Clair, Rene was born on November 11, 1898 in Paris, France.
Clair, Rene was born on November 11, 1898 in Paris, France.
He studied at Lycee Montaigne in Lycee Louis le Grand, Paris.
From the beginning, Clair was intent on ways of gently exposing social absurdity through deliberately artificial farces and by various forms of stylization that sprang from the cinema’s scope for movement and later its capacity for sound. Years later, in a book, Reflexion Faite (1951), Clair stated his faith in the autonomous reality of the concocted image; and it is this prettiness that now seems a crucial handicap.
Thus, there was an academic, mechanical feeling to images that were merely illustrating a meticulous script—the preparation of which Clair has always regarded as the most creative stage in filmmaking. The whimsical and musical fabrication of Le Million, the satire on the machine in A Nous la Liberté, and the studio artifice of Sous les Toits de Paris are notional achievements that smother cinematic- interest with the sheer cleverness of the conception and the technical mastery of the execution.
The comparison between Renoir and Clair shows how much more fruitful open-air realism was in defining the potential of sound pictures. Too often, the human figures in Clair’s tableaux seem to be straining to stand on eggshells in a breeze.
It always was Clair’s practice to surround himself with master craftsmen, such as designer Lazare Meerson and photographer Georges Perinal. At times, he even left subsidiary scenes to be filmed by assistants, with something of Hitchcock’s indifference to the moment in front of the lens. That was a later recourse. On the key films of the earlv 1930s—Sous les Toits de Paris, Le Million, A Nous la Liberté, Quatorze Juillet, and Le Dernier Milliardaire—Clair was fully engaged if greatly aided by Meerson and Perinal. These films show a kindly sympathy for the little man—a Chaplinesque figure—but always dissipate their social criticism through the Méliès-like taste for the fantastic and the elaborate portrait of a toy world.
Clair’s silent films are surprisingly varied. Entracte, for instance, belongs to the most self-indulgent wing of the French avant-garde. Intended as a companion piece to an actual ballet, it was scripted by Francis Picabia and also involved Erik Satie, Duchamp, and Man Ray. Full of visual surrealism, it is almost entirely empty of purpose. More immediately elegant than, say, Un Chien Andalou, it grows stale as Buñuel’s lurcher dog becomes ever rancher. Entracte was a diversion for Clair, not really in character. Paris Qui Dort was a comedy involving a ray that suspends motion; while Voyage Imaginaire was about a voting man who dreams that he travels to fairyland. The Italian Straw Hat, his greatest early success, was taken from a stage farce by Eugene Labiche and Marc Michel and shows his taste for contrived narrative consequences and a rather dandified mocking of the bourgeoisie.
In 1935, Clair went to England for Korda and directed Robert Donat in The Ghost Goes West. He stayed on for Break the News, with Jack Buchanan and Maurice Chevalier. After the abortive Air Pur, he went to Hollywood. His films there are modest but benign, far less vigorous than the American work of Renoir, Lang, or Ophuls. The Flame of New Orleans is a confection that allow's Dietrich to be more than usually tender and is well photographed by Rudolph Maté, who had filmed Le Dernier Milliardaire. I Married a Witch was one of the films that established Veronica Lake, but it and It Happened Tomorrow have a relentlesslv inventive infusion of fantasy that seems mannered. And Then There Were None is a version of Agatha Christies Ten Little Indians, not frightening, not funny, seemingly content with the restraints of the material.
The postwar Clair is perhaps the most interesting. Playfulness slipped away. Le Silence est d’Or is an ironic comedy that has emotional depth; Les Belles de Nuit is a fantasy rooted in sex; while Les Grandes Manoeuvres is a tragi-comedy worthy of Ophuls. Michele Morgan in that film, as a woman uncertain of her lover, Gerard Philipe, is the most mature and touching character creation in Clairs work. The film itself is warmed by color and a loving care for the detail of a 1914 barracks town. Porte des Lilas was again a more sombre film, with a fine performance from Pierre Brasseur. After that, Clair’s work slipped back into shallow comedies and fragments.
Member Academie Francaise.
Clair now looks something less than the major director he was known as in 1935. His work since that first venturing outside France has seldom lacked amusement or a sense of fantasy, but it does seem lightweight. Even his finest films—those made in the first experiment of sound—are rather precious and too vaguely opposed to “progress” when set beside L'Age d’Or, L'Atalante, Boudu, or Toni. Clair's world is brilliantly conceived and wrought, but it remains self-contained.
Increasingly, the orchestration of sounds and the balletic view of activity feel as emotionally detached as his slightly fey preference for the idea of companionship to the complexity of emotional reality. The comedy is slow and mannered, and the films have shrunk into glowing, ingenious miniatures. The adventurous range of a Vigo or Renoir are the highest comparisons, but Clair does not match up to them. Perhaps it is the very “finished” gloss on his films, the tying into decorative bow's of loose ends, that makes his work seem too neat and restricted.
Wounded in the First World War, he spent some time in a monastery but soon opted for journalism. As well as writing film criticism he worked as an actor: Les Deux Gamines (20, Louis Feuillade); Parisette (21, Feuillade); L’Oi-pheline (21, Feuillade); Pour une Nuit d’Amour (21, Jacob Protazanov); and Le Sens de la Mort (22, Protazanov). Clair w'as assistant to Jacques de Baron- eelli before starting to direct himself.
Married Bronja Clair, 1925.