Sous les toits de Paris (1930)

The period of the transition to sound was awkward, and the part-talking film was one of its odder manifestations: a mostly silent film with intertitles, and one or two reels of dialogue scenes. Maybe the film was intended that way, but I think it was more often a completed silent film that got “upscaled” to meet audience demand for the new technology. (Cf. the more recent practice of converting flat-shot films into 3D.) René Clair’s talkie debut gave me the opposite feeling, i.e. of having been a sound film with silent scenes added to it (without intertitles)… A curious beast in that respect, alternating between patches of dialogue and rather longer patches of music, often within the same scene, resulting in a sound-world that’s even less naturalistic than usual for early talkies, although the fact that much of the film was clearly shot silent means it moves rather better than some of its contemporaries that I’ve seen. Story revolves around a street musician who rescues a young girl from a local gangster, who eventually gets him in trouble with the police, but the girl falls in with the musician’s friend instead. The depiction of the lower level of Parisian life was apparently pioneering at the time, and, noting that Marcel Carné was an assistant director on the film, this review observes the film as something of a precursor of the “poetic realism” tendency of 1930s French cinema. For me, that kind of highlights a problem in the film; much like it apparently can’t decide if it’s a silent film or a sound film, it seems equally uncertain about whether it’s a comedy or a drama. The end result is nicely designed (those studio-built tenements are impressive) but rather slight; however marvellous it may have seemed in 1930, it just struck me as kind of thin and inconsequential. Disappointing, I expected more.

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