei” (“Work Makes Free”).

The sweet melodies sung throughout A Nous La Liberté, while diverting, are more than just the coping mechanisms of incarceration. They’re the overture to a delirious dénouement of shattered symmetry, chaos, and disorder. Monkey business chez René Clair throws a monkey wrench in the well-oiled machinery of modern times.

Yet social satire needn’t be a bitter pill to swallow. A spoonful of sugar does make the medicine go down, and subversion is sweeter than candy in A Nous La Liberté.

Picture and Sound

Although both DVDs are outstanding in their quality, the pictorial clarity of A Nous La Liberté has retained its youthful radiance whereas that of Sous Les Toits de Paris has succumbed to such tell-tale signs of aging as scratches, occasional dirt and debris, and graininess of complexion.

As for audio, the sound won’t blow the roof off in either film, but in both instances the sound track restoration is quite clear and un-muddied despite the ancient recording technology.

DVD Extras

Both DVDs are packed to the rafters with extra features. Between the two discs, there are two additional short films, several interviews, and several deleted scenes.

These last two — the interviews and the deleted scenes — are particularly impressive, given the age of the films. Clair gave an interview to the BBC in 1966, which survives to this day, and the fact that deleted footage has survived 70 years is nothing short of astounding.

DVD Extras: Sous Les Toits de Paris

The original theatrical trailer is a joy to behold, in which the film’s male and female leads face the camera and tease the audience with an exchange of playful banter that hints at the spirit of the coming attraction without revealing too much of the actual film.

There is also a deleted scene: the original opening sequence, which was replaced by the pigeon’s-eye view crane shot that now opens the film. The visual quality of the deleted scene has aged badly – decrepitude has set in. It’s fascinating to watch nonetheless, and offers a peek at the creative process itself and the possibility of what the film might have been like had it retained its original introduction.

The disc also features Clair’s silent film Paris Qui Dort (1924), also known as “The Crazy Ray.” This proto sci-fi surrealist featurette chronicles a comatose Paris that’s come to a screeching halt after being hit by a cosmic stun-gun. Paroxysms of laughter result from the paradoxical humor inherent in the velocity of immobility, the exhilaration of stasis, and the fascination of boredom. Rarities such as this are worth the price of the disc in and of themselves.

There is also a 1966 BBC-TV interview with René Clair. The director discusses his career and the historical context of his early work with insightful hindsight. As one might expect, Monsieur Clair recaptures his past with charm and a certain knowing insouciance.

DVD Extras: A Nous La Liberté

A Nous La Liberté also has some deleted scenes. Clair re-visited the editing room in 1950, removing the scenes that are shown here. Some have complained that the tinkering has hobbled the original rhythm of the film; the inclusion here of the excised material helps one imagine, at least, the original look and flow of the movie at the time of its initial release .

This disc too features a short film by Clair. Entr’acte (1924) was originally shown as the introduction and intermission of a live ballet. This nonsensical, Surrealist short by director Clair, artist Francis Picabia, and composer Eric Satie is a semi-abstract silly symphony of amusing absurdities and quirky humor. Clair exploits the old George MéliPs magic hat tricks of stop motion animation, superimposition, and slow motion photography with impish, irrational glee. Once again, Criterion scores a major coup by including this well-known yet seldom seen cinematic artifact from the French avant-garde of the 1920s.

A Nous also features a video interview with Madame Bronja Clair. With rightful pride, Clair’s widow discusses her husband’s career and contributions to the medium without lapsing into mere nostalgic adulation. Her thoughtful comments are sharp, pointed, and blunt.

Finally, the DVD includes comments from Film historian David Robinson on the Tobis lawsuit against Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. Tobis, the company that produced A Nous La Liberté, took legal action against Modern Times, claiming that the Little Tramp had plagiarized Clair’s work. David Robinson’s audio essay about the rather Byzantine complexities of the trial’s charges and counter-charges helps unravel the mess and clear up any remaining misperceptions about this legal tangle.