The René Clair story goes like this: once considered one of the greatest of French filmmakers, Clair was lambasted by the Cahiers du cinema crowd for studio-bound artifice, lightweight story hyperconstruction, and quintessentially French cuteness, and his reputation plummeted into a critical darkness from which it has yet to reemerge. Comparisons to Vigo and Renoir are daunting, inevitable, and unfair; Clair comes off today as a fabulously charming, inventive, stylish cinematic sensibility, with at least one entrancing masterpiece, A Nous la liberté (1934). I wouldn’t trade that one bewitching, faux-modern fable for any five Chaplins, Pagnols, or Lubitschs.
He would’ve been 100 this month, so this MOMA retro (through December 13) is hoisting out 13 of Clair’s French films, made before and after his various exiles. (He spent half of the ’40s in Hollywood, where he put an indifferent stamp on I Married a Witch and And Then There Were None.) Of course, his early films are filthy with innovation and formal élan, juggling pop scores, choreographed movement, wild sound, and elaborate mise-en-scène, and if anything, they’ve gained an antiquey dreaminess with the years. Liberté is required viewing, and though any film student can tell you that Entr’acte (1924) is an overhistoricized dadaist goof, few could direct you to Paris qui dort (1923) and Le Voyage imaginaire (1925), satiric post-Melies fantasias both. The Italian Straw Hat (1927) is almost Keaton-esque in its precise comedic beats, Sous les toits de Paris (1930) and Le Million (1931) rewrote with Mamoulian the handbook on early-sound camera movement, and Quatorze juillet (1932) is five rarely screened courses of Parisian working-class eccentricity. (Some of the movies, including the last three, have no English subtitles.) Nowhere in town is there a juicier helping of movie love.