Monday, March 16, 2009

Rene Clair: Breaking the Sound Barrier


"Perhaps the first director to appreciate fully the implications of sound was the Frenchman René Clair."
—Arthur Knight, The Liveliest Art


As any film enthusiast knows, the coming of sound to motion pictures in the late 1920's threw the film industry into a state of confusion. Filmmakers at first simply did not know what to do with the new invention. Recorded music scores were added to already filmed silent pictures, or newly filmed sound or musical sequences interpolated into them. The first all-talking pictures were merely brief newsreel segments or short recordings of novelty acts. Howard Hughes responded by re-shooting the entire movie Hell's Angels—already completed in 1928 as a silent—with sound, finally releasing it in 1930.

By this time, the studios had pretty much decided that sound was synonymous with dialogue. Talk replaced action, sound stages replaced plein air settings, and the addition of bulky sound recording apparatus severely limited the mobility of the camera. Both the concept of montage adulated by the Russians as the apogee of the art of cinema and the balletic aspects of silents—their artistic use of motion and movement—gave way to a static approach that reverted to the primitive notion of the movie as a filmed stage play prevalent before pioneers like D. W. Griffith showed the world a truly cinematic approach to filmmaking.

The French film director René Clair (1898-1981) refused to be limited by the addition of sound to image and became, along with Rouben Mamoulian and Ernst Lubitsch, one of the foremost innovators of ways to creatively combine the two. Having made several silent movies, he was a traditionalist (he once said that "nothing essential has been added to the art of the motion picture since D. W. Griffith") who was ambivalent about the coming of sound to movies. In two of his first sound films, Le Million and A Nous la Liberté (both 1931), he attempted to avoid obvious uses of sound and ended up creating two works that, even aside from being conspicuously novel in the ways they integrated sound with image, are just plain masterpieces.

Le Million is constructed on an elegantly simple premise. A penniless Parisian artist, Michel (Raymond Lefebvre), leaves his jacket with his girl friend, Béatrice (Annabella), a ballerina who lives across the hall from him, to be mended. Then he discovers that he has bought a winning lottery ticket and remembers that it is in the pocket of the jacket. There's only one problem: Béatrice has given the jacket to a petty thief called Le Père la Tulipe (Papa Tulip), who came through her skylight while being chased across the rooftops by the police. The rest of the movie involves the efforts of Michel to trace the missing jacket and retrieve the winning ticket.

Of course, the seemingly simple plot soon develops complications, and in the tradition of the great silent comedies, Clair keeps piling on the complications, each complication leading to yet more complications. First, Michel's friend, the sculptor Prosper (Jean-Louis Allibert)—miffed that his own ticket isn't the winning one and that Michel refuses to divide the winnings with him if he can find the ticket—decides to track it down himself, taking time out along the way to sabotage Michel's own efforts. Then the jacket ends up in a junk shop, where an eccentric Italian opera singer called Sopranelli, taken with the jacket's authentic shabbiness, buys it to use as part of his act ("The Bohemians"!). And Le Père la Tulipe turns out to be not a smalltime crook at all, but the sophisticated mastermind of a gang of professional thieves. When he becomes aware of all the interest in the jacket, he decides to get it back himself to see just what makes it so valuable to Michel and Prosper. Finally, Béatrice, feeling guilty over giving the jacket away, also gets involved in the pursuit by trying to find the mysterious Le Père la Tulipe in the hope that he will lead her to the missing jacket. So we soon have four individuals simultaneously chasing the elusive jacket, now in the hands of Sopranelli, who has developed a very possessive attitude toward it and refuses to part with it.

Clair makes use of sound in several unusual ways. Michel's neighbors and creditors, eagerly waiting to celebrate his good fortune, act as a sort of operetta chorus, singing comments on the characters and the action. Likewise, Le Père la Tulipe sings out his instructions to the gang of criminals he commands. When Michel and Béatrice get to the Opéra Lyrique, they hide onstage behind the scenery while Sopranelli and his female partner perform a duet between quarreling lovers all of whose words and emotions apply equally to the concealed Michel and Béatrice. When dialogue is unnecessary, the actors simply mime speech and use emphatic physical gestures as if they are in a silent movie, sometimes with music playing on the soundtrack much as it might have in a silent movie theater.

The similarity of Le Million to classic silent film comedy—the comedy of Chaplin, Lloyd, and especially Keaton—is obvious in the near impossibility of describing in any real detail the plot of the movie. The numerous, rapid plot complications I referred to don't seem to unfold in a deliberately scripted way but to evolve spontaneously and unpredictably. They are often played out much as they would be in a silent comedy, with movement and wordless sight gags substituting for explanatory dialogue.

If I could use one word to describe the style of Le Million, it would be kinetic. Once events are set in train, the film never stops moving, always proceeding forward . . . forward. It is for its entire 83 minutes a moving picture in the most literal way. And it is unbelievably entertaining, amusing, and unlike anything you are likely to have seen before. Strictly speaking, it isn't even a musical, even though it contains music and singing. If the movie's style can be summed up in one word, so can its effect on the viewer. That word is charming.

A Nous la Liberté, released a mere eight months later, takes the imaginative sound techniques of Le Million and adds to them stinging sociopolitical satire and irony. If the whimsy and kineticism of Le Million are akin to the spirit of Keaton, then the focused social and political criticism of A Nous la Liberté are closer in spirit to Chaplin, but without Chaplin's flirtation with sentimentality. (Indeed, Chaplin has been accused of cribbing ideas from Clair in Modern Times.) The result is that A Nous la Liberté is an even richer and more thematically challenging experience than its predecessor.

The movie opens in a prison, where prisoners are sitting on each side of a long table assembling toy horses. One of the men conceals a file in his sock, and when he and his cellmate return to their cell that evening, they saw through the bars of the window and escape. However, only one of them, Emile (Henri Marchand), makes it over the wall; the other, Louis (Raymond Cordy) is captured by the guards and returned to his cell. Within a few months, Emile has become an entrepreneur and captain of industry, the owner of a huge and successful factory that manufactures phonographs. He has left all vestiges of his former life behind, gaining everything material he might ever have wanted: a lavish mansion, a ritzy limousine, servants, a beautiful mistress, and a slew of high-society friends.

When Louis is released from prison, he hits the road and before long discovers his former cellmate, technically a prison escapee and wanted man, luxuriating in his new life. Not only does he receive a cold reception from Emile, but he finds Emile a changed man. He is now an uptight, status-obsessed capitalist with no desire to renew the easy camaraderie he previously enjoyed with his old cellmate. Louis, though, sees his chance and is determined to use his hold over Emile to his own advantage.

In particular, Louis has fallen in love with a pretty young secretary at the factory, Jeanne (Rolla France), and presses Emile to introduce him and arrange a marriage. This whole idea of Emile being able to procure Jeanne for his old cellmate provides Clair with the opportunity to present a harsh indictment of capitalism. He implicitly compares Emile to a feudal lord and his workers to serfs by having Emile coerce Jeanne's uncle, who also works at the factory and doesn't want to lose his job by alienating the boss, to hand over Jeanne to Louis. He doesn't explicitly threaten the uncle but after presenting his proposal merely asks, "Vous comprenez?" (You do understand?) The pandering uncle does indeed understand and happily complies, for not only will he protect his job, but he will curry favor with the boss by having a niece married to a man who appears to be the boss's best friend.

Another way Clair skewers capitalism and the dehumanizing effects of the modern industrial environment is in the way Emile's factory is depicted. To get in, the workers must first pass through gates as they punch their time cards, the gates first excluding and then confining them. When we first see the main building from the outside, the first impression is of a vast, ultra-modern, monochromatic expanse built on an inhuman scale. Everything is composed of severe, straight horizontal lines and right angles. This is a sterile, featureless, and soulless place, a place where regimentation of form and behavior are pervasive. The closest thing to it we have seen in the movie so far in both appearance and atmosphere is the prison that Emile and Louis were in at the beginning of the movie.

Once the action moves inside, the resemblance to the prison is even more pronounced. The factory floor with its production line—another severe and soulless place—is laid out in exactly the same way as the work room in the opening scene at the prison, with conveyor belts substituting for the work tables. And it is framed and photographed in exactly the same way. Instead of prison guards, we see supervisors overseeing the production line and urging the workers on just as the guards at the prison did. The parallels between the prison and the factory are unmistakable.

Clair combines sound with action in many of the same ways he did in Le Million, using sung dialogue, silent dialogue with musical accompaniment, and sound effects that originate outside the frame (the cinematic equivalent of "noises off" in a stage play), among other devices. He is constantly playing with sound. Even the fact that Emile's factory makes phonographs seems an in-joke. And Clair creates one of the first examples—possibly the very first example—of a sound gag in motion pictures.

When Louis first sees Jeanne, she is standing in the second-floor window of her apartment singing a love song. He is immediately captivated and finds himself falling in love, responding to the sentiments of the song. When she walks away from the window, he ambles over to the door to her building and waits for her at the bottom of the stairs. When she emerges, the song is still going, but Jeanne is not singing. Just at that moment the music begins to falter and slow to a stop, and we (and Louis) realize that Jeanne wasn't singing at all but simply mouthing the words on a disc playing on one of the phonographs that Emile manufactures.

As we learn more about Emile's life, it becomes clearer that it is not as idyllic as it appears. His snobbish friends make fun of him behind his back. His chic mistress is conducting an affair with a gigolo and ends up running off with him. Then another former prisoner spots Emile and is soon joined by other former prisoners, who proceed to blackmail him. And the authorities have also spotted him and are preparing to arrest him. Emile's ideal life, it seems, is about to crumble.

The climactic sequence occurs at the inaugural festivities of Emile's newest, totally automated factory. With the police on their way to arrest him, Emile dedicates the factory then immediately presents it to his employees. "The machines will now work for them!" he proclaims. The self-made capitalist has just placed the means of production in the hands of the workers. Just before the police arrive, Emile and Louis—the former worshiper of materialism and his friend the romantic anarchist—dressed again as tramps, hit the road and are last seen walking in fellowship on their contented way to . . . who knows where?

Taken together, Le Million and A Nous la Liberté are twin landmarks in the history of cinema. They are records of one of the great filmmakers working at a level of intensive inspiration that few directors ever achieve and that Clair himself never again quite equaled in his long career. But beyond their historical importance, these are very entertaining films that can still surprise viewers, encourage them to reconsider the conventions of combining sound and image in movies, and in the case of A Nous la Liberté compel them to re-examine the prevailing values of Western culture toward ambition and success and remind them of the enduring disparity between the powerful and the powerless, the haves and have-nots.
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15 comments:

Kate Gabrielle said...

Wonderful post! A Nous la Liberté is one of my all-time favorite movies.

Sam Juliano said...

Indeed! A stellar piece of writing, with an exhaustively fascinating lead-in, connecting silent comedy with the work of this esteemed French master:

"The similarity of Le Million to classic silent film comedy—the comedy of Chaplin, Lloyd, and especially Keaton—is obvious in the near impossibility of describing in any real detail the plot of the movie. The numerous, rapid plot complications I referred to don't seem to unfold in a deliberately scripted way but to evolve spontaneously and unpredictably. They are often played out much as they would be in a silent comedy, with movement and wordless sight gags substituting for explanatory dialogue."

I'd be hard-pressed to dispute both your summary judgement of LA MILLION, nor its essential style. It is indeed kinetic and propulsive and it's deliriously entertaining. Pauline Kael said about the film:

"Rene Clair at his exquisite best; no one else has ever been able to make a comedy move with such delicate, dreamlike inevitability."

The opera house sequence has always been thought of as the inspiration for a similar sequence in the Marx Brothers's A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. I'd be so presumptuous to say that it's peerless as a French musical of this period, but I also respect you statement that "strictly speaking it isn't a musical" as such.

Excellent point there comparing Clair to Mamoulian and Lubitsch in his stellar propensity of defty combining sound to image at this early period of film development.

Beautiful historical context and engaging sketch of the entertaining plot of the film, as well as the insights in Clair's unique use of sound.

And then, you justifiably assert that A NOUS A LIBERTE is even greater with this cogent passage:

"A Nous la Liberté, released a mere eight months later, takes the imaginative sound techniques of Le Million and adds to them stinging sociopolitical satire and irony. "If the whimsy and kineticism of Le Million are akin to the spirit of Keaton, then the focused social and political criticism of A Nous la Liberté are closer in spirit to Chaplin, but without Chaplin's flirtation with sentimentality. The result is that A Nous la Liberté is an even richer and more thematically challenging experience than its predecessor."

Indeed Clair does "skewer capitalism and the dehumanizing effects of the modern industrial environment" in that factory scene, and I love the acknowedgement of the "sound effects that begin outside the frame" even while continuing the stylistic devices employed in LE MILLION.

I would go as far myself as to say that A NOUS A LIBERTY after Chaplin's MODERN TIMES is the most famous satire on factory life and it's filled with wit and slapstick, which (again as you aptly suggest) combines images and sound to wonderful effect. Georges Auric of course is one of French cinema's greatest composers.

There is no question that these two films are Clair's masterworks, and Criterion has done then full justice on DVD.

Still, I also have fondness for the silent THE ITALIAN STRAW HAT as well as for UNDER THE ROOFS OF PARIS, THE GHOST GOES WEST, I MARRIED A WITCH and AND THEN THERE WERE NONE.

Your treatment and ecstatic reference for Clair here has seen no equal at any other blogsite.

Merci Beaucoup, sir!

R. D. Finch said...

Kate and Sam, thanks for your enthusiastic and positive responses. I had recorded both of these from TCM awhile back and just recently got around to watching them. I enjoyed "Le Million" so much that I watched "Liberte" the next night. And I knew right away that I had the subject for a post. I've done two movies at once a couple of times in the past (with Kurosawa and Chaplin), and it makes a change from writing about just one movie, although it is a bit more work.

Sam, I saw one of Clair's silents years ago in college. It was either "Straw Hat" or "Sous les Toits," but I'm not sure which and don't remember it too well. I'm on the lookout for "Ghost." I've seen Donat in a couple of pictures very recently, and he was a great actor. Of course, I saw him years ago in "Mr. Chips." I liked "I Married a Witch" (Fredric March is one of my favorites of the era). It was most entertaining but not a masterpiece like the two I wrote about.

"And Then There Were None" is a different matter. I love it, and it is without question a masterpiece! I wanted to include it in this post but couldn't find a way to work it in, and a postscript I wrote about it turned out too lengthy and had to be scrapped. What a fabulous ensemble cast. And to think that Clair, after making the two films I wrote about here, could make a masterpiece from a play by Agatha Christie, and that he did it not with brilliant use of sound, but with brilliant camerawork and editing in a confined setting. Further proof that the man was a genius.

Sam Juliano said...

Oh R.D.! I really do share your love for AND THEN THERE WERE NONE as I am among other things a lifelong Christie fanatic. But oh how I agree with you on the amazing versatility of Clair, especially of course navigating the English language here, but in crossing over to a far more austere subject and genre successfully. I really loved Barry Fitzgerald in this one.

And your very mentioning of that incomparable Robert Donat --who may have possessed the greatest voice of an actor of all-time--gives me goosebumps. His performance in GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS deserved the Oscar in that super-competitive year, and it remains one of the most beautiful, stirring and inspiring performance in cinema history.

John said...

R.D. - I must confess I have seen neither of these films though your article has whetted my appetite for both. I have only seen two of Clair’s films, “I Married a Witch” and “And Then There Was None.” I share both you and Sam’s enthusiasm for the Christie based work. “Witch” is also an enjoyable film with appealing performances by March and Veronica Lake. I do believe March is incapable of giving a bad performance. Thanks again for some insightful and informative writing.

Sam Juliano said...

John: I am thrilled we are all on the same page with AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, and similarly I concur with your glowing assessment of I MARRIED A WITCH. And it's true what you say of March there!

My personal favorite March performance, ironically was the one he won his Oscar for. Most of the time, Oscars wins are not a particularly actor's best work.

DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE

R. D. Finch said...

John and Sam, I wholly agree with you about Fredric March. Even in a mediocre movie like "There Goes My Heart" (a sort of inferior version of "It Happened One Night") he really shines. He was one of the few actors of the studio era who was equally good at both comedy and drama. A list of his great or even undervalued performances would take up a whole page! Having seen the original "A Star Is Born" again recently, I would have to say that this is my own personal favorite performance by him. The range of emotions he goes through (without straining at all) is amazing.

Sam Juliano said...

Ha R.D.!

His performance in A STAR IS BORN is my second-favorite of his performances, I completely agree with you there on it's excellence!

I loved him as Jean Valjean in the 1936 LES MISERABLES quite a bit too!

John said...

A few of my favorite March performances are "Inherit the Wind", "Middle of the Night" and as Willy Loman in the film version one of my favorite plays "Death of a Salesman."

David Noack said...

This Clair piece is exceptional. I have always appreciated his style which emulates the silent masters. And I appreciated the pioneering use of sound in the early talkies. Nice historical perspective.

Allan Fish said...

Well, excellent piece, R.D., can't argue with much of it. As for March, it's not his best dramatic role, but I have to love his reporter in Nothing Sacred - his talent for comedy too often overlooked - also see Laughter...

Bobby McCartney said...

The Rene Clair film that I like best of all is "The Ghost Goes West" but I also have enjoyed "And Then There Were None" a number of times over the years. Sorry to say I have not seen these two, but am nonetheless extremely impressed with the high quality of the presentation and the sustained continuity from paragraph to paragraph.

It's not at all unreasonable to compare Clair with either Mamoulian or Lubitsch.

Sam Juliano said...

Erci Mahleb's brilliant piece on Rene Clair and the transition of French Cinema from silent to sound........is well worth noting here, methinks.....

The transition from silent to sound proved quite a challenging one for French cinema. Considering that Leon Gaumont started to experiment with sound at the turn of the century, it is rather unfortunate that by the 1920s, practically all attempts to bring sound to film had ended in France. And by 1926, when Warner’s Don Juan came out in America, most French production companies still did not have the foresight to understand the full implications of Fox’ Movietone or Western Electric’s Vitaphone.

But foresight was not the only thing lacking within the French film industry throughout the 1920s. Indeed, several factors contributed to a slow transition to sound and to a passiveness that would result in ‘silent movies persisting well into the 1930s, and even towards the end of 1931 it has been estimated that less than a quarter of France’s 4500 cinemas had been converted to sound’.[1]


One of these factors was linked to the experiments in sound undertaken by Gaumont up to World War I. Certain types of sound films had therefore been showed in France for some years, but their substandard quality and the poor reaction that they engendered is exactly what prevented the whole industry and the populace from getting excited about it the second time around. Thus, because ‘France already knew sound films through Gaumont’s sound on disk experiments’[2], a sense of lethargy, a reluctance to jump into the race dominated the minds of French movie producers in the 1920s. Another contributing factor is that by that decade, France had become completely dependent on foreign sources for its film stock, and whereas in America and Germany, the powerful new electrical industries had been behind most of the push for innovation in the sound field, the French electrical industry in comparison was extremely slow to develop.[3]

In spite of all this, Leon Gaumont did make an attempt to join the race. But, not wanting to be dependent on foreign systems, he developed his own with two Danish engineers working in France. While technically adequate for a time, the Gaumont-Peterson-Poulsen system would quickly prove not commercially feasible. And even though the system did enable Gaumont in October 1928 to present the first French sound film (Marcel Vandal’s L’eau du Nil) before any American sound films could be released in France (Paramount showed Wings in December 1928 while Warner would only release the Jazz Singer in France in January 1929), the excitement would prove short lived.

The ever-increasing production of sound films by the Americans would increase demand by the French public to such levels that ‘French film producers were forced to initiate sound film projects as a regular feature of their production features. As a result, French film production fell steeply from 94 films in 28 to 52 in 29’.[4]

Towards the end of the 1920s, the largest French production companies became entangled in a series of takeovers and consolidations that would restructure the industry dramatically. While supposedly positioning the two newly formed conglomerates as powerful movie houses capable of competing with the Americans, this overhaul would also unfortunately contribute dramatically to their slow reaction towards the advent of sound. Even front-page articles entitled ‘Attention! We must not lag behind!’[5] as published by the French press of the time, would not be enough to change the situation.

Finally, perhaps more so than in any other countries, the arrival of sound had many critics in France. Talks of ‘savage invention’ were common and many feared that the treasures of the past would be lost. Rene Clair was one of those critics. Initially bashing the coming of sound as a ‘redoubtable monster, an unnatural creation’, and talking of ‘the deplorable use our industrialists will not fail to make of it’[6], he nevertheless quickly understood that sound films were inevitable and that silent films would very soon become obsolete. In 1929, Cine Miroir quotes Clair as saying:
‘The current situation for producers and directors is a difficult one. On the one hand, the appeal of the talkies is such that silent films run the risk of being ignored by buyers. On the other hand, a French talkie cannot be sold abroad, and in France, there are only 3 theatres equipped to handle such movies. Talkies are the future…I admit it, I loved silent films, where visuals and movement were everything…Very soon, surely, all films will be films with sound. This is fine, and I am sure that we will get used to it quickly…’[7]

He thus turned his criticism away from the technology itself, and towards the way in which he thought sound should be used. Sound became a way for him to fight what he saw as a repetitious, conventional and non-creative trend in many French films of the 20s, a form of realism, which he believed the use of conformist and synchronous sound would only exacerbate.

In A Nous La Liberte, directed in 1931 (and, it is worth noting, produced by Tobis, the German film concern), Clair would put his theories into practice, as he had done with Le Million and Sous les Toits de Paris. Considered by many a masterpiece, many critics have focused on the film’s denunciation of capitalism and its attack on the dehumanization of the individual as a result of the advance of mechanization. The famous conveyor belt scene and its use five years later by Chaplin in “Modern Times” remains a classic way to highlight the repetitious and mind-numbing effects of Taylorism. And while many other aspects of the film are certainly deserving of praise, it is undoubtedly its use of sound that has contributed the most to its status as a masterpiece.

Throughout the film, Clair uses a mélange of various sound and musical techniques to create a rhythmic and wonderfully paced ballet. The movie is not a talkie in the sense that it relies on very limited and carefully chosen dialog. The dialogue comes in sporadically and usually serves only to explain the action or the plot, and only if necessary. This is the case for instance in the scene in which Louis, in a shoe store, decides to fake an attack on himself. This is the first time in the film that we hear spoken dialogue. However, even in this scene, the dialogue is far from being simply the ‘natural recording of a pre-existing reality’[8]. The voice calling for help is an acousmetic voice. A visualized acousmetic voice[9] to be precise, since we are already familiar with Louis’ character at the time. However, for a brief moment, it is unclear whether the voice comes from him or someone else, which only enhances the overall subterfuge. As Clair himself indicated: ‘It is often more interesting to see the face of the listener than that of the speaker’[10]. Over reliance on dialogue and dependence on the voice to explain the image turned out to be a standard practice in the early sound films, robbing most of these films of some or all of the magic they carried in the silent days. This overly literal application of the new sound medium was exactly what many critics feared in the late 1920s. In 1927, an article in Close Up speaks of the arrival of sound as a robotisation and argues that ‘the screen image, a mask, a sort of doll or marionette was somehow mechanized and robbed of the thing behind the thing that has grown to matter so much to the picture adept’[11].

By minimizing the amount of dialogue, Clair managed to keep the movie flowing at an appropriate rhythm and pace without loosing any of the narrative quality. During the prison scene at the beginning of the film, it is interesting to note that there is actually no dialogue, only singing and sound effects. And when the guard asks Emile a question, he immediately adds ‘quiet!’ before a response can be provided, thereby letting us know not only that prisoners are not allowed to talk, but also that the story does not need Emile’s answer to proceed. Just as visual designers are taught early on to welcome the use of negative space, Clair shows that directors must not fear silence in sound movies.

‘For the first time in a film, the talking comes in when it should and there isn’t too much of it. The action is so well integrated with the talking that it plays an indispensable role in the film without becoming obtrusive’.[12]
The musical score by Georges Auric is another powerful contribution to the overall innovation in the use of sound in A Nous la Liberte. Its upbeat tone perfectly accompanies the narrative, never taking over the visual image, but always enhancing it. Its rolling drums during the prison and factory scenes complement seamlessly the feeling of repetition, structure, and militaristic-type dehumanization already pressed upon us by the camera shots of the conveyor belt or of the men sitting, working and walking in unison. The score conveys menace, joy, excitement, confusion, sadness, apprehension but without never losing its overall sense of hope and freedom. More importantly, it never tries to carry the movie on its own or to offer explanations independently from the image.

Sound effects, perfectly integrated into the score, are used wisely, in generic ways such as wind, a siren, a whistle, an ‘ouch!’ or a royal trumpet to signal the arrival of the boss, or in more innovative ways such as the chants, cheers or clapping of an unseen crowd not immediately related to the image on the screen. New employees registering with the company must follow certain instructions given by what seems at first to be a singing voice. Based on the way in which singing has been used so far in the movie, we are initially (and for a brief moment) inclined to think that the voice comes from the men in the room, either the guards or the new employees. But its repetitious and automatic tone, in fact half sung, half spoken, brings about the realization that we, and the men, are dealing with recorded instructions. By playing with the human voice, Clair turned it into that of a robot’s. And when Emile finally does escape from prison, there is a brilliant scene in which he becomes mesmerized by the voice of a woman. This voice, coming from a building across the street, is like the chant of a siren, putting Emile in a state resembling a trance. From that moment on, all external sound is cut off. Only this enchanting voice remains. However, we soon find out, as does Emile, that the voice actually comes from a Phonograph. And when the record ends, Emile’s dream like state ends with it, and external sounds come back into the picture. By switching off all other sounds, Clair allowed us to be Emile, not to simply hear the singing as he did, but to perceive it as he did. ‘The image may retain the tempo of the world, while the sound strip follows the changing rhythm of the course of man’s perceptions, or vice versa. This is a simple and obvious form for counterpoint of sound and image.’[13]

Non-synchronous use of sound is really the overarching principle in this movie. Whether through turning all sound off and letting the image speak for itself, or by getting rid of the image while a song or sound continues or even by letting voices at times not being mapped to the lips showed on screen, Clair almost uses every trick in the book to move away as much as possible from a ‘realistic’ use of sound. And the result is pure delight. Towards the end of the movie, the speech about Louis and how remarkable he is, is adroitly cut and continued by comments from a different person located somewhere else, who is speaking of Louis’ weaknesses. This trick, so common today, is indicative of the creativity showed by Clair throughout the movie. And, at the end of the movie, as the camera rolls from the factory to the river, from the moment the camera crosses the prison walls silence turns into singing, indicating how freedom only lies on the outside. ‘It’s the alternate use of the image and of the sound it produces- and not their simultaneous use-which creates the best effects in the sound and talkie film’[14] Clair said.

The innovation with which Clair used sound in A Nous la Liberte is only as powerful as the creativity used in the visuals allows. Without Clair’s mastering of the visual medium and of the art of rhythm and narrative, this film would have never received the praise and recognition it did. In fact, it is likely that without Clair’s visual talent for storytelling and pantomime, the sound experiments in the film could have turned into heartless and soulless tricks, with an existence of their own, perhaps even regarded as the work of an amateur who did not understand the new medium. But it is probably this initial reluctance to embrace sound that actually provided him with the necessary desire to explore new possibilities and alternatives and to look at the strengths and weaknesses of the new medium in a way which was rare at the time.

Copyright © Eric Mahleb 2003

[1] Roy Armes, French Cinema (London: Secker & Warburg, 1985)

[2] Roger Icart, La Revolution du Parlant, vue par la Presse Francaise (1988). Translated by Eric Mahleb

[3] Argument discussed by Richard Abel in French Cinema, The First Wave 1915-1929 (Princetown University Press, 1984)

[4] Richard Abel, French Cinema, The First Wave 1915-1929 (Princetown University Press, 1984)

[5] ‘Attention! We must not lag behind’, Cinematographie Francaise, January 12, 1928 quoted in Roger Icart, La Revolution du Parlant, vue par la Presse Francaise (1988). Translated by Eric Mahleb

[6] Richard Abel, French Cinema, The First Wave 1915-1929 (Princetown University Press, 1984)

[7] Cine Miroir no. 218, June 7, 1929, quoted in Roger Icart, La Revolution du Parlant, vue par la Presse Francaise (1988). Translated by Eric Mahleb

[8] Roy Armes, French Cinema (London: Secker & Warburg, 1985)

[9] Michel Chion, The Voice in Cinema (N.Y, Chichester: Columbia University Press, 1999)

[10] Colin Crisp, The Classic French Cinema 1930-1960 (Indiana University Press, 1993)

[11] Close Up, Vol. I, no. 5, November 1927, quoted in James Donald, Anne Friedberg and Laura Marcus, Cinema & Modernity (eds) (London: Cassell, 1998)

[12] Jean Variot, Revue Bleue Politique et Litteraire, Nov. 5, 1932 quoted in Ronald H. Blumer (ed), The Critic’s view of Rene Clair, May 14, 1965

[13] V.I. Pudovkin, Asynchronism as a Principle of Sound Film

[14]

R. D. Finch said...

David, Allan, and Bobby, thank you so much for the kind words. Allan, I appreciate that you took the time to read this piece, as I know from the quality of your own writing that it must take a good deal of your time to produce pieces of such excellence. It certainly would take me a long time to write anything as terse and as polished as the pieces you produce--that is, if I were capable of doing so! Bobby, I liked your phrase "sustained continuity." I'd never thought of it in those terms. It's just the way I write, but I suppose I do strive for unity and continuity in my writing, and those are certainly qualities I admire in the writing of others, no matter what the subject.

Sam, I'm impressed that you took the time and trouble to transcribe tha fascinating essay by Eric Mahleb. It certainly went into "Liberte" in a great deal more scholarly and historical detail than I was able to and gave some fascinating historical and interpretative insights into the movie. This is a writer I'm not familiar with, and I'm wondering what the original source was.

Thanks again, all. And remember: "A nous, a nous la liberte!"

Sam Juliano said...

R.D., he is the link:


http://www.yume.co.uk/rene-clair-and-the-transition-to-sound-in-french-cinema#more-80