The Guillotine: Twentieth-Century Classics That Won't Last - No 16: Rene Clair
Sunday 25 April 1999
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.
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