This piece originally appeared in Sight & Sound magazine in 2016.
Among the treasures on display in Paris at Toute la Mémoire du Monde in February, one film seemed to justify the festival’s existence by itself. René Clair’s ingenious late silent Les Deux Timides/The Two Timid Ones (1928) harks back to an earlier age of film comedy, reworking the styles of Max Linder, Charlie Chaplin and Mack Sennett into something new and elegant. At the same time, the new restoration of this sublime farce reveals it as a silent classic in its own right – to be esteemed as highly as the films that inspired it. Thanks to a ravishing new restoration, it may be about to receive the credit it has long deserved.
By 1928, René Clair had moved on from his early art films, the science-fiction caper Paris qui dort (1923) and the cinéma pur of Entr’acte (1924) and joined Albatros, a French studio staffed mostly by Russian exiles. It was here that he made his best known silent, the beautifully elaborate farce Un chapeau de paille d’Italie/The Italian Straw Hat (1927). Clair’s 1930s triumphs Sous les toits de Paris (1930) and A nous la liberté (1931) were ahead of him, but Les Deux Timides is his silent masterpiece, folding the avant-garde and the comic into a delightful, expertly judged story of provincial romance and misapprehension.
Les Deux Timides takes what could be a Linder scenario, of a young middle-class man overcoming obstacles in pursuit of a pretty girl, merges it with Chaplinesque outsider charm and punctuates it with Keystone-quality chaos. Clair’s film is as serious and silly as its predecessors at their best, a film that is so intensely funny it makes humour itself, and the business of film comedy, seem vitally important.