I saw this on a double-bill with Clair's silent classic 'Paris Qui Dort', and was initially dismayed that the feathery magic of that film was replaced by clunking ironies, heavy compositions, and shrill, caterwauling 'music'. 'A Nous la liberte' is in many ways a forerunner to 'Modern Times', with about as much political subtlety - the factory assembly line disrupted by an inept worker would be 'borrowed' by Chaplin, although, instructively, the sequence is much funnier in the Hollywood film, perhaps because the little tramp is such a recognised, beloved figure, and the rather non-descript Louis is not; or perhaps because Chaplin was such a master at pantomime, and enlivened the mechanical scene with a vibrant display of physical virtuosity; more probably, it is because Chaplin developed the scene, showing not only the effect of human error on the most perfect of technological systems, but also the dehumanising, mechanistic effect of emergent modern capitalism on its workers.
Clair sees life for the worker under capitalism as identical with the life of a convict in prison - both systems seek to stamp out or rigidly order humanity, turn people into socially acceptable machines. With humanity so thoroughly contained, it is not surprising that it should be a fundamental human emotion - love - that causes anarchic chaos in this system.
Clair also links capitalism with criminality - the Big Boss in the film, the man who engenders the new technocratic society, who unites workers and the wealthy, past (his own, his friend, his blackmailers), present and future (the new machines), is an escaped convict. Despite the rigid heaviness of the buildings and machines, and the system they uphold, the status quo is ultimately transitory and fragile. It's easy to climb the social ladder, but just as easy to fall, as Emile shows with remarkably good grace. No such system - and capitalism claims to be natural - can ever offer stability or genuine security for the exploiters who need it most: capitalism carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Clair is also canny or prescient in linking the new capitalism with emerging fascism throughout Europe - Emile's factory is ordered on crypto-military lines, with uniforms, symbols and leader's iconography.
If Clair's politics are heavy-handed, his visual sensibility is not, and this film transcends itself when it looses its political shackles and gives into subversive whimsy, a rondelay of chases, fist-fights, drunken fracas, Bunuellian iconoclasm. Clair may not have been as profound a director as Renoir or Vigo, but neither had his eye, or his way with orchestrating movement, of creating chaos from order, and vice versa. The climactic surreal opening ceremony is obvious politically, but a visual stunner, with even nature undermining the narcissistic parades of power, in a way that anticipates Fellini and Kusturica.
The spare, oppressive sets are a delight, from the 'Metropolis'-like factory, to the unwitting mirror-home of the Big Boss. The end, in its rueful freedom, is pure Renoir. The inspired and inventive use of sound doesn't obscure the fact that much of this movie is beautifully filmed silent cinema.
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