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À Nous La Liberté (1931)
Genre: Comedy Musical (France)
Starring: Raymond Cordy (Le Million), Henri Marchand
Directed By: René Clair
Overview: A satirical comedy about two ex-cons: Émile became rich after his escape, working his way up from salesman. Louis, on the other hand, has just become a lowly worker in Émile's factory.
Once best of friends and cellmates, Louis and Émile try to break out of prison. One succeeds and the other does not. In the years that follow, Émile becomes a successful and stoic business professional, while Louis has softened and has kept his joie de vivre. When he begins working for the factory, it's clear his love of life will do many a thing to throw a wrench into the smooth works of this tale.
From prison to factory, there's a nice look of minimalist expressionism that doesn't look any bit cheap. Tall walls with oppressive angles clearly shows us man's place in this world, while the synchronized assembly-line construction and rows of gramophones plays up the feel of what these people are living for. Nicely stylized.
It's French. France French. Did you know French used to be the language of law and bureaucracy? It's true.
The genius of this film lies not in the comedy, the drama or the players. Above all things this is a brilliant social commentary on the human condition. Much like Modern Times (so much so that Modern Times was sued for plagiarism), this story is about the oppression of the modern man by the technology around him. Modern Times may have said it best by opening with sheep then fading to crowds of people, but À Nous La Liberté takes us a step further, opening in a scene where prisoners are working away making toys as they sing about freedom. Shortly thereafter we find ourselves watching workers, not prisoners, who are in an all too familiar prison-like factory building gramophones.
It's feel-good without being saccharine. It's musical without too much singing. It's Romantic Comedy without the forced clichés and laughter. In short, it's original, cute and enjoyable and by the end of the film you'll be singing that theme song to yourself for the rest of the day, even if you don't speak French...
Overall Rating: 82% (À Vous la Joie!)
Here's an interesting piece of trivia: À Nous La Liberté was the first non-English film to receive an Oscar nomination. When I borrowed this, and crossed it off my list of early 30s cinema, I was apprehensive, musicals not being my bag, and films of '31 certainly not my cup of tea. Sometimes it takes being forced to realize there's greatness out there. This is one of those stories. Comedies like these are easy to like, even if you hate film study.