Use of Sound in Sous Les Toits de Paris

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The coming of sound, although it was very popular with the audience, was not welcomed by everyone. Many saw the technical innovation as a barbaric intrusion to silent cinema. Among those people was Renée Clair, a French director of the thirties, extremely popular internationally. Like many others, he dreaded the arrival of sound however, because the public’s demand for talkies was so strong, he had no choice but to adapt to modern times. However his use of sound is quite particular and very interesting to consider in relation to his view on the subject matter. For this essay we will explore his first talking film, Sous les toits de Paris (1930) that illustrates very well the director’s critical attitude towards sound. To get a broader understanding about what the filmmaker was trying to achieve, we will look more deeply into one sequence of the film. The chosen extract takes place late in the film, when Albert gets into a fight with a gang in the dark streets of Paris. We will analyse the relationship between sound and image and draw conclusions on Clair’s particular use of sound.

The arrival of sound was massively successful, talkies becoming a huge business, millions and millions being invested in the industry of film. Renée Clair foresaw it; there was no going back and no one could stop the “triumphant march of the talking film”.1 Originally the French director though the film sonore was the best approach to filmmaking. According to him, these films could “create an illusion of “reality” less harmful for the art than the talking film”.2 This notion of realism brought by sound was what the public demanded, however some filmmakers perceived it as a danger to the imagination usually fostered by the world of moving images. Unfortunately for these people, because films sonore were only half using sound, the public was only half satisfied. Economic reasons forced Clair to use sound, however he managed to do it in a way quite different from his counterparts’. His technique is full of compromises and we can identify an implicit criticism of the new medium hidden in his specific use of sound.

The relationship the French director maintains between sound and image reveals a lot about his opinion on how sound should be used. Technical difficulties that were reinforcing Clair’s scepticism about sound, but that had recently been resolved, were the mobility of the camera, allowing the formation of the image, in relation to the use of sound. Because of technical limitations it was extremely hard for the camera to move around and it had to remain static in order to record sounds. This, according to Clair, represented “the curse of sound”.3 Sound was intervening in the conception of the image, limiting its possibilities and hampering its artistic quality. However technology was developed, and actors were able to move around, “voices and movement being reproduced with a miraculous flexibility.”4 Therefore, because of this technical victory, Clair’s view on sound was less radical. He did not denounced the medium however advises carefulness. To understand his view, it is useful to first understand how, according to Clair, sound should not be used. Talking films, he thought, were using sound in a superfluous way, “the imitation of real noises seeming limited and disappointing.”5 To him, interpretation had a lot more future than the mere imitation of real noises that became tiresome once the element of surprise had worn off. If the sound adds nothing to the image it should therefore be avoided or else the purity of the image could be altered by the useless distraction. The question is then, when should sound be used? To him, it should be employed with precaution, intervening when and only when images failed to convey a certain effect. This effect has several functions. Depending on the situation, sound can help the understanding of the narrative, such as when Louis’ off screen voice warns us that Albert has been spending two months in...
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