“They’re awful people, these artists, these doodlers!” grumbles the dairymaid to her service clan, when Michel (René Lefèvre) can’t pay his dues, or his rent. And so René Clair as a comedian of language and tone, as well as visual play. We are set up to side with a hapless underdog, a man who almost knows he’s lost but is publicly shamed into putting on an act. And so, let the act begin!
A farce, and a blend of backstage musical (or opera, rather) and integrated musical comedy, Le Million is le magnifique! Even the scenes which are not straight musical have a flowing lyricism about them, a choreography that makes them appear dancelike. The film opens with lots of speaking and wooing over rooftops, characters running to and away from each other past chimneys, through skylights and windows, above and across the city.
The ground is a fluid space too, encouraging pathways and movement. Authorities and building workers joyously singing in unison as they chase Michel through the building, and up an unending staircase, for his money. Part of what makes Michel’s discomfort at being poor is that everybody else is so willing to believe that he does, in fact, have a lottery ticket that will make him a millionaire. They congratulate him with a bouquet of flowers — his face here is beyond perfect.
Later, in a police station, Michel has been arrested on suspicion of being the thief “Grandpa Tulip”, and he meets the man who bought his jacket with the golden ticket in the pocket, who is reporting a watch theft. It is a very strange, funny scene, a combination of mistaken identity and director exposition, when the audience has more knowledge than the characters. Of course things are going to go wrong for them.
Then a man, probably a crazy under observation for being so, approaches the conversation wearing only undershorts and a bowler hat. Removing his hat, he admits, “Excuse me, but I think the jacket is mine” (or something). A chaotic, multivoiced fight ensues, everyone joining in but no one really certain what they’re fighting for. This sort of scene was repeated in the magically tragicomic ending of The Life of Brian, and recalled in legendary tales like that of Eric Douglas doing stand-up in the UK, and spurring an epic Spartacus take off. Delightful, and demonstrative of Clair’s mastery of an entire scene. He just has characters who, though unnecessary to the story, give the visuals and the tempo an extra spice.
In the final sequence, upon unlikely and very utopian resolution of the plot, the entire cast joins in a joyous song and dance, finally celebrating the uplifting motif that has been teasing them, with its melodic optimism, for the entire film. Even the shirtless man from the police station is there, inexplicably. Le Million is really an absurd picture, but the magic of Clair’s visual layout, and the chemistry of his characters to their plight, is a strength that will sustain his career into the next decade.