“Liberty is the happy man’s due, he enjoys love and skies of blue, but then there are some who no worse crimes have done, it’s the sad story we tell from a prison cell”
‘À Nous la Liberté’, directed by René Clair in 1931, is a French comedy starring Henri Marchand and Raymond Cordy as two prisoners Louis and Émile who forge different but interlinked lives for themselves once they leave prison. Louis escapes from prison, and is the cunning conman of the pair. As with Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Misérables’, he quickly establishes himself as a wealthy owner of a factory making record players. Émile is the innocent romantic who finds himself down on his luck when he is finally released. He gets a job in Louis’ factory without knowing the identity of the owner and falls in love with a fellow worker. The rest of the film focuses on the similarities between the factory and the prison, on Louis’ attempts to conceal his past despite being blackmailed by gangsters, and the unlikely rekindling of Louis and Émile’s friendship. It is this final narrative thread that gives the film its heart: Louis is shown to be really torn between the bourgeois luxury of his position and the comradeship, but poverty, of his old life. It’s a film that predates Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’ by five years, but contains all the elements of the American movie including a nightmarish scene of a conveyor belt gone haywire, a comparison between the new, mechanised mode of factory working and prison, and a final shot of two characters hitting the road, romanticising the life of a tramp. It’s a film that demonstrates the global reach of the Great Depression, but one that, like ‘Modern Times’, narrates it with a giddy and farcical sense of fun. It’s telling though that France got there first.
Would I recommend it? Yes – watch it with ‘Modern Times’ for the obvious comparison, or perhaps Jacques Tati’s ‘Mon Oncle’ for another French perspective on anonymous factory working.