THE CONTENDER: À Nous La Liberté (1931)
Number of Nominations: 1 – Art Direction (Lazare Meerson)
Number of Wins: Zéro
In the last column, I discussed how focusing only on the top categories of Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film does a disservice to the complete history of foreign films at the Academy Awards. Many, many excellent international productions have competed in nearly every category. As near as I can tell, only the Visual Effects category has never nominated a foreign language film. Sure, the UK, Australia and New Zealand have been represented but it seems kind of weird that there’s never been anything nominated from Asia or non-English-speaking Europe.
At any rate, the topic got me to wondering: what was the very first foreign-language film nominated for an Academy Award? Turns out, it was a lot earlier than you may have thought. At just the 5th Academy Awards, René Clair’s influential social satire À Nous La Liberté became the answer to a future trivia question when it became one of three films nominated for Best Art Direction. It would be over a decade before a foreign-language film would actually win anything but it was a start.
Clair had been a journalist and film critic whose first two short films, The Crazy Ray and Entr’acte, firmly established him as a key member of the French avant-garde. Over the course of the 1920s, he became one of the most highly regarded silent filmmakers with films like An Italian Straw Hat. Clair was initially resistant to the arrival of sound but it didn’t take him long to master it, becoming one of the most innovative directors of the early sound era.
À Nous La Liberté was his third sound film and, in many ways, it remains his best work. Henri Marchand and Raymond Cordy star as Émile and Louis, cellmates in a French prison. They plot an escape but only Louis makes it to freedom. Once back in society, Louis takes a job selling phonograph records on the street. He’s successful at it and over time, the street corner job turns into a storefront, which in turn grows into a factory, replicating phonographs using the same assembly line techniques Louis learned in prison.
Years later, Émile, now released from prison, is arrested for loitering. Through his jail cell, he hears the singing of a young woman, Jeanne (Rolla France). He’s immediately smitten and, after managing to escape the cell, he follows her back to Louis’ factory, where she works. Émile ends up in the employment line, stuck with another assembly line job that he didn’t really want. His disruptions land him in hot water and end up reuniting him with his now rich and powerful old cellmate. At first, Louis assumes Émile has turned up to blackmail him by exposing his secret past. But it doesn’t take long for him to be reminded of his old friend’s inherently good nature and Émile is welcomed back like a brother.
The two friends pick up where they left off, singing their old prison song, “À Nous La Liberté” (literally, “Freedom For Us”). Louis promises to help Émile win Jeanne’s heart by helping out financially but Émile eventually decides to let her go after realizing she truly loves another. Meanwhile, Louis has attracted the attention of another ex-prisoner and this one has less-than-honorable intentions, threatening to blow the whistle on him.
There are any number of elements in À Nous La Liberté that could be singled out for praise, starting with the performances of both Marchand and Cordy. Movies with this kind of structure don’t often work. Clair starts with both characters, then drops Marchand entirely to focus exclusively on Cordy. Eventually, Marchand comes back in and we forget about Cordy for awhile. Finally, after a long time apart, the two characters are brought back together. For this to work, we have to be invested in both Marchand and Cordy equally. This is harder to pull off than it seems and works here thanks to the two actors’ magnetic screen presence and chemistry that establishes their friendship within seconds.
À Nous La Liberté also became the source of controversy a few years after its release when the French studio Tobis accused Charles Chaplin of plagiarizing Clair’s work in his own Modern Times. It’s hard to deny the similarities between the two but we’ll never really know for sure if it was an influence. The suit was eventually settled out-of-court and Chaplin always maintained that he’d never even seen the picture. For his part, Clair wanted nothing to do with the lawsuit, professing his own admiration for Chaplin and saying he’d be honored even if Chaplin had ripped him off.
Whether you’re Team Chaplin or Team Clair, the French director was definitely ahead of the curve when it came to sound. Chaplin was one of the last holdouts of the silent era and he managed to produce some of his best work after everyone else had switched to talkies. But Clair overcame whatever reservations he had about the technology early on and pioneered innovative use of music, sound design and dialogue, blending them into a seamless tapestry of sound. Keep in mind, the Academy didn’t even have music categories at this time and the award for Sound Recording was given to the entire department of the studio, not to individuals for work on specific films. Hollywood would spend another year or two trying to catch up to Clair.
Instead, the Academy chose to honor Lazare Meerson with a nomination for Best Art Decoration. Again, it’s hard to complain about this choice. Meerson’s sets, particularly in the prison and factory sequences, are truly spectacular, all streamlined angles and curves. There were only three nominees in the category and À Nous La Liberté ended up losing to a Grand Hotel-style comedy-drama called Transatlantic. I couldn’t tell you if it was robbed or not. Transatlantic is a tough movie to track down, having never been released on video in any format. It’s my understanding that it’s received some kind of restoration, so I hope it’ll become easier to see at some point because it sounds genuinely interesting. Any movie that beat À Nous La Liberté for Art Direction has to interesting to look at, if nothing else.
René Clair only made a couple more pictures in France. Then, like most European filmmakers during World War II, he traveled to the UK and America, making English-language features like The Ghost Goes West and I Married A Witch. Clair returned to France as soon as the war was over and continued making films, some of which were well-received. But eventually, Clair would run headlong into the French New Wave. His style seemed quite old-fashioned compared to the work of young auteurs like Godard and Truffaut. He retired from filmmaking in 1965 and concentrated on writing until his death in 1981. But even today, audiences continue to discover and appreciate Clair’s innovative, ahead-of-their-time masterpieces from the 1930s.
À Nous La Liberté is available on DVD from The Criterion Collection and is currently available for streaming on The Criterion Channel.