BY JACK WIGHTMAN
Film is a format of possibility able to represent reality starkly as the Lumiere brothers originally intended, or distort the world into Méliès magic. I remember first setting my eyes on the fabulous destiny of Amelie unfolding in a Paris of impossibility on an Earth that doesn’t exist. Jean-Pierre Jeunet recreated life on his terms. Terry Gilliam, Jacque Tati’s adventures of Monsier Hulot and the aptly titled Life is Beautiful flourish in similar wonder, existing in a world recognisable and impossible.
Freedom For Us (1931) is Rene Clair’s rendition of Earth. A world comprised of comedy, romance, science fiction, fantasy and musicality in no equal measurements, a thoroughly odd shaped piece defying snugly fitting frames of genre. Who would expect any less of a Dadaist.
Dadaism, roughly, is an informal movement engendered by World War I and squarely reacting to the proposed root of war; the bourgeois nationalist and colonialist interests. All that is truly necessary to understand is that Dadaists opposed cultural and intellectual conformity, therefore, reason and logic are jettisoned in favour of that alluring state of Chaos.
Freedom For Us is Dadaist philosophy in action by exploring unnatural suffocation of capitalism in exquisite visual illustrations. The opening is of a jail cell which Emile promptly escapes. In his outside life, he opens a small shop and quickly establishes a monopoly, obliviously constructing a condition mirroring his initial incarnation but darker, a stern guard in authoritative uniform guards like a hawk, surrounded by impassioning symbols mirroring rising Fascism throughout Europe.
Clair, however, is no Buñuel.
Freedom For Us is in no terms impenetrable or highly surreal, instead a beautifully whimsical ride of comedy, romance, friendship, chases and silliness ice a cake with a bitter political underbelly. Yet whatever deep ideology Clair may have intended, it is easily pushed aside, allowing the audience to read as much or as little as they choose, rather than the all absorbed Russian Propaganda pieces of the day.
For example, one scene depicts another escapee, Louis, who now works at Emile’s factory. As we have learnt by this point ‘work means liberty’ and so Louis is thrust deep into freedom. Shoulder to shoulder in an endless line of identically dressed men, Louis performs minuscule and totally imperceptible tasks in construction. Like everyone else. Except, Louis has no rhythm and is distracted by his love, he misses one machine and leans across to the next. This interruption causes an interruption to the third in line and so on and on until the ripple of chaos has wreaked havoc on the entire assembly.
The political message may or may not traverse the silver screen, but it seems Clair enjoys his twists of fate and comedic skits far beyond any grand philosophical reasoning. What is prevalent is the admiration of chaos, a general plot is present but it is a malleable piece, meeting the needs of constant entertainment wherever necessary and leaving the quibbling problems for a grounded director. But this liberation, as the picture constantly praises, is our liberation from reality. Instead, the world is a playground. Even moments of danger of Emile facing blackmailers becomes a hilarious chase.
If semblances seem familiar, it is because Chaplin absorbed and reproduced the heart of this picture in Modern Times. A law suit between production company Tobis and United Artists actually began, Clair refused to have anything to do with it, claiming Chaplin’s inspiration was one of the greatest compliments he could receive. The two remain friends and the pictures remain distinct, the product of two very different creative minds.
Chaos and illogicality may be the basis of Dadaism, but Clair never loses himself or neglects his audience. For all the political intentions of Freedom For Us, it remains a light hearted and thoroughly enjoyable experience. Perhaps there is something insightful to be gained amidst the laughter as Emile and Louis, two friends resisting an overbearing society they were never destined for, finally discover their place on the road and deliver a resonating song…
Everywhere, if you take a chance/ Everywhere, life is a melody/ Everywhere, it’s wine and romance / So here’s to we two and liberty!
Louis (Raymond Cordy) watches a beautiful woman from his jail cell. She is across the street physically but separated a million miles away in time. Hopeless and depressed, Louis ties one end of a rope to the barred windows and the other around his neck. Louis toes to the edge and jumps, his weight pulls the rope taught and the bars out of the window. He is free!
Jack Wightman is a script writer, film reviewer and budding film director. Jack blogs over at 1001: A Film Odyssey.