#161 Under the Roofs of Paris
1930 // France // René Clair
Under the Roofs of Paris opens with a montage sequence of city roofs shots and the clear sky looming at the background, subsequently the camera descends from the level of the roofs, revealing a circle of citizens gathering on the street. Meanwhile music and singing voices sounds like a choir get gradually louder and clearer, drawing the attention of our eyes and ears. The film was released in 1930 during the era of early talkies when the practice of visual language employed in silent films were replaced by the sheer amusement of sounds and speaking voices. French director René Clair, as other silent film directors across the globe such as Jean Renoir, Yasujiro Ozu, John Ford or Ernst Lubitsch, had to reapply the art of cinema in a new practice. They were the successful bunch who helped cinema evolve to the next level, while others not sharing the same luck or talent were left to be rediscovered or remained in oblivion perpetually.
Clair utilised the opening sequence to signify the transformation from silence to sound in which prepared the audience for the upcoming 90 minutes new showy adventure. In short, Under the Roofs of Paris is a musical romantic comedy, a huge difference from Clair’s early avant-garde work such as Entr’acte (1924) yet it still retained the same spirit of experimentation. In this case it’s the experiment in integrating sound into the narrative. Thematically, the story is the weakest part of the entire film. A working class young man Albert (Albert Préjean) purses the love of Pola (Pola Illery) with the mix of underworld crime boss Fred (Gaston Modot) and Albert’s best pal Louis (Edmond Gréville). Albert is arrested for a crime he did not commit but is later released when his name is cleared.
The film ends with two fights, one is a combat between Albert and Fred’s gang where sound effects of punching and shouting are taken over by the sound of a coming train. The scene is shot through the fences or obstructed by the train’s smoke (in which the train and rails are never seen); the last fight is short and anticlimactic, largely an argument between Albert and Louis over the same girl they love and end with one of them withdraw in the name of brotherhood. The characters are illustrated without development and often depicted as ostensibly naive, it’s hard to be engaged with the story or character, let alone the outcome. It lacks the urgency found in gangster films or the whimsical gender conflict in Hollywood musical, the film is at most a precursor of poetic realism which will soon dominate the French cinema in the 30s, and they are successfully more lyrical.
Still René Clair’s first sound film is fundamentally a fun watch if not truly a successful one. There are moments of joy and a few laughs here and there. For instance, after Albert and the pedestrians sing the charming song during daylight at the beginning of the film, the inhabitants of the nearby building are shown as they are brainwashed by the lyrics and melody till late night, presumably so are we. A clever way to depict the infectious nature of sound/music in the new era. Under the Roofs of Paris is an early exercise in employing synchronized sounds and dialogue which have an inconsistent use over the entire film, numerous scenes of conservation are devoid of any recorded dialogue like they are filming a silent film. Fortunately René Clair makes use of the opportunity as a learning process to develop the technique and be ready to exert his artistic vision in À nous la liberté (1931) and Le million (1931), his much more refined works immediately after.