1001 Movies – À Nous la Liberté (1931)

a nous la liberteSeeking better life, two convicts escape from prison.

Brief Thoughts

Before: I hope this is better than last week’s French translation. With the storm outside it feels like perfect weather to watch a classic black and white film

After: Well that was something… I think I liked it… maybe… I’m not sure if it was supposed to be contemporary France or a fascist state though.

Idea

I really like the idea, it’s a really French idea. one man manages to escape from prison and becomes an upstanding member of society and runs a factory (Valjean/Les Mis anyone?). if this film hadn’t been French I think it would have been much more serious and not quite and wacky as it ended up being. Oh and also it’s kinda a musical, there is much more singing than talking and there isn’t much of either.
I love that this is just randomly a musical, I did not see that coming at all and it just lightened up my day. Men singing about how it’s just the two of them against the world, how they are going to escape from prison, and also how work is freedom and singing songs on the factory line.

I’m not sure if this is supposed to be contemporary France or a fascist society. Because it definitely starts like contemporary France and then we discover that kids are singing songs at school with these words ‘work is mandatory. Through work we have freedom’. I checked with my French mother and apparently she didn’t sing that song when she was at school and there was no mention of that part of the countries history in her lessons.  I did some research and according to what I found it’s based around the factory and industrial ideas from the Ford factories in the states. So I think it’s supposed to be a fascist state not actually France, but I can’t be 100% certain.

The film centre on the idea of freedom and what that means (it’s in the title. It’s not hiding), and liberty is in intrinsic part of society – which is why I think it’s supposed to be a fascist state – it was one of the basis of the French revolution (Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité!). So it was really interesting watching a film that is so clearly about what it means to be free and the different kinds of freedoms.
It starts with the basic freedom of not being in jail, where they are on a factory line making toy horses. Which is a good kind of freedom and one that most people take for granted. Although never know what the two mean did to be in jail in the first place they are clearly only small time criminals and not murderers.
The next level of freedom is what happens outside of the jail for most people, which is working and being a productive member of society (work is mandatory, through work we are free). The only real difference between these two freedoms is that one is incarnated and in the other you get to go home and are paid. Because it’s pretty much exactly the same job, on a factory line only in the actual factory they are making gramophones. You get the freedom of having some money to spend and choosing what to eat and do with your spare time but I can’t imagine they have much money or spare time to be free with. But they are not in jail and they are contributing to society so yes in that sense they are free. They can make their own choices, they just might have very limited options.
The next level of freedom is for the upper class and the guy who did actually escape. He ends up with plenty of money and owning a factory, paying hundreds of workers who all look to him. How can he abandon them? How will they live if he is not free? (I’m listening to Les Mis right now because it seems fitting). He’s able to do pretty much whatever he wants, he has a very nice house and people hanging off his every word. But he also doesn’t seem very happy and people don’t like him when he’s back with his friend/prison mate again. He’s very serious but as soon as he sees his friend he can’t help but smile and spends most of the rest of the film laughing with him and enjoying the guys company. It’s only when he starts to be blackmailed that there is a sense that he is not truly free and that there is a noose around his neck. What people think of him is so important that it limits his choices and means he picks things that doesn’t necessarily make him happy. And being blackmailed is definitely not being free.
The fourth kind of freedom is what he does when he leaves the factory to his workers (that’s how they’ll live when he is not free). Suddenly they aren’t working for a low salary they get a share of the profits and because they now have machines to make the gramophones they can enjoy their days with their family without society trying to keep them in a certain place. The factory definitely looks to be a much happier place at the end with all the workers smiling rather than sitting in a line not talking to each other and looking grim clocking in and out.
The final kind of freedom in this film is much more subtle and it’s the freedom of love and the relationship between love and money. Because the 2nd guys see’s a pretty woman who works at the factory and wants to marry her. His friend tells her uncle that he wants to marry her and because he has money the uncle agrees. The woman doesn’t but she’s just a silly girl and that’s clearly not important. Her uncle overrides her every time she says no explaining that she doesn’t really have a choice as it comes with a large dowry. She is interested in someone else but doesn’t have the money to freely pick, and she’s a woman. Only at the end when all the workers have money is she able to pick the man she wants without her uncle deciding he knows best for her. Freedom of love is something that is still be argued about know, there might not be as many arranged marriages and dowries to deal with but there are still arguments about being free to love who ever you want irrelevant of their gender or choosing to not want to be with someone.

Plot

This is a really simply plot and won’t take me long to summarise and discuss so I shall put in in bullet point form.

  • Two men try to escape from prison, only one guy manages it.
  • That one guy Valjean’ed his way up society’s social status ladder going from selling gramophones, to helping invent ways to make them better, and then running a factory with a second one opening soon. (From henceforth he shall be known as JVJ – Jean Valjean)
  • 2nd guys gets out of jail, gets chased by police, sees a woman in a window he thinks is pretty and accidentally ends up on the factory line while running from police and stalking the pretty girl
  • Weird flashback scene of being at school at singing about work being mandatory.
  • 2nd guys bumps into JVJ (I genuinely don’t remember their names so we’ll have to stick with JVJ and 2nd guy). JVJ offers him money to stay quiet and 2nd guy stays the night after committing many faux pas’ at dinner. The two men laugh a lot
  • A gang works out who JVJ is because of the way he’s acting with 2nd guy. They blackmail him to stay quiet
  • 2nd guy says he doesn’t want money he wants to marry the pretty woman who works at JVJs factory. JVJ talks to the woman’s uncle and they both agree that this is a good idea because JVJ will pay a lot of money (woman disagrees but that’s not important)
  • Because of the blackmail JVJ decides to take all of his money and run before the police find out because he’s not going to give into the gang.
  • Chase scene around the factory with police, JVJ, 2nd guy, and the blackmailing gang in which the money ends up in a briefcase on the roof. (JVJ doesn’t know where it ends up)
  • JVJ announces his marvellous new machine that makes the gramophones so you don’t need manual workers, but then says he’s leaving and giving the factory to the workers.
  • Police follow JVJ and 2nd guy because they now know who they are.
  • Briefcase is knocked over and open in the wind, workers and police scramble for the money and JVJ and 2nd guy escape and go back onto the road again – singing about how it’s the two of them against the world

The only plot point I really missed out is who the women the 2nd guy wants to marry actually fancies and is with someone else in secret. She refuses to marry the 2nd guy and uses the money that fell from the sky/roof to be with the one she wants to be.

I think this film works because it is so simple, and spends it’s time looking at the themes of friendship and freedom/liberty. If it had tried to do more I’m not convinced it would have succeeded and you definitely would have needed more speech rather than relying on the soundtrack.

Characters

There are really only two main characters but I also want to talk about the woman (again I know I could go and check what their names are using IMDB but that takes effort and I’ll only forget again.)

JVJ – He seems like a nice enough guy, he’s really restricted by society and trying to keep up with appearances. He’s definitely not happy running the factory even though he has loads of money and a nice house.

Other dude – Again seems nice enough, but not that smart. Anyone who gets out of jail by hanging himself from the window is not the smartest tool in the box. He’s also the cause of a number of scooby-do like comedy scenes and chases. Honestly I think he’s a danger to himself as much as to society.

Woman – oh fod f*ck sake. I just looked up what her name is on IMDB and it’s Maud but it’s also ‘the woman of Louis’ (other guy). Seriously. That’s her name ‘Maud, the woman of Louis’. She doesn’t even have full ownership of her name. I only wanted to talk about her because I like how she had enough agency to vocalise how she didn’t want to be with the other guy and now I’m angry. But yey for a woman having a voice in a film and disagreeing with the men around her, even if she doesn’t get a name that’s fully hers.

Music

This film decidedly has a soundtrack going all the way through. There’s not much speech so the music is needed to portray various feelings and explain what’s happening in each scene.

From what I’ve read this is one of the first films to actually have a soundtrack and not incidental music for particular scenes and it’s used really well. I don’t think I would have enjoyed this one if it didn’t have a soundtrack and wasn’t so music based. Even if they’d swapped out the singing and music for talking to each other more. It just made it more fun that I didn’t know when they were going to sing or talk or mime to each other. This is an early version of a film musical and you can’t change my mind, it also clearly takes notes from Les Mis.

Other/Stand out moment

Getting out of a jail cell by hanging yourself (from the neck so actually hanging yourself) and attaching the rest of the rope to the window bars. That could have gone so wrong… and I’m not sure if he wanted it to go wrong or if he ‘knew’ his weight was going to pull a bar out of cement – because it really shouldn’t work.
Also he was back in jail how was he allowed to keep a whole thing of rope on him? Surely officers take that off you when you’re arrested for fear or you using it to escape.

Awards

Oscars: NOMINEE – Best Art Direction

Did I enjoy it? Yeah
Am I glad I watched it? I think so, I had fun with it trying to decide if it was a fascist state or note
Would I watch again? Maybe but probably not
Would I have watched it if not for this challenge? Nope

I did not mean to write 800 words on freedom, but ce la vie.

My next film is my free choice and it’s Chariots of Fire.

One thought on “1001 Movies – À Nous la Liberté (1931)

  1. Wow, major Les Mis vibes lol. Ironically, I just watched Les Mis yesterday, so I can definitely see all the major comparisons. I guess the French just love remembering how poor the industrial working life was. I feel like a lot of French movies harp on themes that revolve around freedom.

    Like

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