Under the Roofs of Paris (Sous les toits de Paris) [DVD]
Director : René Clair
Screenplay : René Clair
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1930
Stars : Albert Préjean (Albert), Pola Illéry (Pola), Edmond T. Gréville (Louis), Bill Bocket (The Big Boss), Gaston Modot (Fred)
Pioneering French writer/director René Clair was always a great populist. He believed that motion pictures should be a popular art form and that they should reflect the lives of the public. He didn’t buy into the notion of a “cinema of ideas,” in which film was conceived of as a visual essay meant to propagate a particular ideology, which is probably why he was treated so harshly by the influential critics at Cahiers du Cinéma in the 1950s. Rather, Clair liked to tell simple stories about recognizable characters in realistic settings. This did not mean that social commentary could not be an underlying subtext—in fact, many of his films were about heady issues like class and the perils of modernization—but the first and primary joy of his films is the immediate sense of feeling they convey.
Such is the case with his first sound film, Under the Roofs of Paris (Sous les toits de Paris), which is little more than a musical romantic comedy set in the tenements of lower Paris. It tells the story of Albert (Albert Préjean), a poor street singer who makes a meager living selling sheet music in the streets and leading sing-alongs. He falls in love with the beautiful immigrant Pola (Pola Illéry), who is also sought after by a hulking gangster named Fred (Gaston Modot). This love triangle is further complicated when Albert is unjustly arrested and imprisoned for a crime committed a petty thief who works for Fred. While Albert is in prison, Pola meets and becomes involved with Albert’s best friend, Louis (Edmond T. Gréville), which sets up an inevitable confrontation once Albert is released.
The story in Under the Roofs of Paris is fairly slight as far as romantic comedies go, and, as it was his first sound film, one can almost sense Clair working to determine how best to incorporate synchronized sound into what could easily have been a silent film (this often involves drawing undue attention to the sound itself, much in the way modern blockbusters draw attention to their action set-pieces). However, in choosing to set the story in a working-class neighborhood that resembled the lower class world in which he grew up, Clair gave the story a sense of realism that heightens the poignancy of the characters’ situations. Clair strikes an amazing balance between the gritty and the transcendental, which paved the way for the lyrical depictions of real life that characterized the “poetic realism” of films by Jacques Feyder, Julien Duvivier, and Marcel Carné.
For example, look at the dirt on the floor in Albert’s room in the humorous scene in which he and Pola negotiate who will sleep where when she spends the night with him after being locked out of her tenement. It’s a funny, cute scene, but it’s hard not to find your eye being drawn to the dust and debris around the edges of the rickety spring bed. But, at the same time, the studio-built sets on which the movie was filmed are more poetic than realistic. Clair makes fine use of graceful crane shots to give the film a sense of scope and grandeur, and also to reinforce the lowly nature of the world his characters inhabit. The most oft-repeated shot in the film is a visualization of its title, where the camera begins along the rooftops of the city and then slowly works its way down to street-level where the characters live.
Interestingly, Under the Roofs of the Paris was not very well received in its namesake city when first released, most likely because it was not a very flattering cinematic portrayal of “The City of Lights.” Yet, it is precisely because Clair found a way to evoke the idiosyncratic beauty of life (in both love and loss) while simultaneously showing a side of Parisian society that was often hidden beneath iconic landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower that makes the film so memorable and important. Always the populist, Clair realized that people of all walks of life wanted to see themselves represented on screen, rich and poor alike.
|Under the Roofs of Paris DVD|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment|
|Release Date||September 24, 2002|
| 1.33:1 (Academy Aspect Ratio)|
The original film elements for Under the Roofs of Paris have seen a good deal of wear and tear over their more-than-seven-decade existence, and it shows. Although transferred from a 35mm composite fine-grain master, the image on this disc shows quite a bit of age and wear. The quality of the image varies widely from shot to shot, with some looking very sharp and clear with fine gradations of gray, while others are notably grainy and slightly washed out. The overall look of the film is somewhat light, with very little contrast. Age marks, scratches, speckles, vertical lines, and other artifacts are present, although not terribly distracting. There is nothing in the liner notes that suggests any digital restoration was done, which it certainly could have used.
|French Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural |
Unlike the image, the soundtrack has been restored, and it shows. Obviously, given the primitive nature of synchronized sound technology in 1930, the soundtrack, even at its best, will sound creaky and dated by modern standards. Still, the musical numbers have a pleasing sound with only the slightest distortion at the high end. Ambient hiss has been reduced to a bare minimum, and there are virtually no audible pops or cracks.
| Paris qui dort, 1924 silent film directed by René Clair|
Not quite a feature-length film, but not a short, Clair’s 1924 silent film Paris qui dort (Paris Asleep) is a quirky little piece about a group of people who discover that everyone in Paris has been frozen in time except them by a scientist’s invisible ray. With an odd mixture of slapstick humor, surrealism, and science fiction, this is a definite oddity, but certainly worth a look. The image quality is quite good for a film from the ’20s, in many respects better than the image on Under the Roofs of Paris.
1966 BBC interview with René Clair
Original theatrical trailer
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick