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The Criterion Collection presents

À Nous la Liberté (1931)

"So here's to us two and liberty!"- Louis (Raymond Cordy) and Emile (Henri Marchand)

Stars: Henri Marchand, Raymond Cordy
Other Stars: Paul Ollivier, André Michaud, Rolla France, Germaine Aussey, Léon Lorin, William Burke, Vincent Hyspa, Jacques Shelly, Marguerite De Morlaye, Maximilienne, Ritou Lancyle, Léon Courtois, Albert Broquin
Director: René Clair

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:23m:25s
Release Date: 2002-08-20
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ BB+B+ B-


DVD Review

While highly critical of the advent of sync sound in motion pictures in the late 1920s, director René Clair would be among the first to fully realize its potential in the early 1930s. With his third sound film (following Under the Roofs of Paris and Le Million), À Nous la Liberté (Liberty for Us) Clair had found his stride, artfully incorporating the new technology through dialogue, music and sound effects. The film also had more depth to its theme than his earlier works, presenting a biting but lighthearted satire of the modernization sweeping the world, and its dehumanizing effect on civilization.

The film opens in a penitentiary, where prisoners work on a manual assembly line building toy horses. Cellmates Émile (Henri Marchand) and Louis (Raymond Cordy) conspire to escape, but only Louis is able to make it out, re-establishing himself as a phonograph manufacturer, eventually becoming a respected and powerful industrial magnate. This escalation into the realms of successful industrialism is not without its problems. When Émile finally escapes from incarceration, he inadvertantly winds up working in Louis' factory, and upon recognizing his old prison buddy, is in a position to severely damage Louis' position. Anxious to maintain his image, Louis strikes a deal with Émile, setting him up with the woman he is transfixed on, but as the factory continues to grow, more outside influences end up in the picture, leading to a farcical turn of events that offers to free the pair once and for all.

The film builds up the notion that "work is liberty," then turns the idea on its head. Director Clair presents a progression of mechanized society from the manual assembly lines and regimental life behind bars, to the phonograph company, employing the same techniques and uniformed atmosphere as the penitentiary. The idea is telescoped to more and more automated lines, until eventually the machines build themselves, freeing the workers to a life of whimsy. À Nous la Liberté skillfully combines slapstick comedy, social commentary, political satire and musical numbers. The playful plot devotes ample time to complicating matters, with a number of setups and sight gags, especially following Émile's infatuation with Jeanne (Rolla France), the factory secretary, always under the eye of her watchful uncle. Cinematographer Georges Périnal, who had worked with Clair on his previous sound films, utilizes imagery that captures the symbolic industrial trappings and comedic elements with equal flair, while Georges Auric (Blood of a Poet) provides a score that punctuates the visuals with a number of rousing musical numbers.

In the end, Clair was apparently disappointed with the film due to its hurried shooting schedule, and trimmed the feature by ten minutes in the years following its release. By contrast, fans consider it one of his most important works. Perhaps the most notable distinction for À Nous la Liberté is its similarities to Chaplin's Modern Times, created six years later, an issue that has caused much controversy, and a lengthy plagiarism lawsuit brought on by Clair's producers against United Artists. Chaplin denied ever seeing Clair's film, and Clair himself wanted nothing to do with the suit, believing that if Chaplin—one of Clair's own influences—had borrowed from him, it should be considered an honor. Nonetheless, Tobis persisted in its demands for compensation for over a decade, and eventually settled out of court. Similarities or not, À Nous la Liberté provides a humorously entertaining and insightful look at the rewards and pitfalls of industrialization, while offering an early example of the marriage of sound and motion picture.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The black and white image here is in remarkable shape considering its age. As there is no mention of and restoration work being done, the source print is surprisingly all but free of defects, and exhibits excellent tonal range and contrast. As expected, grain is moderate, but naturally rendered. Scratches and streaking are present, but not overly intrusive. There are a few rough edits, some flicker and racking, but overall this looks extremely good.

Image Transfer Grade: B+

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: All things considered, the mono French audio is also in great shape, cleaned up to reduce hiss and other unwanted artifacts. Most of the remaining deficiencies appear to be a result of the recording technology and in the source itself. Tonal coverage, especially in the high end, is a little uneven in places. There is some edginess, typical of early soundtracks, and over saturation, especially in dialogue, but the score comes off fairly cleanly. While not completely perfect or as full sounding as modern recordings, the audio is very well preserved.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+ 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
2 Deleted Scenes
1 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. 1924 René Clair short film, Entr'acte
  2. Interview with Madame Bronja Clair
  3. Essays
Extras Review: Criterion supplements the feature with a fine collection of notable extras, beginning with a pair of deleted scenes, which the director, known for revising his work, excised after the film had been released. The first, The Singing Flower (1m:51s), is a short vignette expanding a scene where Émile lazes in a field before being arrested for vagrancy. This adds some context to Émile's actions in the revised film. The Magic Park (4m:40s) was cut soon after Liberté's premier, and expands on Émile's unsuccessful courting of factory secretary Jeanne. The quality of these excerpts are decidely inferior to the print used for the feature, with a good number of defects and abrupt splices.

Clair's first short film, the surrealistic Entr'acte (20m:17s) is presented in a windowboxed transfer from a restored print. Written by Dadaist Francis Picabia with a score by Erik Satie, this is a bizarre piece rife with camera tricks, and an expectedly odd narrative surrounding a coffin that is separated from it funeral procession. Certainly a stark contrast to the disc's feature presentation in all respects. The source does show signs of its age, but looks pretty good overall.

A 1998 interview (15m:05s) with Clair's widow, Bronja, gives much insight into her relationship with the director, whom she met following the 1924 premier of Entr'acte, attended at the invitation of Francis Picabia. Madame Clair recounts their courtship, and René's career following their marriage.

Film historian and Charlie Chaplin biographer David Robinson presents a 22m:21s audio essay on the controversy over the resemblance of Chaplin's Modern Times to À Nous la Liberté, and the ensuing lawsuit. His exhaustive research into Chaplin's work gave him access to a number of documents that shed light on the complexity of the case, and makes for fascinating listening, while also taking a very different perspective to Michael Atkinson's text essay included in the disc's leaflet.

Menus are styled in typical Criterion fashion, suiting the tone and content of the film impeccably.

Extras Grade: B-

Final Comments

À Nous la Liberté is both regarded as a high point by fans, and considered one of his most flawed works by director Clair. This whimsical tale is done up in typical Criterion style, given a great transfer, and adorned with a collection of meaningful supplements. While the film may have limited appeal for modern audiences, it is handled respectfully in this release, which is sure to please those who appreciate its achievements.

Jeff Ulmer 2003-01-23