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The Criterion Collection presents
Under the Roofs of Paris (Sous les toits de Paris) (1930)

"Oh, that song!"
- Louis (Edmond Gréville)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: October 13, 2002

Stars: Albert Préean, Pola Illery, Gaston Modot
Other Stars: Edmond Gréville, Bill Bocket, Paul Ollivier
Director: René Clair

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:32m:10s
Release Date: September 24, 2002
UPC: 037429168929
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A B+B-B- B

DVD Review

It's extraordinarily hard for us, weaned on movies and television, to imagine the excitement and possibility of these new media when they first appeared. (I suppose the Internet is our contemporary equivalent, and though it has much to offer, I don't know that the entertainment possibilities provided by the Net are near the top of the list of its advantages.) Unquestionably a sameness has crept into moviemaking, into Hollywood studio pictures especially; it's unusual to get a shudder, a rush of creative possibility not from the latest independent release, but from a movie made more than seventy years ago, but that's exactly what's so appealing about René Clair's Under the Roofs of Paris.

One of the great pleasures of this movie is in watching an accomplished storyteller like Clair find his way with the new tools at his disposal. He was rightly concerned that the coming of sound would mean the death of cinematic invention, and unfortunately the intervening decades have proved him to be largely correct; his effort here is to do something other than merely a talking picture. (And certainly the new technology was cumbersome and unfamiliar; the idea of doing a dialogue-driven film with a locked-down camera, even if it appealed to him, was almost certainly a technical impossibility.)

And so what's here is a charming pastiche, part music hall revue, part vaudeville, part melodrama, part silent screen comedy. There isn't terribly much to the story—Albert (Albert Préjean), who makes rent by hawking sheet music, meets the lovely Pola (Pola Illery), a young Romanian woman; Albert gets set up by one of his less savory pals, and while he's in prison, Louis (Edmond Gréville), his best friend, is making time with his girl. Albert's profession allows Clair to show him leading the people of Paris in song, on a street corner—it's the kind of thing that only happens in the movies, but still, you may mourn for the passage of such scenes, for this is the Paris that exists only and marvelously in our imagination.

Many of the scenes play out exactly as they would in a silent movie, though here with non-synchronized music. I'd wager that this is the first cinematic use of the William Tell Overture, which plays under a spirited bar fight—hi ho, Silver! And while the casual attitudes about sex are rather disarming for a movie of this period—oh, those French—it is locked solidly into movie conventions in that the raciest thing a young woman can do is not sleep with a man, but dance with him.

The narrative is largely beside the point, essentially a convenience; Clair was clearly a quick study, as much more attention is paid to the storytelling in the operetta-like Le Million, made just a year later. But what's absolutely astonishing here is the camerawork. The moving camera in the opening shot is as controlled and formally expressive as anything done decades later with dollies or Steadicams, and throughout the shots are composed with flair and elegance. (If you're familiar with the other arts of the period, more than once Clair's compositions may put you in mind of the photographs of Atget.) The editing is a bit more pedestrian, with a few too many insert shots, underlining story points that are readily evident when the camera is further back from the action. Then again, it may be unfair to expect this early talkie to conform to the film grammar that it helped to establish, and these really are small blemishes that won't interfere with your enjoyment of this splendid movie.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: How many seventy-two year olds do you know who look as good today as when they were born? Criterion is to be commended for the new digital transfer provided here, but it's evident that the source material is seriously compromised in many respects, and the print is full of scratches and debris; occasionally even the focus goes kablooey. But the supplemental material offers some glimpses of just how ravaged by time the movie must have been; it's certainly too much to hope for to dream of seeing a more pristine print than this one.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The sound weathered the years better than the picture, but a good amount of hiss and crackle can still be discerned. Again, as this was one of the very earliest sound features, the limitations of the technology are evident, and it's not difficult to be forgiving, as it's all fairly readily understandable.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Deleted Scenes
Packaging: AGI Media Packaging
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Paris qui dort, René Clair's first film
  2. insert booklet with an essay by Luc Sante
Extras Review: The best item in the extras package is surely Paris qui dort (34m:36s), a 1924 silent picture, Clair's first film. It's a charming little fairy tale, in which our hero, the night watchman at the Eiffel Tower, awakens to find that everyone else in Paris is frozen in a state of suspended animation. The only others who can move and speak are the passengers from a plane landing that morning at the Paris airport. (Long before De Gaulle, of course, the airport is little more than strip of grass just outside of town.) Clair's mastery and understanding of silent film comedy are already evident here.

A 1966 BBC interview (17m:41s) with the director provides a nice overview of his career, though it doesn't touch on the feature. Clair's faith in the power of cinema and his concerns about the coming of sound, that it would snuff out much cinematic invention, are inspiring, and he seems like just a lovely man.

An alternate opening (3m:10s) shows just how poor the film looked before restorative efforts, and while narratively it's a nice little overture, not much was lost by cutting it. The disposable nature of cinema in those days is evident in the original trailer, as the actors speak directly to the camera, assuring us that Sous les toits de Paris is coming to this very theater next week. Luc Sante's essay in the accompanying booklet is brief but informative, and includes such tidbits as the fact that the assistant director on the movie was Marcel Carné, who went on to direct, among other films, Les Enfants du paradis.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

Under the Roofs of Paris works both as an entertainment and a reminder of the possibilities, tapped and untapped, that movies have to offer. Unfortunately, the technical elements have been done some dirt by the decades, but an intriguing package of extras along with the charming feature make this disc a winner.


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