Clair, René (1898–1981) By Leskosky, Richard J.
Filmmaker, novelist, and critic René Clair (original name René-Lucien Chomette) was one of the foremost French film directors of the 1920s and 1930s. His first film, Paris qui dort [The Crazy Ray] (1923) combined Surrealism and science fiction and generated images of a Paris frozen in time. His second, Entr’acte (1924), created to be shown between the acts of Francis Picabia’s dadaist ballet Relache, became the epitome of dadaist film with its innovative comedy and random images. His lyrical Eiffel Tower documentary, La Tour [The Tower] (1928), presents an impressionistic montage of the structure’s details. Clair’s silent features, such as Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie [An Italian Straw Hat] (1927), achieved international renown, and he dominated the early sound period with Sous les toits de Paris [Under the Roofs of Paris] (1930) and A nous la liberté (1931). The latter’s sophisticated use of diegetic and non-diegetic sound demonstrated a profound mastery of the new technology. Its Surrealism-tinged take on capitalism arguably influenced sections of Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). A recurring Clair theme concerns his protagonist achieving wealth and then losing it but nonetheless (re)gaining happiness. Clair’s career continued with comedies and fantasies in England and America and a postwar return to France, but his critical standing never regained its 1930s’ heights, partly due to the biases of Nouvelle vague [French New Wave] critics.