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Two small-time song-and-dance men come up with what they believe is a surefire publicity stunt, guaranteed to keep their names in the public eye--one of them will "disappear" in what looks ... See full summary »
The story of René Clair is what you call a tragedy of success. The longer he lived, the more eminent he became, the worse his films. And the process of decline is remarkably easy to chart.
During the 1920s and 1930s he made a series of delightful fantasies (this one it is true is not one the best), starting, in the days when he was toying (I choose my word with care) with surrealism, with the experimental Entr'Acte in 1924 and including (to name only the best) Paris qui dort, Sous les toits de Paris, Le Million and À Nous la Liberté (his first sound film although still very much using the aesthetic of silent film (it was a major influence on Chaplin's Modern Times).
Clair was famously sceptical about the advent of sound in film, fearing that it would mean the loss of a certain aesthetic that had developed and of which he himself was at this time a strong partisan. He was not the only one by any means to be sceptical; it ws a feeling quite commonly expressed by the more serious directors of the silent period. During the thirties people began to scoff at this scepticism and they tended to become defensive about their views. Many recanted what they now considered to be their "folly". It was not in the lest folly and now that, at long last, we are beginning to rediscover the great wealth of the films of the silent era, we can begin perhaps to appreciate that the sceptics with regard to sound were not necessarily wrong. There was a certain rather superficial gain from sound but there was also a deep loss....
During the war, Clair spent some time in the US where he became an almost aggressive penitent with regard to "sound" film and, abandoning the poetic fantasy of his early films, made the abysmal comedy I Married a Witch (1942) - fantasy for the US cinema had to be dressed in false "realism" and turned into simple-minded farce - and the very ordinary And Then There Were None based on a novel by Agatha Christie.
How anyone can find these banal US films even remotely comparable to the poetic fantasy - Clair has some claims to be the originator of the style = of his French films of the the twenties and thirties, I cannot imagine. It is sometimes claimed of And Then There Were None that is a particularly "faithful" adaptation. Even this is false. The original novel Ten Little N****** (only complete idiots "prohibit word) is one of Christie's darkest works,intended as a study in evil and does not have a happy ending. Clair's version, which catches none of the darkness and changes the ending, is a complete travesty. There were several even worse US films made during the same period.
One could say that the experience of the US, the espousal of the US notion of the "realistic" film, ruined René Clair for the rest of his long career but this would be slightly to exaggerate his decline. He was able to recover his sense of fantasy to some degree after his return to France in such films as La Beauté du diable and Porte de Lilas (both much superior to his US films) but the majority of his later films are, like his US films, uninteresting in form and bland in content. So although he remained a "famous" director (the first, apart from the cultural polymath Marcel Pagnol, to become a member of the Académie française), he had come by the sixties to typify everything that was dull and imaginative in French film and was a particular butt of the "new wave" as it emerged which characterised his films as typical of what they called "le cinéma du papa".
I do however understand the point of view of the critic who finds Clair difficult to love or admire in the way one loves and admires certain films at any rate of Renoir or the films of Guitry or Vigo or Epstein or Feyder or Duvivier. Delightful as his early films are, thee is I think something lacking in them, an over-lightness that does indeed make the films, enjoyable though they are to watch. somewhat easily forgettable.
And I think it is this "light" quality that helps to explain his subsequent decline as a director. He merely "toyed" with fashionable surrealism, his elder brother Henri Chomette, so forgotten he is nicknamed "Clair-obscur", being perhaps the genuine radical; he defended a "visual" aesthetic associated with silent film only to discard it completely in his US films (as however also did Renoir at the same period and never really recovered from his US experience); he espoused poetic fantasy only to throw it over for conventional "realism" when this suited his book; as a realist, he was still unable to capture the seriousness even in filming the work of a detective novelist like Agatha Christie. A director, in other words, of great talent, but a bit of a turning weather-vane ("girouette" in French)without the authentic commitment or the deeper dimension of which the other great French directors of the period were capable.
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