Le Million (René Clair / France, 1931):

Cinema is the revelry that keeps us up at night, says René Clair, the audience peeps in through the skylight window for a tale that is told. (The opening view of the slanting cityscape advances on Under the Roofs of Paris, his maquette boasts a chiming clock tower and a vertiginous foretaste of Polanski's Frantic.) The penniless painter (René Lefèvre) has but an unfinished canvas to show for his "bohemian" status, the fair-weather chum (Jean-Louis Allibert) and the ballerina he's "sort of engaged" to (Annabella) and a horde of creditors crowd the atelier. The winning lottery ticket in the ratty coat gets the gears spinning—off it goes with Granpère Tullipe (Paul Ollivier), a sort of cuddly Doctor Mabuse, then to the Opèra Lyrique for the supercilious tenor (Constantin Siroesco). "Fripouille! Assassin! Artiste!" Figures in a chase like funambulists on their tiptoes, that's the Clair way, mime and song in intricate, continuous play. The chorus is a cry for debtors or a cad's guilty conscience or an underworld anthem ("foot soldiers of inequity," pickpockets call themselves), even cocked pistols sway to the music. The centerpiece merrily shades artifice into romance, or vice-versa: The juveniles reconcile in the ersatz forest while Signore Sopranelli and his prima donna pitch fraudulent woo by the footlights, a stagehand blesses it all from above with a shower of rose petals. (The scenery promptly comes apart afterwards in a flash adduced by Welles for Citizen Kane.) Et voilà, as Duchamp would say, a happy ending for "la loterie aveugle." The thunderous aria that becomes a rugby match for the Marx Brothers, the barmy prisoner in trunks and bowler hat for Monty Python, the whole kit 'n' caboodle for Sturges (Christmas in July). Cinematography by Georges Périnal. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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