À Nous la Liberté is one of the very best French films of the 1930's. Directed in 1931 by René Clair it is about a couple of friends who go on two divergent ways after attempting an escape from prison. One, Émile (Henri Marchand) gets away, steals some money, starts a business and goes on to become a business tycoon selling phonographs. The other, Louis (Raymond Cordy) is caught, goes back to prison, gets out one day and ends up, unwittingly, working in the very same factory that Émile owns.
À Nous la Liberté is very light on its feet but is artfully directed with many lyrical moments especially with his combination of music and comedy. The film has the feeling of an early Charlie Chaplin or Ernest Lubitch film – the former specifically with Modern Times, which was made a few years later and shares many coincidental similarities.
À Nous la Liberté deals with the subject of personal liberty versus social (or in ths case capitalistic) restrictions and the nature of what is and what is not significant in our lives. Both men become virtual opposites: Émile rises quickly to prominence and becomes a VIP, while Louis remains a penniless worker who is picked on by everyone around him. If there is anything the men share, though, it is their need to be break free from the world made by factories. It's also worth noting that they are both without women – although in a comic subplot Louis tries hard to get a date with one of the factory secretary who thinks he's cute but is in love with another.
The film has the feeling of a silent film at times, which dates it. But once you get into it's rhythms and realize it's sometimes awkward and often graceful charms it's hard to resist. Plus, it's only 83 minutes long.
Director René Clair is telling us that the friendship that these two friends have is far more important than social standing or – for that matter – money. Or more specifically being free with or without money sure is worth it when you can share it with a friend. Since the film takes place during the Great Depression there is clearly a bit of subversion in the message. In fact, one could say this is a French Leftist fantasy. Whether or not you share such a belief there is no denying that it sure is fun to watch.
The film is presented 1.33:1 and looks good. There are many scratches and white spots that fly by on the print but the image is clean and many shots have good deep focus.
The audio is in Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono and sounds good even though it is hindered a bit by the sound technology of the early 30's. There are no detectable hisses or pops, which means Criterion must have really cleaned up the sound track. At times the film feels like a silent film; characters will talk but no sound will come out of their mouths – yet it doesn't appear awkward because it's often apparent what they are saying at these moments. There are a couple musical numbers and a score all of which sound just fine despite their phonographic quality.
This Criterion DVD is full of good extras including Rene Clair's first film Entr'acte a 20 minute surreal short made with Francis Picabia in 1924. The film is an art film extraordinaire and shows that fast, jarring editing was done quite nicely to music (done by Eric Satie) years before MTV. There is also a Video interview with Madame Bronja Clair that is 15 minutes in length and gives an informative background to their many years together. One handy extra is a 20 minute spoken essay by film historian David Robinson on the a lawsuit brought by the À Nous la Liberté distributor Tobias against Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, which they claimed copied all his film's ideas. It's an interesting episode on a lawsuit that René Clair distanced himself from but one that went on for years. And last but not least (proving that not only new films have scenes that were cut) there are Two Deleted Scenes that were cut out because they made the film too long. They are good scenes each lasting about five minutes and seem to have been restored a bit. There is also new and improved English subtitle translation.
This is an enjoyable 1930's French film that shows René Clair's talent for directing and story telling. It's an essential film from the period and Criterion has done a fabulous job in presenting it along with a few nice extras.