Sous Les Toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris) (1930) Director: René Clair
René Clair (1898-1981) was heralded as one the great directors of French cinema during the 1930s. He was the son of a soap distributor but he lived the life of a ceaselessly disappointed writer, artist, and musician. He was an ambulance operator during World War I, but was discharged due to a spinal injury, and then he started writing and making films wherein he assumed his role as heir to the surrealist and avant-garde movements. He is best known for his early films which greatly overshadow much of his later forgotten works, The Italian Straw Hat (1928) – a silent film, Under the Roofs of Paris (1930), Le Million (1931), and A nous la liberte (1931). He continued making films, including a spell in Hollywood, but was largely ostracized as the French New Wave movement took hold in the 1950s. At the height of his success, Clair was known as an “auteur,” or one of those film directors who takes complete control of every aspect of the film. He died in 1981.
Though initially skeptical of the new sound medium, Under the Roofs of Paris is Clair’s first “talkie,” and it was also one of the first French “talkies,” as well. Appropriately, it is in part a musical. It was an international success in 1930, and did a great deal to revive the mystique of Paris as a cosmopolitan, international city.
Under the Roofs of Paris is simply a beautiful little film (it is unrelated to the Henry Miller novel of the same name). It prominently features two songs as musical numbers, which I found to be somewhat imbalanced and odd, but the cinematography and set designs are all extraordinary. In particular the opening scene of the film, which showcases the looming architecture of Paris, is contrasted with a group of musical men singing in the rue far below. This scene parallels a similar large shot which closes the film, as well. The plot is sub par, as it tells a familiar story of three friends, street ruffians of Paris, who all fall in love with the same woman, a beautiful Romanian lady named Pola. One man, Albert, is wrongly sent to prison, though at the end a reconciliation is made, and Pola chooses another man anyway.
Clair’s film is a beautiful picture about the working class in Paris, and its score, set designs, and cinematography all far outweigh the plot and pacing. It rather amusingly straddles the line between talkie and silent film. Nevertheless, it is an important film to the history of French cinema. I was particularly struck by the extraordinary grace and poise of the opening and closing scenes of the film which delightfully capture the streets of Paris from above.