Le Million

Translated by Hilary A. Radner

Throughout his career, René Clair will continue to have “a certain idea” about the cinema. The expression should be taken literally, and the metaphor can be spun out. Whether he is crossing the desert or returning to the studio, the filmmaker does not stop cultivating his position as an observer, which permits him to re-define the fundamentals of his ideals and to raise them to the status of law. Half Moses, half De Gaulle, very early, he will polish his status as commander, as the moral conscience of the French cinema; and another feature that connects him with the founder of the 5th Republic, is the permanent temptation to renegotiate the contract, to put everything into question again, and to reveal his own doubts in the middle of the discussion. Beginning with his first films until his retreat to the French Institute, Clair presents himself as a prophet coupled with a legislator, and who will not rest until he has specified with his pen what cinema should be. To the point that the exceptional prestige tied to his name seems first of all born from this pedagogic speech: in front of a cinematic language whose evolution remained unclear and elusive, he was the one who claimed to establish the rules and to set the limits. Whereas the Dellucs, the Canudos, and L’Herbiers had developed only a mystique, hermetic for the majority and still burdened by various influences, René Clair finally arrived as did Malherbe: with him, the time had come to dispel doubt, to isolate the fundamental and quasi-ontological vocation of the cinema, to protect it from all that might threaten its identity. Thus, the author of Le Million presented a reassuring figure for an entire generation of film lovers. He crystallized a fascination with cinema while channelling the risks of its excesses. He legitimated a new form of writing while imposing the structure of a classical rhetoric. A privileged position, doubtless – but a remarkably uncomfortable one – of which Clair did not avoid a single contradiction. Re-reading numerous articles published since 1925, one perceives that his theories were renewed constantly in function of his practice as well as new economic factors or technological advances. In such a manner that Clair’s discourse, as absolutist as he might wish it to be, in the end only reflects its own limits, the relativity of his past beliefs and the indeterminacy of the future. And if this discourse is fascinating, it is precisely by the richness of what it attempts to contain and what escapes it, by its failure to summarize on its own the unpredictable history of cinema.

Like all film lovers who join the sect around 1920, Clair first asked himself a question that will haunt his entire writing project even when he moves to the other side of the camera: what is cinema? To answer this question, he will position himself between Delluc’s mysticism and Bazin’s metaphysics. What is important to him essentially is to define cinema next to literature and theatre, to isolate its specificity as an autonomous language. The cinema is not necessarily a means of understanding all aspects of reality. It is sufficient that it should be a mode of writing in its own right, but conforming to a novelistic ideal. Here, the contradictions of Clair’s thought become apparent. On the one hand, he carries on the battle for the emancipation of the seventh art by attacking the inter-titles of silent screen, the imitation of literature or the invasion of filmed theatre. On the other hand, he recognizes the dignity of the new art only starting from a rigorously literary model, and also from a certain idea of the written. And from the outset, this idea will contradict manifestos of the avant-garde – attaching itself to a more unobtrusive psychological tradition.

Since 1925, we see that Clair has chosen his side – where the spirit of analysis, of lucidity, of irony rules, in order to submit totalising or univocal discourses to systematic dissection. It is clearly through critique that he understands film, refusing to see there the intermediary of any romanticism or post-symbolism, and choosing, on the contrary, this form of expression because it leaves no room for dogma. As far as cinematic writing is limited by technological constraints, it is protected from rhetorical inflation, or too obvious procedures; it is condemned to remain natural. When literature and theatre appear as so many dead languages, it is to cinema that belongs the task of restoring an immediate vocabulary, purified of all doubt and misunderstanding. In the mind of Clair, the promotion of an image/language is inseparable from a politics of tabula rasa that disregards the recent challenges of literary modernity to return to the origins of poetry itself:

In this time at which verbal poetry loses the powers that it exercises over the crowd and becomes a matter of the initiated, a new form of poetic expression is born and can touch every heart that beats on this earth (..) Marcel Proust asked himself “if music were not the unique form of that which might have been – if language had not been invented, the development of words, the analysis of ideas – the communication between souls.” Not, not unique. Marcel Proust would not have written this word if he had known the possibilities of a visual art, of cinema.

It is no longer about defending a total art or a hypothetical “pure” cinema, it is rather about defending an art of synthesis in which poetry would find again a simple human form – in which discourse might be capable of reincarnating itself beyond discourse. The analogy with music is there to show in film a language inscribed in time, a writing in action. And the reference to Proust is not incompatible with the nostalgia for “a poetry of the people”. What distinguishes Clair is precisely a decadent hypertrophia of culture that aspires to blend into a primitive spontaneity. Thus, he expresses at the same time the fatigue of an incredulous generation and his fetishistic effort to reconstitute an innocence that literature is no longer permitted.

It is this that inspires him to place himself openly under the protection of the pioneers of the screen, not without a nuance of provocation – which is a way of reaffirming himself in the arrière-garde of the avant-garde, and to rewrite the history of cinema backwards:

The error was to decide too soon that cinema was an art (.) If there is an esthetic of cinema, it was discovered at the same as the camera and film, in France, by the Lumière brothers. It can be summarized in one word: “movement”. External movement of objects perceived by the eye, to which we would add internal movement of action. From the union of these two movements can be born that about which we talk so much and of which we see so little: rhythm (.) If we wish cinema to grow in strength, let us respect this forgotten tradition, let us return to this source.

We can appreciate the paradoxical terms of this manifesto – that advocates a cinema in movement while celebrating a golden age in which the camera was fixed. In the same way, the author of Paris qui dort brings out the evolutions of his aerial creatures by locking them in an immobile city. In truth, accelerating the rhythm matters less than isolating the precise instant at which it slows down, re-establishing a situation in which movement is still possible. We measure all the ambivalence in Clair’s thought, that never does anything but attack a flaw, a gap, a broken contract in the free exercise of fiction. Re-reading this famous passage we think about a scene, no less famous from Les Deux Timides, in which the illustrated defense speech begins again and again and interrupts itself at the same fateful moment. The dream of the young filmmaker proves to be that of a revival – that is to say less of a search than a resumption of a lost time, and which would be condemned to suspension, to a virtual projection, a perpetual freeze-frame. And this static progress is underlined again by recourse to writing. While he calls forth an anti-discursive cinema founded solely on a visual vocabulary, Clair reveals himself as dependent on language as his young lawyer, as attached to speech that escapes incarnation.

Through all his texts from the end of the 1920s, we see the development of a veritable parallel oeuvre that supplements his films to a point that this parallel work seems to constitute an end in itself, which, nonetheless, is unable to recapture the idea of cinema except by default. Cinema is the Sleeping Beauty who awaits reawakening, who remains in a faraway perspective, anachronistic and almost childlike. Everything happens as though Clair’s aspiration is to re-find the history of cinema, to purify it from the disorder and the various influences that have crossed it, to animate his initial wonderment as a spectator. In this he is faithful to the perversely nice-boy logic that dictated his lessons of regressions in his first reviews, and that inspired the referential fantasies of his first films. He is above all the child of a quarter of a century that saw cinema grow up while literature grew old and that could not apprehend that except through the already familiar categories of the latter. Thus, it matters less to say what cinema is than what it ought to be – in a spirit that is at the same time emancipatory and conservative. If the new art is credited with unpredictable and almost infinite potential, it is precisely because of its extreme youth, that leaves it open to all possibilities – but dedicates it for the moment to feeling its way along a specific path.

What is identified is not then the nature of a cinema that remains in search of an author and critics. It is even less an avant-garde in which Clair will never see anything but an empty concept, incapable of translating the unconscious movement of the cinema. It perhaps only is the adversary, in front of which it is a question of positioning oneself in order to oppose – especially when the conquest of silent art is seemingly threatened by the return of the thespians and a facile commercial expansion. We might be surprised by this strange alliance between the tyranny of the text and that of money; however, we must understand it in the context of the 1920s – in which visual language is seen as a new esperanto, connected to the humanist utopia of the League of Nations, sweeping the dust off a dramatic repertory that remains associated with the pre-war years. From this point of view, the announced death of the silent cinema adds to the darkening of the economic horizon, and tarnishes the dreams of a universal harmony around the white screen. Henceforth, Clair’s ambiguous status dedicates him to defend nothing but a compromise. If he has decided upon a mission which many in his cohort can rally, it is that of saving what can be saved – by confronting the partisans of art for art’s sake to those of profit, by adopting the realistic accents of a mediator. And his very attacks against the theatre establishment are part of a desire for conciliation; he doesn’t intend to establish a radical rupture between the stage and the screen, but only to dissipate the misunderstandings that prevent to see clearly what is being talked about.

Les Deux Timides

While the reign of sound film establishes itself more and more loudly, Clair will find himself almost officially inducted in this role of intermediary, who attempts to throw bridges between two now antagonistic systems. From 1928, he softens his lamentations, anxious to go towards the future as he obstinately looks to the past. There again, his involvement with the pen takes up his work behind the camera. It is the year in which he directs Les Deux Timides, multiplying these sly references to sound that enable him to anticipate technical innovations, while almost demonstrating through absurdity the infinite resources of visual writing. To the point that we ask ourselves if this unstable position is not the one that responds the best to his double vocation. A filmmaker who remains in his heart a writer, he never flourishes more freely than through contortion, discrepancy, the more or less obligatory dialectic of the two disciplines. This balancing fully satisfies his taste for paradox, and the precious pleasure he finds in being in one place while being elsewhere, in confusing any too limited identification of his personal point of view. Above all, it allows him to locate himself in a structure that can be transgressed. Par excellence, Clair is the in-between man whose moving backwards inaugurates a new era in the history of an art and redefines the rules through a lover’s confrontation with literature. In his obsession to define cinema in terms of what it should not be, in his ambition to render the written word purely visual, there is a form of adolescent provocation – which indirectly perpetuates the authority that it intends to overthrow.

At the birth of what was called the talkies, this ensures him the authority of a privileged witness, of an already institutionalised commentator. We can imagine that his contemporaries might have found a certain security in Clair’s argument – a veritable chorus from antiquity about the accession of sound, which noted the catastrophe with fatalism, while suggesting eventual consolation. With the passage of time, Clair’s assessment of the situation proved accurate. As far from L’Herbier’s sense of defeat as from Pagnol’s sense of triumph, Clair is one of the few who attempt to think about the speaking film, to study the risks but also the stakes and the advantages. He is able to give free range to all the subtleties of his thought in a 1929 series of articles. There, he recounts his first impressions in front of the sound films that he sees in London:

It is the alternating use of the image of a subject and of the sound produced by this subject – and not their simultaneous use – that creates the best effects of the speaking and sound cinema.

We will have recognized the premises of an idea that will be developed notably in Le Million – with the lovers pressed against the décor, expressing their sentiments in silence, on the fringe of the thundering passions of the foreground. This principle of alternating the image and the sound is completely emblematic of a policy of diversion – that consists of investing the new technology from within while ironically deconstructing its “reality” effect; in this way, Clair hopes to avoid the increase in verisimilitude and the weight of incarnation implied by speech, by maintaining it in a state of weightlessness, detached from its support, deprived of an identifiable subjectivity. At the same time, it is a question of opposing so radically the conventions of the theatrical word and of the pantomime that these can only produce an original language – irreducible to any tradition, and founding its unique poetry on an exaggerated derision of the two others. More than ever, it is about defining the specificity of a vocabulary, that would belong neither to the dramatic arts nor to silent art, and that would find its legitimacy in a system of sophisticated signs. It is here that Clair’s vocation as a lawmaker fulfils itself with the greatest brilliance: he can only accept technical progress as long as he can determine its limits, its goals and its justifications. His remarks do not constitute a theoretical system. Rather, it is a constitutive discourse, a preliminary grammar – that his first sound films would only have to illustrate as in so many school exercises.

Above all, he attempts to preserve the sovereignty of the spirit over matter, to intellectualise all that could be born from this new invention and might escape any plans for a writing system. This is what renders Clair’s thought extremely ingenious, but stiff, blocked by the very excess of its totalising ambition. Everything occurs as though one must at all costs neutralize the excesses of the real, by dissociating elements that are present and lending them a purely intellectual coherence. In this way, Clair applies well and truly the logic of diversion about which we spoke – by creating in all his work a fantasy that is neither realist nor surrealist, the style of which is born from an abstract contradiction between two antinomic logics. We see him obeying a simultaneous movement of experimentation and petrification – because he endeavours to explore the resources of sound better to insert them in an interior world that is deliberately rigid. In the end, it is only a question of repeating a childlike process of language learning, by introducing subtle displacements that never do anything but reinforce the return of the same.

In terms of the true talkies, what we know is the argument between Clair and Pagnol. It has itself become frozen like an Epinal image, as academic as the traditional parallel between Racine and Corneille. In truth, the peremptory declarations of the author of Topaze will allow Clair to radicalise his position but also to qualify certain points. Pagnol, beyond rhetorical jousting, joins Clair in reclaiming what was his since the end of silent film, the recognition of his role as ‘auteur’ as a creator in his own right. What remains is an examination of the specific meaning that Clair gives to the concept of “auteur” – not exactly the same view as Pagnol’s. Paradoxically, we might say that the “auteurisme” defended by Clair is fundamentally more literary than that of his opponent. For Pagnol, it was a matter of conveying theatrical productions through the cinema, by using an inspired empiricism that becomes in turn an autonomous creation. For Clair, the important thing was to ensure even in the studios the unique authority of the writer – to the point that he sees the production of a film as a formality, subordinated to the genesis of the screenplay. If the author is omnipresent, it is first of all on paper, in the context of an individual project that attempts to ward off as much as possible the unpredictable and that precisely would belong to a theatrical emulation. It is indeed a situation which imposes the idea of an “author/legislator”, who constantly worries about keeping what has already been obtained. In this manner, the legislator’s program tends to constrain the ambitions of the author, to inscribe them in a discourse that seems to demystify their application. Clair, here, is definitely the mouthpiece of a difficult maturation – that is initially expressed through questions about vocabulary. Whatever the perverse effects of this wish to put everything into words, it answers to a need that was vital for French filmmakers from 1925-1935 – that of defining their activity precisely and of achieving legitimacy even if it meant taking up an old terminology. We understand, then, why Clair could not be claimed by the New Wave as the founder of “the author policy” – in the same way as were Pagnol, Guitry or Renoir. One would have to talk about “the policy of an author”, which combines a splendid isolation with a kind of impersonalism. Clair’s auteurism is organized around a sovereign individual, who claims to master from beginning to end the different stages of the production of his/her work. Nonetheless, this individual reveals itself as strangely absent, as though dispersed among the multiplicity of his/her functions and by the universal value that he/she claims to give them.

In truth, this auteur policy continues to be defined essentially through resisting the policy of the producer, a negative attitude that amounts to restoring the figure of the writer as an inaccessible ideal faced with abuses and compromises of all sorts. If the arrival of sound completed this self-portrait as martyr, Clair had begun sketching it from the end of the silent film – and remarkably with a lecture titled in an aggressively prophetic manner: “The cinematograph against the spirit.” Beginning with the diverse influences that he sees intervening at each stage of his work through the final destruction of the film, he reviews everything that alienates the dreams of the creator. Beyond a legitimate recognition of the increasing power of the producer, this fatalism has deeper implications; by dint of widening the gap between the cinema as it is, and as it ought to be, by dint of stressing the discrepancy between the author of films and his coarse intermediaries, Clair does not stop representing himself in a noble masochistic attitude. As he grows older, he accentuates this distance, which seems to be one of a man of letters lost in the studios, constantly obliged to curb his ambitions because of petty circumstance, whose idea itself of the cinema seems never to intersect with the reality of the profession. Here, we can see a duality that haunts all his work. He never claims to be a writer-filmmaker (as will Cocteau) but a filmmaker frustrated in his vocation as a writer, exiled from himself and dedicated to evoking with nostalgia the creator that he might have been. This is why we can really speak about an inverted auteurism. This is why Clair’s speech, as imperious as it might wish to be, ends up by seeming a self-sufficient structure, detached from its object, acting as a screen, so to speak, against cinematic creation itself.

It is also this double point of view that puts Clair in a precarious position each time he confronts a technological innovation, and attempts to establish limits in the name of creative freedom. As soon as an improvement appears, Clair battles against this new windmill, invoking a concept of realism that seems more and more ambiguous. The realism that he defends is never anything but a realism that does not say its name, that is not seen, that is submitted to a scrupulous discretion. In this spirit, for example, he recalls the virtues of a transparent editing, that anticipates the criticisms of Bazin by presenting itself as an immediate intermediary. In opposition, he confesses very strong reservations at the advent of cinemascope. In this context, he evokes the ghost of fairground entertainment or of theatrical effects – in order to better confirm the novelistic subtleties of the cinematographic language. Above all, he criticizes the standardization of the new format that would finally erase the diversities of register. We recognize his constant concern about maintaining the author of films in a half-light, master of the game but never in too obvious a manner, a puppet master who keeps the secrets of his art to himself. In this his mysticism of transparency differs significantly from that of Bazin. Realism does not reside for Clair in a complete assumption of all aspects of reality. It is, rather, the humble acceptance of a certain number of codes that produces the effect of verisimilitude and which (as decreed by Boileau) does not necessarily coincide with the truth. In the end, it is important to maintain an illusion of reality the conventions of which would be shared communally. Clair continues to defend cinema as a language the rules of which he helped determine and refine. But once it is accepted, it seems that it must be frozen once and for all in a universal form of exchange, and as such intangible – unless we return to the threat of Babel, which already haunted the first years of sound film. Thus we find again the old utopia of Esperanto dear to the cinephiles of the 3rd Republic. In truth, this realism remains inseparable from humanism, from a persistently innocent representation. Clair was part of that generation that believed in the purification of the language by cinema – and who for that very reason abdicated any criticism of the new vocabulary.

If it were necessary to isolate the evolution of Clair’s commentaries on the cinema over half a century, we would have to speak of a perpetual advance in reverse. It would be an endless effort to model oneself on the smallest moves of the cinema and at the same time to contain this advance inside an intellectual construct in which it seems immobilized. As soon as he anticipates all the implications of a new technique, it is always with the ulterior motive of engraving it in marble. Clair was the first to be aware of the precariousness of this situation, that consists in writing in the sand – because before seeing himself as a lawmaker, even as an author, he was a historian at heart. Very early, and more than any of his peers, he intimately felt the mortality of film and the fragility of cinematic modes. We might even ask ourselves if he were not the first filmmaker to think about his art in historical terms. He has the candid stubbornness of a sentry, who awakens only to see a piece of the past crumble – and who dedicates himself to saving what has been lost, to repairing the ravages of time, while often being reduced to recording them. Thus, all his writings on the cinema constitute a long memento mori – in which the seriousness of his ideas barely hides the darkness of his vision, which sometimes takes the form of irony, other times that of elegy. It is this double tone that he adopts, for example, when requesting a law that would forbid the accelerated projection of silent film and the absurd contradictions that it provokes:

If cinema had been invented earlier, how many historical events would had the same fate and would appear on the screen as episodes in a burlesque comedy (.) At Fontainebleau, a shaky Napoleon would say goodbye, Danton would dance on his fatal cart, and Joan of Arc would skip along on the Grand’Place of Rouen. And would we be satisfied by the perfect reproduction that memory had not imperceptibly retouched? (.) The poet asked time to stop its flight and the best of machines will never grant this wish. The passage of propitious hours does not stop except in memory.

This text is less trivial than it appears, and all Clair’s ambivalence is revealed in a minor key. On the one hand, he jokes about the perverse and comic effects of the acceleration of the silent film; on the other, he expresses his romantic regrets which regularly return in his work like a repressed temptation. In truth, we touch the essence of his reflexion on cinema – as though he had to resort to all the subtleties of reason in order to appease his lamentations. His thwarted passion is that of a man who used to believe in the eternity of the film object – and who realized all the more sharply its perishable nature. In front of the cinema, René Clair is to some degree the journalist of It Happened Tomorrow, first thrilled with the power to reverse the course of time. But little by little, the Faustian fantasy shrinks away and the illusion of anticipating the future becomes an unceasing effort to foresee its perils. Thus, the history of cinema can only be written backwards and its future can only be understood through the categories of the past. While he does not stop meditating on the transience of the filmed instant and the unpredictable nature of an art in the making, Clair always tries to stabilize that moment – that is to say to save its human aspect. In all respects, he remains the man of a Word in search of incarnation, of a founding logos which is caught under its overly academic constructions. That is why one must not seek in his work a cinema ethic, similar to that developed by the prophets of the New Wave.. One rather feels that even in his excessive subtleties, Clair’s discourse unfurls better than any other a lucid reading of the cinema – which refuses all mysticism in order to assume à la lettre, literally, all the contradictions of an impure art.

About The Author

Noël Herpe currently teaches French literature and French cinema at the University of Chicago. He writes for the journal Positif, and works as an adviser for the foreign selection of the Cannes Film Festival.