René Clair | Paris qui dort
| Entr'acte | Sous les toits de Paris
| À Nous la liberté
Classic Film and Television Home Page
René Clair is a French filmmaker, who had a long career
in both France and Hollywood.
Some common subjects in the films of René Clair:
- Funny animals in charge of vehicles (camel draws cortege: Entr'acte,
horse eats hat: The Italian Straw Hat)
- Crowds as group "characters" in scenes (funeral procession: Entr'acte,
street singers: Sous les toits de Paris,
workers at factory, financiers: À Nous la liberté)
- Still people (frozen folks: Paris qui dort,
slow motion people: Entr'acte, singing street crowd: Sous les toits de Paris)
- Comic or none-too-serious crooks (thief: Paris qui dort,
pickpocket: Sous les toits de Paris,
man who steals the lottery ticket: Le Million)
- Getting away from work (people who escape the sleep: Paris qui dort,
heroes: À Nous la liberté)
- Folded paper (paper airplane made from money: Paris qui dort,
toy paper boat floats in air: Entr'acte)
- Experimental passages (animated diagram: Paris qui dort,
title card turns into part of story: Entr'acte,
experimental sound use, hero in trailer talks to audience: Sous les toits de Paris)
- Fantasy (sleeping ray, stopped time: Paris qui dort,
magician makes people disappear: Entr'acte,
The Ghost Goes West, I Married a Witch, It Happened Tomorrow)
- Overhead camera angles (Eiffel Tower, river embankment: Paris qui dort,
chess players overlooking Paris: Entr'acte,
street singers: Sous les toits de Paris,
over ocean: And Then There Were None)
- Vertical camera movements (down the Eiffel Tower stair: Paris qui dort.
up and down crane shots at start: Sous les toits de Paris)
- Shots of feet tell story (funeral crowd: Entr'acte,
Sous les toits de Paris)
- Rows of objects (weapons taken from crooks at police station: Sous les toits de Paris,
assembly line: À Nous la liberté)
- Huge buildings and facades (Eiffel Tower, Paris buildings: Paris qui dort,
roller coaster: Entr'acte, Eiffel Tower: La Tour,
apartment building at start: Sous les toits de Paris,
factory, record store: À Nous la liberté)
- Uniform-like clothes (pilot: Paris qui dort,
hero: Sous les toits de Paris)
- Overdressed comic characters in fancy daytime formal wear (funeral procession: Entr'acte,
The Italian Straw Hat, newly prosperous factory owner: À Nous la liberté)
- Waving cloths (hero waves handkerchief: Paris qui dort,
scarf blows in faces on boat: And Then There Were None)
Paris qui dort
Paris qui dort (1923) is Clair's first film. It is a science
fiction story, suggesting Clair's affinity for sf and fantasy
in many works to come. The plot seems reminiscent of Onésime
horloger (Jean Durand, 1912).
The characters get a holiday from their regular work and
life, and are free to enjoy themselves. Clair treats this as light
entertainment, although he develops this aspect with great vividness
and detail. Clair will return to alternatives to the world of
work with political seriousness in À Nous la liberté
Architecture and Camera Work
The comedy chase down the Eiffel Tower will later be recreated
by Louis Malle in Zazie dans le métro (1960). Clair
will also make a brief documentary about the Eiffel Tower, La Tour (1928).
The shots of the tower here are excellently composed, and display
a vivid visual style. The vertical descent of the camera down
the tower, recalls the up and down vertical crane shots that open
Sous les toits de Paris (1930). Clair likes overhead and
aerial views; these too will re-appear in Sous les toits de
Paris, although from much lower heights.
Many of the film's exteriors show the characters against large
Parisian building facades. This will be a recurring element in
the director's work.
The scientist's lab is in a pure geometric style: circles, straight
line segments. It looks like an abstract painting, turned into
a set. The film was made the year before Aelita, Queen of Mars
(Jacob Protazanov, 1924), which would
embody abstract, geometric art to the fullest. The set here is
much simpler and purer than the hero's lab in Judex
(Louis Feuillade, 1916), which
is full of elaborate machinery in the high-tech style.
Paris qui dort does share the slightly disconcerting approach
of Feuillade in general, contrasting realistic exteriors shot
on location, with highly artificial looking studio-shot interiors.
Animation: A Diagram in Motion
Clair includes brief animated sequences, which illustrate the
spread of the scientist's rays. These remind one a bit of the
diagrams in comic books to come. Such diagrams break the flow
of the realistic, representational images that make up the bulk
of a comic book story, and display a schematic image that helps
the viewer understand what is going on. These often include cross
sections of buildings, blueprint-like pictures of machinery, astronomical
maps, and other informative sketch-like images. Such diagrams
are very useful for understanding the plot. But they are much
rarer in films than in comics. Perhaps commercial film practice
demands the illusion of "realism": that all shots represent
some sort of reality being displayed to the viewer. Fritz Lang
will include a useful animated diagram showing the path the rocket
takes to the moon, in Woman in the Moon (1929).
Lang would also include animated sequences in Metropolis (1926),
but these represent abstract imagery involving a loss of consciousness,
not diagrammatic information. Much later would come films that
alternate between live action and cartoon sequences, such as Edd
Griles' video She-Bop, with Cyndi Lauper, and Run, Lola, Run
(Tom Tykwer, 1998). These are not diagrammatic either.
Paris qui dort follows a standard movie convention, in having the hero
better and better dressed as the film progresses. He starts out
in shirt sleeves, then puts on a not very prepossessing tie. By
the movie's end, he is in a sharp pinstriped three piece suit.
The pilot also gets to be in fancy clothes by the film's end:
wearing a suit with elaborate patch pockets and belt, much like
a pilot's uniform. Albert Préjean, the actor playing the pilot,
will return in Sous les toits de Paris as the leading man.
In that film, his shirt will once again have uniform-like
patch pockets, and his suit will have variations on them. This
will all have less relationship to his character in the second
film, a street singer.
Entr'acte (1924) is a short experimental film. Its finale
shows Clair's gift at treating groups of people as a "character".
These groups tend to be performing some activity in public places,
and to represent French society. One thinks of the crowd singing
songs along with the street singer in Sous les toits de Paris
(1930), and the people dancing and chasing in Le Million
The finale also reminds one of the experimental "city symphonies"
to come. The roller coaster shots anticipate Berlin, Symphony
of a Great City (Walter Ruttman, 1927). The split screen effects,
and the dazzling array of camera tricks, recall Man With a
Movie Camera (Dziga-Vertov, 1928).
Sous les toits de Paris
Sous les toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris) (1930)
is a pioneering film, the first French musical.
There are reflective or self-referential qualities here. The hero
leads people in song at the beginning, and the song itself is
called "Sous les toits de Paris". We see printed song
sheets with this title on them. It is as if a piece of the film
itself is contained in the movie. The film's delightful trailer
(available on the DVD) suddenly breaks fourth wall conventions,
with the hero suddenly turning to the audience to speak. This
is a startling and inventive moment. Clair makes the most of the
possibilities here, with charming turns by his principals, and
clever dialogue. The way the hero comments on his own film is
another self-referential structure.
The people was see both on the street and in the apartments during
the first song are seemingly designed to be "typical Parisians".
They are as typical of the city - and near as motionless and still
- as the frozen folks we see in Paris qui dort.
The pickpocket here recalls the thief in Paris qui dort,
and the man who steals the lottery ticket in Le Million.
Clair's indulgence of all these crooks is tempered by a view of
the harm they cause.
The opening 15 minutes of the film, in which Clair works variations
on the title tune, are the best part of the film. Nothing that
comes afterward is as interesting. The way various male characters
treat the heroine does not help - these definitely reach what
we today regard as sexual harassment. Sous les toits de Paris
is hardly the last musical to be much better in its musical numbers
than in its story segments. But the problem is especially acute
Influence on Later Films
The opening scenes of Sous les toits de Paris anticipate
Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window
(1954). Both deal with an elaborate, multi-story apartment building
facade. In both, we see activities taking place at the apartment
windows and balconies; in both, we peer through the windows, seeing
the lives of people inside the apartments. Both directors use
elaborate crane shots to move up and down the facade. Sound grows
louder or fainter in a conspicuous way in both films. One of the
apartments contains a piano, and a song is often heard through
apartment windows in both movies.
Roy Armes in French Cinema (1985) has said that this film
was especially influential on German musicals of the 1930's. One
also wonders if Fritz Lang had seen it
when he made M (1931). Both films look at a modern city,
recreated in a studio, and low life characters who are part of
the underworld. Both films have a raffish quality. They try to
make entertainment, not out of glitz and glamour, but out of the
lowest classes of urban society. Both films often shoot street
scenes from an elevated angle. Characters are in a circle around
a kid at the beginning of M; this is similar to the circle
around the street singer at the start of Sous les toits de
Paris. Clair's film shows rows of weapons taken from crooks,
lined up on a ledge in a police station; similar groupings of
crooks' objects will appear in M.
One also wonders if Luchino Visconti
might have had this film in mind when he made White Nights
(1957). Both take place in a studio-created city, with elaborate
but not fully naturalistic sets. Both are romances, mainly set
on urban streets, low life bars filled with dancing, and the cheap,
one bedroom apartments of the characters. Visconti's characters
are honest members of the working class, however, while Clair
looks at people on the fringes of the underworld.
Clair tells his story in a number of scenes, by focusing on the
characters' feet. This will later become part of the technique
of Robert Bresson.
À Nous la liberté
One can see echoes of À Nous la liberté (1931)
in all sorts of movies. Its assembly line comedy sequences are
well known for inspiring Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times
(1936). They also anticipate Lucille Ball's famous encounter with
the candy manufacturing assembly line in I Love Lucy. Its
satire of capitalism through a comic look at a business in Paris
and its wealthy owners returns next year in Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble
in Paradise (1932). Its creation of a satirical fantasy world,
complete with music, might have helped inspire the equally artificial
setting of Freedonia in Leo McCarey's Duck Soup (1933).
Its opening shots of workers in a prison all arranged down a long
table looks like similar satiric scenes of miserable white collar
workers in Ozu's silent comedy I Was
Born, But... (1933). Both Ozu and Clair use lateral tracking
shots down these tables of workers. For that matter, the film's
shot of a factory and its smoke stacks looks startlingly like
the establishing shots that open Ozu's An Autumn Afternoon
(1960). The shots are set in the sort of open fields that often
appear in Ozu's films, as well.
Clair has structured his film so that each character is a member
of a different social group: industrialist, workers, financiers,
bums, prisoners, society loafers. The plot gives a picture of
all of these groups, and how they interact with technology and
the nature of work.
Ozu's films resemble Clair's in some structural approaches. Both
make films about an institution: in Ozu's case, it might be marriage,
the family, business or the financial organization of society.
In both, the characters are both individuals, and also representative
types: in Ozu, the boss, the workers, the young woman of marriage
age, an old person. The actions of the film show the typical situation
of such a person, and how they fit into society. Both show ordinary
daily life, and the ordinary, typical working of society, and
not extraordinary circumstances. They want to audience to think
about society's typical institutions, and how they operate. Both
filmmakers often embed a scathing critique of social norms, within
a mild mannered comic drama. Both show individuals attacked, coerced
and victimized by institutions. Both filmmakers talk openly about
The settings in À Nous la liberté are the
work of the great designer Lazare Meerson. He did many of Clair's
early films, as well as silents directed by Marcel L'Herbier,
and three films with Jacques Feyder in
the mid-1930's, including the magnificent recreation of 17th Century
Holland, La Kermesse héroique (1934).
The factory exterior in À Nous la liberté is in full
Art Deco mode. One thinks of Art Deco
as being a Hollywood craze in these years, but this film is proof
that Art Deco also flourished in the French cinema.
Also notable, the astonishing huge Deco facade of the record store.
Deco was often used for shop facades in Paris, but usually these real life
stores were modest in size. The film's gigantic record emporium
is like a delirious dream of Deco gone wild.
There are even Deco aspects to the prison in the opening. Usually
movie prisons look like huge intimidating structures; the friendly
Deco style was rarely used for them.
Groups Moving in Geometric Formations
The film is full of characters who appear in groups, especially
the workers at the factory, and the financiers who attend on the
industrialist. These groups rather resemble the choruses in Greek
drama. Clair often deploys these groups so that they form geometric
patterns on screen. Sometimes these groups are stationary, but
in their most memorable scenes, they move in elaborate geometrical
formations. The workers tend to move in steady lines. Their regimented
control by the factory resembles a comic version of the workers
in the future city of Fritz Lang's Metropolis
(1926). As in Lang's film, we see different classes of society,
and how they all converge on industrial processes. Both films
see industry and manufacturing as at the center of society.
One can see some similarities in approach between À
Nous la liberté and other French comic films of this
era, such as Club de femmes (Jacques Deval, 1936) and La
Nuit fantastique (Marcel L'Herbier,
1942). The films are amusing and witty, but do not attempt to
sustain constant belly laughs. All of the films also include serious
themes and moments, and are a bit darker in tone than many American
comedies. The films are full of elegant whimsy, and have an Alice
in Wonderland, somewhat surrealist feel. The films often look
at large institutions, such as the factory here. There is an element
of satire in the depiction of these institutions. These institutions
often exert a controlling influence on the lives of the characters.
The characters are often sneaking around, conducting a private
life by evading the eyes of the institution. This evasion is especially
applied to the characters' love life, which is an elegant French
pursuit of l'amour. Jealousies, betrayals and romantic rivalries
can all play a part in such a pursuit, as well as true love and
The institutions in the films are represented by large, elegant
Art Deco sets. These sets have an artificial quality. They do
not look like real life; instead, they look like a fantasy world,
nearer to conceptions of virtual reality in their sheer unusualness.
The large size of the sets often dwarfs the humans lost in them.
The directors stage elegant paths for the characters through the
sets. The directors get much mileage out of different stagings
of the characters within the sets, putting them in the foreground
or background, alone or in large crowds on the sets. These different
approaches create different moods for various scenes.
The Deco sets often favor a great deal of pure white or very light
gray backgrounds. They place the characters within an elegant,
geometric world. Lighting can often add a sense of mistiness or
darkness to this environment. It often seems to be involved in
a misty, twilit universe, although this is more true of Clair's
successors, than of Clair himself.