Le Million (1931)


  • directed by René Clair
  • starring Annabella, René Lefévre, Vanda Gréville, Jean-Louis Allibert, Paul Ollivier
  • An impoverished painter and his rival engage in a race across Paris to recover a jacket concealing a winning lottery ticket.

“The breeze on this night so fair/ Carries off our coupled sighs/ Far away toward distant skies.”

A down on his luck man hounded by debt collectors beats the odds to win the lottery at exactly the right moment in René Clair’s early sound film Le Million. The victory ends up being the easy part for Michel as a series of incidents places a jacket which holds the winning ticket in the hands of a couple of criminals before ending up as a tenor’s costume in a production of “Les Bohémiens.”

From that point on, Clair’s music- and joy-filled seemingly endless amount of chase sequences begin in the original apartment building before moving to the streets of Paris and finally the Lyriqué Opera sequence, my favorite of the film. It was a master class on editing and tone, and the one which really illustrated René Clair’s fixation on music and theater, as well as his conflicted views on the advent of sound. It is in this sequence where we see Michel and Beatrice having a momentous conversation about their love for each other without speaking a word. A full relationship arc full of thoughts, facial expressions, and emotion conveyed only by the lyrics of the opera happening on stage; a neat trick that shows that Clair came armed with sound to play and be clever.

It was very early on when Clair declared that sound would be the death of film and cinema. Le Million was his second sound film after Under the Roofs of Paris, and by that time his feelings had evolved to a place where his intention with the new tool was to use it as an added artistic element to silent film principles as opposed to “killing the camera” with dialogue-heavy productions, as was stated in his 1959 interview with Jim MacAndrew. Silent film was something new and revolutionary, his thoughts continued, and sound and dialogue would fatefully revert the cinema back to the old styles and traditions of live theater.

It makes perfect sense that Clair’s opinion would be cautious, to say the least. His approach to filmmaking around this time was basically a celebration of silent cinema itself as a means of conveying the vibrant energy and beauty of life on its surface. They were a toast to the general joys of life and nary a complexity or double-meaning reared its head. You would be swept away and humming with a pep in your step after watching a Clair film, but what you see is very much what you get. It’s funny to think of how many similarities his work shares with Ernst Lubitsch in my mind–the grandeur, the artificial, highly-stylized sets, the whimsy, the lack of fear when it comes to the corny–but the two come to a very sharp fork in the road when it comes to what’s lying under the surface. Lubitsch films say a hell of a lot of things without directly saying them. Clair’s on the other hand are perfectly content to say nothing at all.

Many have said that he remained a silent film director in style even into the 1940s, which led to a falling out of favor for his legacy especially as French New Wave pioneers were quick to dismiss his work as safe and too fixated on the mainstream. Luckily I’m the type of audience member who delights in the smart type of mainstream as much or possibly more than the revolutionary.

Visually, Le Million is like watching a silent film with an audio track added in years later. Though it had more dialogue than I was expecting, you can clearly tell which aspects of sound that Clair was most delighted to employ, for instance his use of bells, whistles, unintelligible crowd noise, as well as music as decorative accent to the lottery mayhem. Overall though there’s a feeling of disjointedness in watching sound hand in hand with the showy brand of silent film performances. I’ve seen several silent films that look and feel like less of a silent film than Le Million, but that was Clair’s flag to fly and I respect that it comes off as not clinging to the past but as a conviction that the past is important enough to carry along into the future.


About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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