A Nous, La Liberte was….sweet.
That hesitancy is not hedging my bets. It’s because every other descriptor I could think of seemed to not quite be right – it’s not broad enough to be farce, it’s not pointed enough to be satire. It’s got too much singing for a straight film, but not enough to be a musical. It falls between a lot of different pairs of stools. Sweet, though, it is.
It opens in a prison, where a table of inmates are on their work detail – an assembly-line system constructing wooden toys. As they work, they sing about how their misdeeds have condemned them to prison, but hard work may free them. Our stars, Emil and Louis, are cellmates, and pocket some of the tools. That night, they get to work sawing through the window bars – ironically singing the same song, and singing further about freedom as they slip out the window. It’s like if Disney did a remake of Shawshank Redemption.
Emil gets trapped behind during their jailbreak – urging Louis to go on without him – while Louis gets away scot-free thanks to some extremely lucky breaks. He soon gets a job hawking records in front of an appliance store; but in short order, he moves up the ranks to phonograph salesman, to phonograph manufacturer, to the fithy-rich owner of his own phonograph factory.
Emil, meanwhile, is soon let out of jail, and happens to wander into the town where Louis has his factory. When he stops for a nap in a nearby field, the police try to arrest him for vagrancy. He gives them the slip – but during his escape, he spots Joanne, one of the shop girls from Louis’ factory, and is smitten. To duck the police – and meet Joanne – he gets a job in the factory. But he doesn’t quite fit in, and hijinks ensue. Emil’s screw-ups cause his supervisor to send him to Louis for a dressing down – but instead, the pair recognize each other and have a warm reunion, with Louis inviting Emil to a dinner party that night at his mansion.
Emil’s return seems to spur Louis to realize that his current life is as restrictive and stifling as prison had been. Louis has been running the factory exactly like the prison, and at home he’s been suffering with an indifferent trophy wife and her snooty friends. But during the dinner party, after trading some looks across the table, Louis and Emil suddenly start cracking up over the other guests’ pomposity. When the other guests leave in a huff, the friends take turns throwing leftover cakes at a portrait of Louis hanging in the room, then dance around it with the butler, all singing about the joys of a free life. It’s the most fun Louis has had in years – when Louis later discovers that his wife has left for good, it doesn’t bother him one bit.
A reformed Louis decides to make over the factory by automating it – the workers will be able to just chill out and push buttons instead of working in assembly lines. He also discovers Emil’s attraction for Joanne and tries to set him up with her. But right when everything seems like it will work out for the pair – another former inmate from the prison turns up, a team of gangsters in tow, and they threaten to expose Louis’ criminal past. Things come to a head during the ceremony launching the newly-automated factory – Louis and Emil are forced to decide whether to stay put, or escape once more. There is a happy ending, although not quite the one you would expect; the Joanne/Emil romance takes an unexpected turn, and Louis ends up having to sacrifice a good deal. The friends’ futures seem a bit tenuous at film’s end. But – they don’t care, they’re free and they’re happy.
Director Rene Clair has some definite ideas about how to define “freedom” and “happiness”. Most of the workplace scenes are depicted as drudgery; the scenes inside the factory are choreographed with the precision of a military drill, with finely-synchronized workers marching in neat rows and following barked-out orders from a supervisor. By contrast, a vision of the newly-automated factory is a utopian dream with the whole factory manned by a single pair of men keeping an eye on the machinery, while the rest of the workers go fishing, nap, and have dance parties on the roof. The “shackles” of wealth also get a bad rap, with Louis as the only wealthy man who isn’t restricted by decorum or miserly.
What helps Clair’s case is the slapstick. There’s not enough of it to bring the film all the way into farce, but there’s enough to make you chuckle. The strict precision of the assembly line just primes the pump for the sequence when Emil – distracted by daydreams of Joanne – gets a little behind on his work, which throws off the next person in line, and the next…There’s also delightfully chaotic scene towards the end, when a case full of money Louis packed to make his escape comes open, and a windstorm starts blowing the bills around the courtyard. The top-hatted dignitaries finally drop their composure and start chasing them about the courtyard in a scene straight out of a Buster Keaton film, with collisions and pratfalls and tuxedo-clad men scurrying hither and yon – all while a deaf speechmaker obliviously drones on and on.
The theme song also helps, surprisingly. It comes up at odd moments – the characters sing it on their jailbreak, they sing when they’re trashing Louis’ house, they sing again at the end. Periodically other songs come up – Joanne is listening to a record when Emil first spots her, and the job application process at Louis’ factory is set to music. While it’s a bit odd, the singing never feels intrusive – and the song is catchy enough that I’ve got it stuck in my head about twelve hours later:
My old friend, life is beautiful
When we are free
Let’s not wait, let’s go to her
Fresh air is good for us
It’s everywhere, so we’re told
Everywhere, we can laugh and sing
Everywhere, we can love and drink
Freedom, freedom for us!