Á Nous la Liberté | Cinema Year One

Credit: Universal

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Ben Flanagan

What happened over the years? More images were consumed ever more quickly by fewer people. The world of cinema (film rotas, news, ideas, trends and people) accelerated and then started to race…

This loss of the feeling of the present is obviously the great phenomenon of the media. We aren’t facing things anymore, yet we are unable to shake off their image, as if it were a friendly ontological glue. The urgency to see a film is reduced, and it may eventually result in a reduced urgency to make films. We’ve entered the era of recycling.”

Serge Daney’s writing in 1984 from Cannes (recently given a lively translation into English by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan) covers the same hysterical dismay at film culture that I feel whenever I’m at an event. Particularly in cliquey London, where the film scene, gentrified, overpriced and rarely risky or political, becomes a smug feedback loop, one begins to wonder if the film is even projected on the screen at all. Instead, after spending £13.95 on a ticket for Minari and the same again on M&Ms and a beer, our subconscious realises the error of leaving the house. It shuts down, and tells us that we had a culturally enriching experience at Crouch End Picturehouse. 

Better, I think, as the city reopens, to stay at home with a fibre optic connection and Letterboxd’s ‘sorted by year: 1931’ feature. Passing myself off as an expert in the period, which I feel entitled to do as our last issue, ‘Horny’, covered the same period, I was dismayed to find how many recyclable images were infecting viewers’ minds 90 years ago. Perhaps audiences didn’t have the vocabulary to describe their kampf, but as a member of the British Film Criticism Establishment (BFCE) I believe I can elucidate.

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Boy, what a year at the movies! 

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1931 was a breakthrough year for French cinema, and poetic realism in particular. 

Renoir’s first two sound films introduced the world to a master: On a purge bébé – a farce about forcing a child to take a shit – and La Chienne – a genuine example of Renoir’s tactile vision and cross-society balance. Of the first film, I struggled to understand Renoir’s obsession with the bodies of children. Just let him take a shit, you creep! La Chienne literally translates as ‘The Bitch’. Typical French misogyny, and a film which clearly takes great pleasure in the pain of women. No wonder Fritz Lang (whose M is as creepy as On a purge bébé), another lady-hater, would remake the film as Scarlet Street (1945). 

Realism was a force this year. F.W. Murnau and Robert Flaherty’s Tabu has the striking feeling of viewing cave paintings. But, as Joseph Owen explained in Issue 2, their ethnographic eye is as flat as any caveside scrawl. And speaking of sus, in 1931 Bella Lugosi first brought Frankenstein to the screen for James Whale. His ableist, mental-health-erasure vision of the monster has nothing on De Niro’s more layered turn for Branagh in 1994. 

While a shiver rolled down our collective spines in Frankenstein, Heat beats off the screen in Von Sternberg’s Dishonored. It’s true that Marlene Dietrich is every bit the powerhouse, but her total control is punished by woman-hating Joseph Von. It doesn’t vibe with my lived experiences in Britain going to university, clubs, Socialist Worker meetings, or the workplace.  In the real world, women are always treated with respect. Within 10 years Dietrich would be a war hero, for God’s sake! Dishonored’s lack of realism (there’s no way a whole army could be seduced by someone showing little more than a bit of ankle – for an even worse version of this see DW Griffiths’ Judith of Bethulia. For a realistic – but still icky due to its star! – version, see New Rose Hotel) belies its lack of heart. 

Better, is Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, perhaps his definitive Little Tramp film. It captured a floundering, suffering society during the Great Depression, and one man’s attempt at self-sufficiency within it. Chaplin, a twink and a snack, and a man hounded by J. Edgar’s FBI with pedophile allegations, didn’t even receive an Oscar for his work as a creep who gaslights a blind woman into falling for him. Hollywood preferred King Vidor’s sentimental The Champ, a template for awards friendly fare to follow. 

There is a long gap between the opening titles and the first shot of À Nous la Liberté. In the darkness, we wait, before bursting into a parallel tracking shot of toy horses being made. It then runs back, revealing the prisoners at work. Sure, this is a beautiful illustration of how industry benefits from the enforced labour of prisoners and corrupts society to such a degree that even your child’s playtime is built with blood, but when I was 19 I ate a sheet of acid and watched Modern Times, which has similar visuals, is set in the future, and I soundtracked to Future. These days, the technical achievements of the past are not necessarily enough for the attention deficit critic. 

 À Nous la Liberté is enjoyable enough. As prisoners Louis and Émile (Henri Marchand and Raymond Cordy) gently scrape away at the prison bars with a piece of wire, Clair’s tactile close ups of hands anticipate Bresson’s own captive action movie, A Man Escaped (1956). Only by watching Clair do we understand the forge between Bresson and Paddington 2 (2017), the cunty bear from whom we will never be free. The texture of Clair’s prison walls are as delectable as Brendon Gleeson’s cakes, the shadows as striking as Bresson’s prayers to the heavens. 

Freedom, though, means a larger prison, and less community. Sound had brought a level of realism that could pull cinema nearer to our reality. But Clair’s film shows how our reality can be heightened. Not only through striking, surrealist photography, but through a schizophrenic sound design that reflects the acousmetre of our world. Between factories, prison, high society hotel life. Clair visits the same locations as Vidor, Renoir, Chaplin et al, and presents us with perhaps the definitive film of 1931. But I’ve got to be honest, I’d rather watch The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) again, to get ready for Wes Anderson’s new Cannes title. See you on the Croisette!