Tuesday, 31 May 2011

René Clair - Under the Roofs of Paris (1930)

“Sous les toits de Paris” is an early sound film directed by René Clair, probably the first French musical and certainly the first international French hit of the sound era.

The film starts with an extraordinary tracking shot from the roofs over Paris down slowly towards a group of people singing and lingering on young Pola as she watches the show. It’s a great, steady, graceful shot and a surprise in a film of this era. As the camera starts to move you find yourself wanting to know more about the singing and hoping that the camera will follow your interest downwards…it can and it does (stitch that Mr Welles!).

It’s not the only striking innovation and there are frequent shots panning from ground to sky in a film that surely influenced Hitchcock’s magnificent “Rear Window” (maybe even the Chim Chimeny sequence in Mary Poppins…). Almost all of the film was shot in studio – these shots wouldn’t have been possible anywhere else – but the continuity with outdoor shots is masterfully maintained and, if anything, this adds to the intensity of the story: working class Parisians trapped in their situations.

Their lives are enlivened by music including the darn catchy title song, which is sung with gusto by Albert at the start and then proceeds to infect many of the characters as it sweeps from room to room in the crowded tenements.

Albert Préjean is excellent as “Albert” a likeable if somewhat compromised singer of songs and seller of sheet music. He falls for “Pola” (played by the elaborately-bobbed Pola Illéry – no effort wasted on inventing new character names then!) a very pretty Romanian girl, who’s plainly mixing with the wrong company in the malicious form of Fred (Gaston Modot…somehow Gaston sounds more threatening than Fred but maybe that’s my English perception…).

Pola is scared by Fred’s forceful advances and ends up spending a chaste night with Albert in a scene Hollywood wouldn’t have touched at the time. She’s obviously not entirely convinced by Albert either, but they move closer together and are heading towards matrimony before events intervene.

The film subverts expectations as the course of this true-ish love doesn’t run as true as contemporary or even modern audiences might expect… We’re never sure how this is all going to end thanks to superb performances from Albert and Pola and to the complications of their precarious lives. Albert is mistakenly locked up for possession of his mate Bill’s stolen goods but released following Bill’s own capture and the latter’s honourable owning up.

There’s another outstanding scene after Albert’s release, when he fights fearsome Fred with the action largely obscured by posts and walls until Albert’s friend shoots out the lights and even more confusion reigns. Clair, apparently unconvinced by the potential of sound films, also uses sound to obfuscate and conceal parts of the story. Sometimes the characters’ voices are drowned out by sound or muffled by a closed door. It’s as if the director is using the limitations of sound recording to aid his story telling to draw us in and undermine again our expectations.

Albert is eventually re-united with Pola but by then she has fallen for his friend Louis (Edmond T. Gréville)… who will she chose and will the friends fall out forever?

In the end, the story runs full circle and the camera gracefully backs away from the singing group on the streets back up to the roofs from which we began out journey. Very clever Monsieur Clair, set designer Lazare Meerson and cameraman Georges Périnal. All in all, a very satisfying film.

The Criterion edition includes deleted scenes, "Paris qui dort" (Paris Alseep), Clair's first film and excerpts from a 1964 BBC interview with the directorl.

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