René Clair (1898–1981), a disappointed poet, novelist, and actor, lived and worked on the fringes of the French Surrealist movement in the 1920s. (We included his Entr’acte (1924) in the French Avant-Garde program earlier in the series.) In total, he made eight silent films of varied lengths—most notably 1927’s Un Chapeau de Paille d’Italie (The Italian Straw Hat)—establishing a reputation for humor and fanciful imagination.
In spite of having reservations about sound film, no French director (and very few others elsewhere) got off to a better start in the new medium than Clair. Sous les toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris) relies little on spoken dialogue or plot complications. Its lyrical homage to a Paris that was rapidly disappearing now seems like an endearing time capsule and a gift to unreconstructed Romantics—a lilting miracle floating buoyantly, like Clair’s crane shots, above the fray of life.
Much of the film’s beauty can be credited to Clair’s choice of collaborators. Cinematographer Georges Périnal (1895–1965) had worked with Marcel L’Herbier and Jean Cocteau before filming Clair’s early talkies. Then, like Clair, he went to Britain in the 1930s to work for Alexander Korda’s London Films, making several gorgeous movies in Technicolor. Périnal’s late work included Charles Chaplin’s A King in New York and Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse. Much credit is also due to the music, arranged by Armand Bernard, and the still-unforgettable title song by Raoul Moretti and Rene Nazelles.
However, no one was more important than Lazare Meerson (1900–1938), the brilliant Russian-born art director who began designing for L’Herbier at age twenty-five. He worked with nearly all the significant French directors of the period, including seven collaborations with Clair, before making the seemingly requisite trip to Kordaland, where he died at a shockingly young age. The concept of “poetic realism,” to which Meerson subscribed, seemed a perfect fit for Clair, and the sets for Under the Roofs of Paris are probably Meerson’s most memorable, although he made nearly five dozen pictures in only thirteen years.
Clair made two more masterpieces the following year, Le Million and A Nous la Liberte, before his gift for invention began to run out. If he had died young (like Jean Vigo), we would probably venerate him more for the films we would never get to see. The reality was that, like Rouben Mamoulian in America, Clair’s inspiration began to flag after a few glorious years. He made two more films in France, two for Korda in Britain, and then spent World War II in Hollywood, where he made four features before his return to France in 1946. None of his pre- or postwar work was all that bad, but the promise of the early years did not materialize in these intermittently interesting but seemingly unengaged works, some of which could be deemed highly honorable failures. Clair, himself, seems to have been an honorable, literate, and decent man, who, like Julien Duvivier, was unfairly targeted by the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd in the 1950s. Yet Jean Renoir, “godfather” of the Nouvelle Vague, had been close to both men in their shared Hollywood exile, and his judgment is generally good enough for me.
MoMA’s print of the film has no subtitles, so the following synopsis is provided:
In a working-class district of Paris, Albert, an impecunious street singer, lives in an attic room. He meets a beautiful Romanian girl, Pola, and falls in love with her, but he is not the only one; his best friend Louis and the gangster Fred are also under her spell. One evening Pola dares not return home because Fred has stolen her key, and she does not feel safe. She spends the night with Albert who, reluctantly remaining the gentleman, sleeps on the floor and leaves his bed to Pola. They soon decide to get married, but fate prevents their union when Emile, a thief, deposits with Albert a bag full of stolen goods. The contraband is discovered by the police, and Albert is sent to prison. Pola finds consolation with Louis. Later, Emile is caught in his turn and admits that Albert was not his accomplice, earning Albert his freedom. Fred has just got back together with Pola, who has fallen out with Louis, and in a jealous fury at Albert’s return Fred decides to provoke a knife fight with him. Louis rushes to Albert’s rescue, and the two comrades are reunited, but their friendship is clouded by the realization that each of them is in love with Pola. Finally, Albert decides to give up Pola to Louis.