March 13, 2009
À Nous la Liberté (1931)
Grade: 74/100

Director: René Clair
Stars: Henri Marchand, Raymond Cordy, Rolla France

What it's about. A French-language comedy featuring the ups and downs of two friends, Émile (Henri Marchand) and Louis (Raymond Cordy). Both begin the film as prisoners, and end the film as hobos, but their paths differ markedly in between.

Louis is the more fortunate one. When he and Émile make an escape attempt from prison, Émile is captured, but Louis succeeds. He becomes a phonograph salesman, so successful that ends up owning the factory, shades of Charles Parthé. Émile winds up as a worker in Louis' factory, whose regimented, tedious assembly line is strongly reminiscent of the one that Louis and Émile worked on in prison.

Louis recognizes Émile, and soon the long separated friends are pals again despite their developed differences in class and ability. Louis even tries to arrange a marriage between Émile and his dream girl Jeanne (Rolla France), although she prefers another. Apparently, twits were as unromantic in 1931 as they are today.

Louis seems to have it made, but his life is falling apart. His loveless live-in girlfriend Maud (Germaine Aussey) has left him for a playboy (Alexander D'Arcy). He is blackmailed by gangsters aware of his criminal past. The money from his safe is stolen. But Louis retains the most important thing of all: his freedom, something that he can now share with BFF Émile.

How others will see it. À Nous la Liberté was the first foreign language film to receive an Acady Award nomination. It is charming and funny, to the degree that few will care about the inconsistencies of Louis' character. Such as, how did he amass such a fortune? Hasn't he outgrown Émile? Why is he delighted that his mistress has left him? Why does he care so little about the loss of his hard-earned fortune?

Fortunately, Émile is readily understood. He's a hapless sort unable to confine himself to the humdrum routine. His sole ambitions are to resume his friendship with Louis, and have the love of pretty but nondescript Jeanne.

How I felt about it. Today, À Nous la Liberté is best known for its role in a famous, long-running lawsuit against Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin's Modern Times (1936) has some similarities to À Nous la Liberté, enough for the producers of the earlier French film to sue him for plagiarism. Having seen both films, they don't have much in common except for the loose theme of the loss of individuality in the 'modern' mechanized factory.

Chaplin's movie is clearly better, but give René Clair the credit he deserves. He looks for humorous situations instead of opportunities to deliver a pro-socialistic message. The movie is surprisingly likeable considering how unstructured it eventually becomes. A freak windstorm blows thousand franc notes over the factory grounds, but the employees seem strangely unresponsive. They are still blowing around when the scene ends, along with bowler hats and the bearded executive's speech.