It isn’t difficult to see how René Clair’s film À nous la liberté prompted a lawsuit against the production company of Charlie Chaplin’s subsequent film Modern Times. The most endearing aspect of that controversy was Clair’s own abstention, considering it rather an honor that a filmmaker like Chaplin might possibly include a nod to Clair’s work in his own (despite the fact that Chaplin denied ever having seen À nous la liberté prior to the court case). On a more thematic level, it actually looks like Chaplin borrowed from Clair’s film for the later film, and arguably Chaplin’s masterpiece, City Lights. All that aside, though.
This is completely delightful. It’s a children’s film, really, somehow reminiscent of Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion, another great film that came after this one. There’s a poetic imagery like Renoir’s that’s grounded in a very human humanity equaling something like perfection. One wishes in a way that cinema had never evolved past this point: when sound was an ingredient that a director could insert into the diegesis when necessary, but without all those superfluous noises that can often clutter up what are otherwise beautiful images. The greats, if course, have avoided this tendency. Sound plays a key role here, of course, and not simply in terms of cinematic sound, but within the narrative. When the first escaped convict makes a name and business for himself in the so-called “free” world, it’s the development and sale of phonographs. It’s precisely sound that the man is selling, in what may simply be an in-joke on Clair’s part. On the other hand, if the men in the film abandon the phonograph business to return to their previous lifestyle, it could be imagined that Clair is saying something about the supposed need for sound in his own business.
À nous la liberté is kind of like O Brother, Where Art Thou? meets The Prince and the Pauper. The criminal element is removed – these men are inmates, plain and simple. The foolishness of the world is as likely to blame for them being in prison as any crimes they might have committed. They are thrown into realms where they do not belong, though they may work hard to get there. The reappearance of a friend is all it takes to reawaken the rich man’s vitality as he throws a bottle of wine through the silly life-size portrait he had commissioned. Apologies again, but themes of friendship and community are in the vein of a Wes Anderson. Filmmakers like these guys don’t create “immoral” world or even “amoral” ones (what’s the difference, really?). It’s simply a world where childlike innocence prioritizes social connection and primal joy above all else. The evils here are the establishment, the idiots are those who chase after the money blowing in the wind (how appropriate, whispers the voice of Bob Dylan), and real freedom is found not in suits and ties but in having a buddy at your side whether you’re surrounded by bars, buildings, or nothing at all.