René Clair | Paris qui dort | Entr'acte | Sous les toits de Paris | À Nous la liberté

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René Clair

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:

Story Structure: Visual style: Costumes:

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 (1931).

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.

Costumes

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

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 (1931).

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 here.

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 social change.

Art Deco

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.

French Comedies

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 sheer passion.

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.