René Clair - Director

Nationality: French. Born: René Chomette in Paris, 11 November 1898. Education: Lycée Montaigne, and Lycée Louis-le-Grand, Paris, 1913–17. Military Service: Served in Ambulance Corps, 1917. Family: Married Bronya Perlmutter, 1926, one son. Career: Retired to Dominican monastery, 1918; began acting at Gaumont studios, 1920; as René Clair, became film editor of Le Théâtre et comoedia illustré , Paris, 1922; directed first film, Paris qui dort ,

René Clair
René Clair
1923; directed for Alexander Korda in Britain, 1935–38; immigrated to United States and signed to Universal, 1940; returned to Paris, 1946. Awards: Honorary doctorate, Cambridge University, 1956; elected to Academie Française, 1960; Doctor Honoris Causa , Royal College of Arts, London, 1967; Commander of the Legion of Honour; Commander of Arts and Letters; Commander of the Italian Order of Merit. Died: In Neuilly, France, 15 March 1981.

Films as Director:


Paris qui dort (+ sc, ed)


Entr'acte ; Le Fantôme du Moulin Rouge (+ sc)


Le Voyage imaginaire (+ sc)


La Proie du vent (+ sc)


Un Chapeau de paille d'Italie (+ sc)


La Tour (+ sc); Les Deux Timides (+ sc)


Sous les toits de Paris (+ sc)


Le Million (+ sc); A Nous la liberté (+ sc)


Quatorze Juillet (+ sc)


Le Dernier Milliardaire (+ sc)


The Ghost Goes West (+ co-sc)


Break the News (+ co-sc)


Air pur (+ sc) (uncompleted)


The Flame of New Orleans (+ co-sc)


Sketch featuring Ida Lupino in Forever and a Day (Lloyd) (+ sc); I Married a Witch (+ co-sc, pr)


It Happened Tomorrow (+ co-sc)


And Then There Were None (+ co-sc, pr)


Le Silence est d'or (+ pr, sc)


La Beauté du diable (+ co-sc, pr)


Les Belles-de-nuit (+ sc, pr)


Les Grandes Manoeuvres (+ co-sc, pr)


Porte des Lilas (+ co-sc, pr)


"Le Mariage" episode of La Française et l'amour (+ sc)


Tout l'or du monde (+ co-sc, pr)


"Les Deux Pigeons" episode of Les Quatres vérités (+ sc)


Les Fêtes galantes (+ pr, sc)

Other Films:


Le Lys de la Vie (Fuller) (role); Les Deux Gamines (Feuillade—serial) (role)


Le Sens de la mort (Protozanoff) (role); L'Orpheline (Feuillade) (role); Parisette (Feuillade—serial) (role)


Parisette (Feuillade) (role)


Prix de beauté ( Miss Europe ) (Genina) (sc contribution)


Un Village dans Paris (co-pr)


La Grande Époque (French version of Robert Youngson's The Golden Age of Comedy ) (narrator)


By CLAIR: books—

De fil en aiguille , Paris, 1951.

La Princesse de Chine , Paris, 1951.

Réflexion faite , Paris, 1951.

Reflections on the Cinema , London, 1953.

Comédies et commentaires , Paris, 1959.

Tout l'or du monde , Paris, 1962.

"À nous la liberté" and "Entr'acte, " New York, 1970.

Four Screenplays , New York, 1970.

Cinema Yesterday and Today , New York, 1972.

Jeux d'hasard , Paris, 1976.

By CLAIR: articles—

"A Conversation with René Clair," with Bernard Causton, in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1933.

" It Happened Tomorrow ," with Dudley Nichols, in Theatre Arts (New York), June 1944.

"Television and Cinema," in Sight and Sound (London), January 1951.

"René Clair in Moscow," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1955/56.

"Nothing Is More Artificial than Neo-realism," in Films and Filming (London), June 1957.

"Picabia, Satie et la première d' Entr'acte ," in L'Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), November 1968.

"René Clair in Hollywood," an interview with R.C. Dale, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley, California), Winter 1970/71. Interview in Encountering Directors by Charles Samuels, New York, 1972.

"A Conversation with René Clair," with John Baxter and John Gillett, in Focus on Film (London), Winter 1972.

"René Clair," interviews with Patrick McGilligan and Debra Weiner, in Take One (Montreal), January/February 1973 and May 1974.

"René Clair at 80," an interview with G. Mason, in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), vol. 10, no. 2, 1982.

Interview in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), March 1988.

On CLAIR: books—

Viazzi, G., René Clair , Milan, 1946.

Bourgeois, J., René Clair , Geneva, 1949.

Charensol, Georges, and Roger Régent, Un Maître du cinéma: René Clair , Paris, 1952.

Charensol, George, René Clair et Les Belles de nuit , Paris, 1953.

De La Roche, Catherine, René Clair, an Index , London, 1958.

Mitry, Jean, René Clair , Paris, 1960.

Amengual, Barthélemy, René Clair , Paris, 1969.

Barrot, Olivier, René Clair; ou, Le Temps mesuré , Renens, 1985.

Greene, Naomi, René Clair: A Guide to References and Resources , Boston, 1985.

Dale, R.C., The Films of René Clair , 2 vols, Metuchen, New Jersey, 1986.

On CLAIR: articles—

Potamkin, Harry, "René Clair and Film Humor," in Hound and Horn (New York), October/December 1932.

Jacobs, Louis, "The Films of René Clair," in New Theatre (New York), February 1936.

Lambert, Gavin, "The Films of René Clair," in Sequence (London), no. 6, 1949.

"Clair Issue" of Bianco e Nero (Rome), August/September 1951.

Gauteur, Claude, "René Clair, hélas. . . !" in Image et Son (Paris), June 1963.

Beylie, Claude, " Entr'acte , le film sans maître," in Cinéma (Paris), February 1969.

Fraenkel, Helene, " It Happened Tomorrow ," in Films in Review (New York), August/September 1974.

Fischer, Lucy, "René Clair, Le Million , and the Coming of Sound," in Cinema Journal (Evanston, Illinois), Spring 1977.

Carroll, Noel, " Entr'acte , Paris and Dada," in Millenium Film Journal (New York), Winter 1977/78.

Grignaffini, Giovanna, "René Clair" (special issue), Castoro Cinema (Firenze), no. 69, 1979.

Haustrate, Gaston, "René Clair: était-il un grand cinéaste?," in Cinéma (Paris), April 1981.

Adair, Gilbert, "Utopia Ltd., the Cinema of René Clair," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1981.

" Sous les toits de Paris Issue" of Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), 1 February 1982.

Oms, M., and J. Baldizzone, "Entretien avec Rene Clair," in in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), no. 35–36, Autumn 1982.

Kramer, S.P., "René Clair: Situation and Sensibility in A nous la liberté ," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), April 1984.

Vittorini, E., "Nella poetica di Clair una lezione di linguaggio," in Cinema Nuovo (Bari), March-April 1986.

Faulkner, Christopher, "René Clair, Marcel Pagnol, and the Social Dimension of Speech," Filmfax (Evanston, Illinois), no. 36, December-January 1992–93.

Renard, P., "Louis Delluc, Rene Clair," in Positif (Paris), no. 383, January 1993.

Herpe, N., "Rene Clair," in Positif (Paris), no. 384, February 1993.

Cremonini, G., "Aweune domani di Rene Clair," in Cineforum (Bergamo), vol. 33, May 1993.

Trémois, C.-M., "La belle époque de Rene Clair," in Télérama (Paris), 8 September 1993.

Alion, Yves, "Rene Clair," in Mensuel du Cinema (Paris), no. 10, October 1993.

On CLAIR: film—

Knapp, Hubert, and Igor Barrère, Le Rouge est mis (documentary on making of Les Belles de nuit ), 1952.

* * *

During the 1930s, when the French cinema reigned intellectually preeminent, René Clair ranked with Renoir and Carné as one of its greatest directors—perhaps the most archetypally French of them all. His reputation has since fallen (as has Carné's), and comparison with Renoir may suggest why. Clair's work, though witty, stylish, charming, and technically accomplished, seems to lack a dimension when compared with the work of Renoir; there is a certain oversimplification, a fastidious turning away from the messier, more complex aspects of life. (Throughout nearly the whole of his career, Clair rejected location shooting, preferring the controllable artifice of the studio.) Critics have alleged that his films are superficial and emotionally detached. Yet, at their best, Clair's films have much of the quality of champagne—given so much sparkle and exhilaration, it would seem churlish to demand nourishment as well.

At the outset of his career, Clair directed one of the classic documents of surrealist cinema, Entr'acte , and this grounding in surrealism underlies much of his comedy work. The surrealists' love of sight gags (Magritte's cloud-baguettes, Duchamp's urinal) and mocking contempt for bourgeois respectability can be detected in the satiric farce of Un Chapeau de paille d'Italie , Clair's masterpiece of the silent era. Dream imagery, another surrealist preoccupation, recurs constantly throughout his career, from Le Voyage imaginaire to Les Belles-de-nuit , often transmuted into fantasy—touchingly poetic at its best, though in weaker moments declining into fey whimsicality.

The key films in Clair's early career, and those which made him internationally famous, were his first four sound pictures: Sous les toits de Paris, Le Million, A Nous la liberté , and Quatorze Juillet. Initially sceptical of the value of sound—"an unnatural creation"—he rapidly changed his opinion when he recognized the creative, nonrealistic possibilities which the soundtrack offered. Sound effects, music, even dialogue could be used imaginatively to counterpoint and comment on the image, or to suggest a new perspective on the action. Words and pictures, Clair showed, need not, and in fact should not, be tied together in a manner that clumsily duplicates information. Dialogue need not always be audible; and even in a sound picture, silence could claim a validity of its own.

In these four films, Clair created a wholly individual cinematic world, a distinctive blend of fantasy, romance, social satire, and operetta. Song and dance are introduced into the action with no pretence at literal realism, characters are drawn largely from stock, and the elaborate sets are explored with an effortless fluidity of camera movement which would be impossible in real locations. These qualities, together with the pioneering use of sound and Clair's knack for effective pacing and brilliant visual gags, resulted in films of exceptional appeal, full of charm, gaiety, and an ironic wit which at times—notably in the satire on mechanised greed in A Nous la liberté —darkened towards an underlying pessimism.

As always, Clair wrote his own scripts, working closely on all four films with designer Lazare Meerson and cinematographer Georges Périnal. Of the four, Le Million most effectively integrated its various elements, and is generally rated Clair's finest film. But all were successful, especially outside France, and highly influential: both Chaplin ( Modern Times ) and the Marx Brothers ( A Night at the Opera ) borrowed from them.

In some quarters, though, Clair was criticized for lack of social relevance. Ill-advisedly, he attempted to respond to such criticisms; Le Dernier Milliardaire proved a resounding flop. This led to Clair's long exile. For thirteen years he made no films in France other than the abortive Air pur , and his six English-language pictures—two in Britain, four in America—have an uneasy feel about them, the fantasy strained and unconvincing. By the time Clair finally returned to France in 1946, both he and the world had changed.

The films that Clair made after World War II rarely recapture the lighthearted gaiety of his early work. In its place, the best of them display a new-found maturity and emotional depth, while preserving the characteristic elegance and wit of his previous films. The prevailing mood is an autumnal melancholy that at times, as in the elegiac close of Les Grandes Manoeuvres , comes near to tragedy. Characters are no longer the stock puppets of the pre-war satires, but rounded individuals, capable of feeling and suffering. More serious subjects are confronted, their edges only slightly softened by their context: Porte des Lilas ends with a murder, La Beauté du diable with a vision of the atomic holocaust. Nearest in mood to the earlier films is the erotic fantasy of Les Belles-de-nuit , but even this is darkly underscored with intimations of suicide.

In the late 1950s Clair came under attack from the writers of Cahiers du Cinéma , François Truffaut in particular, who regarded him as the embodiment of the "Old Guard," the ossified cinéma de papa against which they were in revolt. To what he saw as Clair's emotionless, studio-bound artifice, Truffaut proposed an alternative, more "truly French" cinematic tradition, the lyrical freedom of Renoir and Jean Vigo. Clair's reputation never fully recovered from these onslaughts, nor from the lukewarm reception which met his last two films, Tout l'or du monde and Les Fêtes galantes. Although Clair no longer commands a place among the very first rank of directors, he remains undoubtedly one of the most original and distinctive stylists of the cinema. His explorations of sound, movement, and narrative technique, liberating at the time, still appear fresh and inventive. For all his limitations, which he readily acknowledged—"a director's intelligence," he once wrote, "can be judged partly by his renunciations"—Clair succeeded in creating a uniquely personal vision of the world, which in his best films still retains the power to exhilarate and delight.

—Philip Kemp

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