The Guillotine: Twentieth-Century Classics That Won't Last - No 16: Rene Clair

Film history has always had its own history and, even if there now does exist a canon of sorts, discoveries are still possible, reassessments and re-evaluations seem to be made on an almost annual basis, and certain artists whose niche in the pantheon had seemed for ever secure find themselves ignominiously ousted from it.

Such has been the fate of Rene Clair, once arguably the most celebrated of all French film-makers, director of Le Million, Sous les toits de Paris, Quatorze Juillet, and numerous other titles still calculated to prompt a nostalgic frisson among former frequenters of the Academy and Paris Pullman art-house cinemas. He who was compared (favourably) to Mozart by the critic James Agee, who was universally esteemed as one of the medium's rare geniuses, who influenced Chaplin and Lubitsch, Minnelli and Billy Wilder, Truffaut and Demy, has now - without having suffered the sometimes meritorious indignity of being harshly condemned or the sometimes merciful one of being totally forgotten - come to be regarded as superfluous to it.

Why so? Perhaps, primarily, because his work was ahead of its time. Ahead of its time? But, I hear you protest, surely the artists likeliest to be reclaimed by posterity are precisely those whose work was long described as "ahead of its time". Well, yes, but Clair is a case apart.

The principal ingredient of his oeuvre was its nostalgia. Clair was apparently born nostalgic (like the elderly gentleman in his 1952 time-travelling comedy Les Belles de nuit who, even in the Stone Age, pines wistfully for the good old days). Out of 25 features, just over half were set either wholly or partly in the past; others in a deliciously anachronistic Paris of which the Eiffel Tower, its spindly capital A soaring over the city's rooftops, was the emblematic logo; and still others juxtaposed contemporary urban values with traditional rural ones, the former caricatured, the latter idealised. In fact, his droll silent adaptation of Labiche's Un chapeau de paille d'Italie (better-known in Britain as An Italian Straw Hat) was so imbued with nostalgia for the frivolous charms of the Belle Epoque that one irate cinema owner complained to the distributors that they had sent him an "old film".

Clair, in short, had both the prescience and the exceptional ill-fortune to be nostalgic before it was fashionable to be nostalgic.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test