Tuesday, October 12, 2010

#72: Le Million

(René Clair, 1931)

I almost hated Le Million. OK, maybe not hated, but it's never a good idea to thrust a musical on me unexpected. I had no idea there was singing involved in Le Million, and when people randomly break into song, well, I tend to get angry. The first half of the movie didn't go particularly well for me. "Why can't they just talk?" was a common refrain.

Then I relaxed and let an obviously brilliant movie made by a clearly innovative and inventive director wash over me. Le Million isn't contemporary the way some films will remain forever. It is most certainly of its time. But it's light and fresh as the day it was made, more of an anachronism than an artifact whose appeal has long since been lost to time. I was genuinely interested in how the film would end, and completely delighted by the process of getting there.

The most famous scene in Le Million is probably the scene in which the jacket containing the million dollar ticket is tossed around to a completely non-diagetic football soundtrack. It's incredibly smart, and just as funny as the day it was made. Yet it's also sort of astonishing if you think about it in the context of film history. Imagine, only a few years after sound was established in film, using it as a comedic punchline, playing off the story told visually. This was an entirely new form of comedy, something that, to my knowledge, had never been done before. There are only a few people in film - in history of any kind - who can honestly be credited with the invention of a new way of presenting humor. It makes Clair a much more relevant artist than he has often gotten credit for, as he is often forgotten as a pioneer of French cinema rather than a truly ingenious director who can measure up with other artists.

Le Million isn't quite perfect. I think it was a mistake to give away the ending of the film at the beginning, and I don't understand why his friend is such a dick if there isn't a pay off at the end where he has a chance to redeem himself. But it's still the kind of movie that reminds you that modern filmmakers are standing on the shoulders of giants, many of whom haven't been surpassed yet.


  1. I really enjoy those old Rene Clair titles in the Criterion Collection, and will periodically put them in the player just to hear one of those old songs. I'm glad you got over your initial aversion and were able to go with it! My favorite part is the romantic duet "We are alone in the woods" - a very sweet little scene, and funny in its context. And some really cool model sets to open the film, amazing bit of optical illusion there...

  2. Despite my dislike of the prologue plot-wise, I totally agree about the models at the beginning. The whole scene is really clever and well done.

    I had seen A Nous La Liberte before, so really there was no reason for me to not expect singing in the movie. And it's funny, I don't mind musicals, I even love a few of them (most recently Ozon's 8 Women). I guess I just like being in the musical mindset from the start. It's one of the ways in which I am truly of my time, I guess.

    As an aside, I assume you also watched the great interview with Clair on this DVD, where he makes the best case for silent cinema as a lost medium that I've ever heard. It almost made me wonder what we would have these days if silent film had been allowed to evolve alongside talkies. The closest thing we have to them at this point is music videos, but a full length silent feature (not in the retro style of Guy Maddin, but in a truly modern application) would be incredibly fascinating, particularly if it was a comedy.