Dopo aver combattuto volontario nella Prima Guerra Mondiale, René
Clair entrò nel mondo della cultura svolgendo contemporaneamente le professioni di giornalista e
di attore nella compagnia di Feuillade. Coinvolto nell'atmosfera dadasurrealista di palingenesi dell'arte,
Clair trovò nel cinema di trucchi di Meliès l'ispirazione giusta, l'assurdo, che fuse con
l'umorismo antiborghese dell'avanguardia. Propugnando un ritorno alle origini del cinema, in evidente
polemica con coloro che volevano gestire la nuova arte con l'estetica di quelle vecchie, Clair non si
vergognò di citare la farsa e il musichall.
Il mediometraggio Paris qui dort aprì nel 1924 la sua carriera di regista;
la trama (in cui confluiscono stereotipi del film fantascientifico e del serial poliziesco) narra di uno
scienziato pazzo che, mediante un raggio paralizzante di sua invenzione, riesce ad arrestare la vita di
Parigi; e Clair fu abile proprio nel riuscire ad arrestare la vita della metropoli, intercalando figure
immobili e montaggio rapido.
Con questo film Clair si propose come la controfigura cinematografica di
Francis Picabia, il progettista del gratuito, l'ingegnere di macchine ironiche, l'artista della nonarte,
rivoluzionario permanente della pittura.
La collaborazione fra l'anziano maestro e il giovane discepolo sfociò nel
cortometraggio Entr'acte (1924), concepito come intermezzodi un balletto su musiche di Salie, ma
soprattutto a sovvertire il gusto borghese: nel film non ci sono due sequenze collegate (salvo forse alla
fine, quando un prestigiatore fa scomparire tutti i personaggi e poi anche sé stesso), la storia
è senza capo e senza coda, si limita ad accumulare indizi comici di un sogno (una serata di festa
alla fiera). Fra gli interpreti spiccavano il musicista Erik Salie (la ballerina barbuta), Picabia (autore e
assassino di un tirolese), Man Ray (uno scacchista) e Marcel Duchamps (l'altro scacchista).
Entr'acte manifesta già due caratteristiche dell'opera di Clair:
l'interesse per il balletto (sincronismo dei movimenti, perfezione dell'assurdo, ritmo come
comicità) e il sentimentalismo bohemiém; quest'ultimo, nettamente contrario ai dettami
dadaisti, consiste nel provare tenerezza per i difetti della società, e nel salvarli (nel momento
stesso in cui si ride di essi) proprio in quanto divertenti. L'ideologia piccoloborghese che presiede a questa
semplicistica accettazione delle contraddizioni sociali fa poi sì che le varie gag restino slegate
l'una con l'altra.
Le voyage immaginaire sfrutta il movente surrealista del sogno per
imbastire una catena di scene ad effetto: un impiegato timido sogna di essere trasformato in un cane, di
essere inseguito dalle figure di cera in un museo, di essere condannato alla ghigliottina e di essere salvato
dall'omino di Chaplin.
Nel periodo avanguardista (sebbene viziato da tutta una serie di trasgressioni al
codice artistico del dadaismo e del surrealismo), Clair propone già diversi temi cruciali (il
populismo, l'amante timido, l'inseguimento, i ladri, il denaro) che spuntano qua e là e che sono
destinati ad ingigantirsi col tempo.
Con Un chapeau de paille d'Italie (1927) e Les deux timides
Clair abbandona la sperimentazione, mostrando il suo vero volto; la sceneggiatura è tratta dal
vaudeville di ottant'anni prima, basati, come tutte le commedie del genere, sull'umorismo, sul
dinamismo conquista il suo spazio cinematografico sotto forma di balletto e di inseguimento, mentre il
realismo si stempera in una caricatura sentimentale del popolo. Il suo tocco, agile e leggero, fonde il
vaudeville teatrale e quello cinematografico, Labiche e Max Linder.
Fino al 1934 continuò a evocare una Parigi povera ma festosa, fatta di
viuzze brulicanti di sartine a piedi e di piazze attraversate da ricchi in carrozza, immersa in una Belle
Epoque poetica e spensierata e coinvolta in una specie di di gigantesco ballo in maschera (operai con
le maniche rimboccate, vecchietti sordi e petulanti, borghesi rispettabili, gaie fanciulle con la frangetta,
innamorati timidi), al limite del bozzetto e della maniera: dall'idilio popolare di Sous le toits de
Paris (protagonista un cantante di strada, vanamente innamorato di una fanciulla che ha già
dato il suo cuore a un altro, con buffi sotterfugi per evitare il confronoto con il sonoro), iniziatore della
commedia musicale populista francese, lirica e leggera, alla commedia musicale Le million
(ancora un adattamento dal vaudeville, storia di un giovane pieno di debiti che vince alla lotteria
ma perde il biglietto, scatenando una caccia allo stesso condotta in gruppo da amici più creditori
che finisca all'Operà), dall'operetta satirica
À Nous La Libertè (1931), a satirical political apologue
in the form of a mostly silent movie with arias and slapstick-like skits,
permeato di ideologia naive
utopica e scenografia cubista (Chaplinesco nell'assunto anarchico,
influenzerà a sua volta il Chaplin di Modern Times).
Convicts build toy horses. Two of them are plotting to escape. One succeeds,
Louis, whereas the other one, Emile, is captured. Louis, having hit a bike
rider, is mistaken for a champion and wins the bike race. He robs a store to
get some decent clothes and then makes money playing phonographic records at
the corner of the street and then selling phonographs and then eventually
becomes a tycoon of the recording industry. In his factory the workers behave
like robots in the assembly line. In the meantime Emile, a kind soul,
rots in jail and,
desperate for freedom when he hears a woman sing (it is actually one of
Louis' phonographs), decides to hang himself. The window collapses and he
can leave his cell. He just wants to listen to the paradisiac music and stare
at the beautiful girl, but soon the owner turns off the phonograph and Emile,
still unaccustomed to public life, is chased by angry people. He hides in
the line of workers waiting to be hired by Louis' factory and so become one
of his robotic workers. Life in the factory is not too different from prison.
The big exception is Jeanne, the cute secretary who is molested by the foreman
and with whom Emile falls in love.
Because of his absent-mindedness, he repeatedly wreaks havoc on the assembly
line. When he meets Louis, now dressed like the tycoon he is, Emile recognizes
him. Louis is embarrassed and scared that his past would come to the light.
At first Louis threatens to kill Emile, then tries to buy his silence.
Emile is indifferent to the money. Emile wants love. As he tries to run away,
he hurts himself. Finally Louis returns to be his friend Louis, as he
helps him stop the bleeding. They start singing together and walk out of
the executive meeting room hugging each other. Emile becomes part of Louis'
aristocratic elite, wreaking havoc at his boring dinners. Louis' silly wife is
flirting with all the young men of the aristocracy, and Louis is all too happy
about it. Emily asks him to be returned to the factory because he's in love
with the secretary. Louis calls her uncle and asks for her hand. The uncle
is happy to promise his niece's hand to a friend of the owner.
On the eve of the inauguration of a new plant, Louis is blackmailed by a
gang of former convicts who threatens to destroy his career. Louis locks
them in a room and runs to the safe. He is stuffing as much money as he can in
a briefcase when Emile arrives, chased by police officers who are looking for
the escaped convict. Trying to hide away, Emile opens the door of the room
where the gangsters are locked. Louis leaves the briefcase unattended for
a second and one of the gangsters takes it. Emile sees him and runs after
him. So the police is running after Emile, who is running after the briefcase,
while the police are also running after the gangsters who are running after
Louis. The police arrest all the gangsters and Louis refuses to rescue them
even if he knows that they will reveal his true identity of escaped convict.
The briefcase ends up abandoned on the roof.
The following day Louis inaugurates a super-automated factory amid great
fanfare. Realizing that he is about to be arrested, he gifts the factory to
the workers: the machines will work for the humans, not viceversa.
Louis has just finished his speech and is being given a standing ovation
by the workers that a strong wind disrupts the ceremony. The wind opens
the briefcase on the roof and spreads the banknotes all over the area.
The dignitaries at first pretend to be indifferent to the flying banknotes
but then start chasing them chaotically at the same time that the police is
chasing Louis. In the meantime Emile has seen that Jeanne loves another
young man and has accepted the verdict.
The workers celebrate their new paradise, fishing and dancing while the machines
work for them, while Louis and Emile have become vagabonds and continue their
all'idillio di periferia di Quatorze Juillet (fra un tassista e una fioraia) e alla grottesca
satira della dittatura e del capitalismo di Le derniér millionaire.
Questi film sono apologhi fiabeschi sulla condizione dell'uomo comune nella
società moderno; esaltano la libertà individuale contro qualsiasi forma di tirannia sociale;
Clair crede in un mondo basato sulla gioia e sulla spontaneità; e rifiuta perciò le visioni
pessimistiche della depressione sulla futura società dei robot. La sua non è però
un'ideologia consapevole, è semplicemente una tenera nostalgia per la Parigi fin de
siécle. La forza di questi film nostalgici e parodistici sta soprattutto nei virtuosismi formali
del regista, maestro del movimento, capace di mettere in moto perfetti meccanismi ad orologeria.
Dal 1934 al 1945 Clair visse all'estero, prima a Londra e poi a Hollywood,
andando incontro a un brillante decadenza nobilitata dalla prodigiosa abilità di trasformare ogni
trama in uno spettacolo leggero e dinamico di gag. Da The ghost goes West (un fantasma
donnaiolo comprato con tutto il castello da un americano e trapiantato nel Nuovo Mondo) al raffinato
idillio di I Married a Witch (1942) con trucchi alla Meliès e morale alla Chaplin
Centuries before a witch, Jennifer, and her father were burn at the stakes
after being accused by a young man. Before dying the witch cursed the young
man so that he and all his male descendants would be unlucky in marriage.
An oak tree was planted on the place so that the roots would hold the evil
Sure enough the descendants of that man went through one divorce after the other.
The current member of the family, Wally, is a politician, a candidate for governor,
who is engaged to a gorgeous blonde. They are bickering just as her father
is introducing them to the press.
Just then a lightning strikes the oak tree and releases the two evil spirits.
They wander in a landscape that has much changed and eventually end up in
the restaurant where Wallace and Nora are celebrating their engagement and
his political campaign. She immediately decides to wreak havoc.
On the way home the future governor sees a fire in a hotel. The owner tells
him that all guests are accounted for, but he hears a voice. Wallace runs
through the flames and rescues a silly blonde who doesn't seem to realize
how close she was to dying. The press hails him as a hero, but the blonde
keeps behaving as if she knows him, which arouses the fiance's jealousy.
On the eve of the wedding the blonde appears in Wally's apartment. He sends
her out furious, suspecting a trick by his political rivals, but she finds a
way to come back and enter... his bed. By morning he has been charmed by her
primitive manners and innocent smiles. He has to get married in a few hours,
though, and refuses to change course. She is upset that she cannot make him
fall in love with her and asks her father for advice. He tells her to prepare
a love potion. When he comes back, she tries to give him the love potion but
ends up drinking it herself. Therefore instead of him falling in love with her
it is she who falls in love with him. She is incapable of stopping the marriage
because of her ancient curse on his family (to always marry the wrong woman).
Her father finally appears in human form. Jennifer the witch in love
begs her father to help her win Wally's heart. But he is
more interested in avenging hiw own death. They both appear at the wedding,
in a room behind the chapel, and he puts a pistol in the Wally's hand and
makes the pistol shoot so that he (Jennifer's father) dies. His revenge is that
Wally (the descendant of the man who made them burn at the stakes)
will fry on the electric chair. However, she is in love with the poor sucker,
so she grabs the gun and shoots. Now she's the one who would fry on the chair.
Her father has no choice but to come back to life. He is trapped in the body
of a drunkard and can't remember the magic formula to turn them all into frogs.
Jennifer finally disrupts the wedding by pretending to die of love and then
coming back to life just in time for the bride to see her in compromising
attitude with the groom. The father of the bride swears revenge against the
politician, but is arrested and thrown in jail, still drunk and unable to remember his magic formulas. Wally is soon ruined and abandoned by everyone.
Nonetheless he marries Jennifer and they live happily together. Jennifer tries
to confess that she is a witch but he doesn't believe her... until he wins
a landslide at the elections, as she had promised, an impossible feat given
his new reputation as a scoundrel.
Jennifer's father finally manages to recover his powers and appears to his
daughter, canceling her witchy powers and condemning her to return to the oak roots. She falls into a slumber at midnight and Wally is devastated.
She (under the human form) is dying in his living room. But she is also outside with her father under the spirit form, pretending to be evil again.
She fools her father and manages to trap him into a bottle.
Wally and Jennifer live happily together, raising two children. Jennifer is
worried about her daughter, who likes to play with a broom... and Jennifer's
dad sings amused in his bottle.
It Happened Tomorrow (1944) is a surreal fable with farcical overtones
and a powerful moral.
The reporters of a newspaper are drinking and singing. It's the party of
young ambitious Larry, who is being promoted to reporter after working
only on obituaries. The next day's edition will carry his first story.
An old librarian who is in charge of archiving the newspaper year after
year lectures them on the fact that the news exist regardless of when
one reads them. Larry wishes he could read "tomorrow's newspaper"
with his first article.
The reporters then head for a theater in which a magician stages his act in
which a beautiful girl pretends to read his mind while hypnotized.
Larry interrupts the show and asks the "hypnoptized" girl if she will
have lunch with him. He then waits for the end of the show and meets her
backstage as she is leaving. Larry is determined to get a date with the
On the way home, in the middle of the night, Larry meets the old librarian,
who hands him the newspaper. Larry starts reading it and realizes that
it is the evening news... for that day.
The newspaper says that it snowed in the morning,
and sure enough it starts snowing outside. There's an ad for a waiter, and
sure enough a waiter gets fired in front of him.
He reads in the newspaper that there was a robbery at the opera. He then decides
to take Sylvia to the opera and tells her what is going to happen. Sure enough
the opera house gets robbed and Larry rushes to the newspaper to run the
story that he just read in the newspaper.
The newspaper's editor is impressed but the police arrest Larry: only
an accomplice of the bandits could have known ahead of time that a robbery
was going to happen. Sylvia tries to protect him by claiming that she
sees the future and the police inspector arrest her too.
The inspector takes Sylvia to the theater to perform her act of magic.
A man in the audience challenges her to predict something that will happen
that very night, and she, desperate, pretends to see that a woman will
commit suicide by jumping from a bridge into a river.
While he is detained at the police station, Larry sees the old librarian
again. He offers Larry "tomorrow's newspaper". Larry is initially scared
at the idea of reading the next day's news, but the old man still reads
him a couple of news. One says that the police will arrest the bandits at
a bank, and Larry tells the inspector in exchange for his freedom.
The other one says that a woman will jump from a bridge and Larry himself
will try to save her. Larry does not wait to hear for the end of the
article. When Larry hears from the magician of Sylvia's prediction, he
relates it to the news and runs to the bridge. Sure enough she has just
jumped, and he jumps himself to save her.
He finds her hiding behind a boat: she had no intention to die, she
just pretended because she needed to prove to the audience and to the police
that she can indeed predict the future. They walk back ashore together
and he takes her home. The neighbors think he's a burglar and call the police,
but then they realize that he must be just a lover.
Alerted by the nosy neighbors, the magician, who is also her uncle, gets
furious and chases Larry out of the window, but is mistakenly
detained by the police as the burglar.
The following day he decides to marry Sylvia. After the previous evening's
scandal, her uncle is ready to kill him if he doesn't marry her... so they
quickly agree. Now Larry needs money to support a family. He sees the old
librarian again, and begs him for "tomorrow's newspaper" so that he can
bet on the horse races and win the money he needs. He then realizes that
the front page has the news... of his own death: he will be assassinated
in a hotel. He decides to go ahead with the marriage. Then he heads for
the horse races and wins a lot of money. The fact that he wins one bet
after the other, of course, proves that tomorrow's newspaper is accurate,
which also includes his own death. Sylvia and her uncle are ecstatic.
Alas, on the way home they are robbed of the money, and then arrested by
the police for speeding as they are chasing the thief.
Sylvia is still happy that she's married to Larry, even without money.
Larry is desperately trying to stay away from the hotel where he is going
to die. At the newspaper he learns that the old librarian died three days
earlier: Larry saw a ghost. The editor sends him to cover a story at the
other end of town, and Larry is surprised it is not the hotel. Then the editor,
hearing that Larry thinks something is going to happen at the hotel,
and trusting Larry's intuition,
cancels the assignment and instead sends him to the hotel.
Just when Larry decides to go in the other direction with Sylvia and her
uncle, they spot the thief and start chasing him through the streets and
the roofs of the town until they enter... the hotel (they fall into its
chimney from the roof). The thief pulls out a gun, the police surrounds
the thief. The thief is killed but Larry, terrified to be in the wrong place
at the wrong time, faints. The police search the dead thief and find Larry's
wallet on him. Therefore they deduce that the dead man is Larry. They
call the newspaper and tell the editor that Larry has been killed.
The newspaper publishes the news that Larry was killed in the hotel, the
article that Larry read.
Larry is safe, and can go on with his married life even though his money
has not been found and they are poor.
al giallo And Then There Were None (dieci persone riunite su un'isola da un
misterioso ospite sono accusate da un disco di crimini passati per i quali la giustizia non ha potuto punirli;
vengono eliminati uno dopo l'altro, secondo i versi di una canzoncina; l'astuto e perverso giudice che ha
macchinato con diabolica perfezione l'agguato: fingendosi egli stesso vittima ha lasciato per ultimi due
giovani, pensando che, sospettandosi a vicenda, uno avrebbe ucciso l'altro; ma l'amore manda in fumo il
In mezzo a tanto elegante divertimento si ritrovano qua e là tracce di
inseguimento o di vaudeville, peraltro annacquato da un ambiente artificiale, che non è quello
naturale di Parigi; la trovata che scatena l'intrigo è sempre clairiana, un po' artificiale e un po'
mattacchione. E Clair nella bonaccia del totale disimpegno.
Tornato in Francia dopo la fine della guerra, Clair vi diresse gli ultimi dieci
film. Questo periodo è segnato da un amaro rimpianto per la Parigi dei primi anni del secolo;
ripiegandosi sui propri ricordi, il regista ritorna al suo tema preferito, la libertà; ma il suo
messaggio, che già negli anni trenta compariva confuso e farraginoso, declina verso il patetico
struggimento per qualcosa che si è amato e non c'è più, col risultato di sembrare
un clown troppo vecchio che piange e vorrebbe ancora far ridere.
Le Silence Est d'Or/ Man About Town (1947) rievoca i pionieri del cinema muto
(Meliès, Feuillade) a cui Clair doveva tutto.
At the beginning of the 20th century a girl enters a movie theater to watch
a (silent) movie. A middle-aged gentleman (Maurice Chevalier)
notices her and offers her
an umbrella at the exit, since it is raining. The man is Emile, the owner
of the movie theater, a film-maker and a womanizer.
One of his young employees, Jacques, is in love with aspiring actresse
Lucette, who seems more attracted to Emile.
Emile lectures the naive and romantic Jacques about how to seduce girls.
Jacques has to go away to serve his country in the army.
One evening a naive beautiful girl approaches him:
Madeleine is the daughter of a friend of Emile and doesn't have any place to
stay. She too is an aspiring actress. He is reluctant but then accepts to
take her into his house and even lectures her about the dangers of seductors.
Emile protects her like a father. Madeleine thinks she is ugly and cries on
his shoulder. They are slowly falling in love with each other.
Jacques comes home from military service and is immediately hired back by Emile.
Emile encourages him to be more
aggressive with girls. He meets Madeleine in the street, without knowing who
she is, and follows her, still dressed in his military uniform.
It works and they fall in love. She tells him that she only had one suitor,
an older man. Jacques feels that he is saving her from
a marriage with no happiness. They spend the evening at a dance club, where
Jacques makes fun of a girl dancing with an older man.
Jacques tells Madeleine that he is about to leave for Africa hoping that
she would have sex with him, but the pure and shy Madeleine does not.
The following day a smiling Jacques tells a smiling Emile that he has been
successful with a girl, and Emile congratulates him.
When Emile directs the scene on stage, Jacques and Madeleine are surprising
to find out that the other is a co-protagonist in the same film.
They don't publicize that they know each other. Later Jacques is informed
by coworkers that Madeleine is the girl of the boss.
Jacques, devastated, meets Madeleine and tells her he had lied to her
not knowing that her lover was his best friend. She slaps him in the face
and leaves crying.
Back at home Madeleine learns from Emile that her father is coming back.
Her father wants her to live in her village, not in the big city, but she
is determined to stay. Emile is already worried about Madeleine's future
when Jacques decides to confess his love for her.
Emile is initially angry with Jacques and Madeleine, but he soon makes peace
with Jacques. Now it looks silly that Emile wanted to marry such a young girl.
Madeleine's father surprises him with the news that he's about to marry a
young girl... and again asks Emile to take care of Madeleine.
The president of the country and an Arab sheik visit the studios while
Emile is filming the last scene of a new movie with
Jacques and Madeleine as tragic lovers who are killed by a jealous sheik.
The sheik demands a happy ending, instead, and Emile happily agrees and
changes the ending, letting Jacques and Madeleine kiss, also a way to tell
them that he blesses their love.
At the premiere of the film Emile takes advantage of the happy ending to
seduce a girl who likes it.
La Beautè du Diable rispolvera il mito di Faust per rappresentare
un'umanità che ha venduto l'anima alla scienza.
Faust è un anziano professore che stringe il famigerato patto col diavolo
per ringiovanire e per conquistare una principessa; ma che si ribella, quando Mefistofele gli prospetta una
dittatura atomica, e riacquista la sua libertà.
Dopo aver sfiorato Molière e Goethe, Clair con Les Belles de
Nuit (1952) si concentrò sulla figura dell'innamorato, un giovane musicista (Philippe) che vive
in sogno avventure erotiche con donne bellissime, e rivisita il vaudeville con il successivo Les Grandes
Manoures, un bozzetto provinciale della Belle Epoque, in cui un tenentino (Philippe)
scommette con i commilitoni che riuscirà a conquistare una sartina, ma finisce con
l'innamorarsene seriamente e deve soffrire parecchio prima di vincere la sua indignazione quando viene a
sapere della scommessa.
Porte de Lilas, dramma di periferia causato da un bandito che, per
sfuggire alla polizia, tenta di sedurre una fanciulla innocente e viene ucciso dal legittimo fidanzato, ha
una strana aria da film "noir".
Con garbo gentile e gentilezza d'altri tempi Clair scese di gradino in gradino,
fino a Les fêtes galantes (1965), una favola antimilitarista su sfondo agreste (attorno a una
fortezza settecentesca) che celebra l'idillio fra un soldato e una (falsa) contadina, esposti più alle
bizze del caso che ai pericoli della guerra.
Il congedo ironico, lieve e malinconico di Clair si configurò quindi con
un riepilogo, in chiave minore dei temi a lui più cari: l'innamorato timido (quasi sempre
Géràrd Philippe), l'inseguimento, la Belle Epoque.
Libertario e pacifista a modo suo, cioè non militante, Clair era un
borghese e desiderava soprattutto una società tranquilla in cui poter liberamente e allegramente
esprimere le sue idee.
Clair impersonò, più che il restauro del surrealismo, la
restaurazione dopo il surrealismo, e a lungo andare la reazione del cinema scolastico alle
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