Hôtel du Nord

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Synopsis

Anguished young lovers, fallen women, wanted criminals, and all manner of social castoffs: these are the disreputable denizens of the Hôtel du Nord, an atmospherically seedy boardinghouse on the bustling banks of the Canal Saint-Martin in Paris, whose lives collide in Marcel Carné’s bittersweet rhapsody of romance, betrayal, revelry, and violence. Featuring evocative production design by the famed Alexandre Trauner and a colorful ensemble cast of some of classical French cinema’s most illustrious stars—including Annabella, Louis Jouvet, and a divinely dissolute Arletty in one of her most iconic roles—poetic-realist jewel Hôtel du Nord is a sublime exemplar of Carné’s celebrated poetic realism, imbuing working-class lives and dramas with a touching nobility.

Picture 8/10

The Criterion Collection finally gets around to releasing Marcel Carné’s Hôtel du Nord, presenting the film on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode. The master is sourced from a 2K restoration performed by Digimage Classics in Paris, which in turn was scanned from the 35mm original camera negative. The notes indicate Criterion has performed further restoration work.

This comes out looking rather remarkable, which was a nice surprise since I was holding my expectations in check (I have not seen Arrow's region B edition, though am unsure what restoration it uses). The encode comes out looking strong and it renders the film's somewhat heavy grain cleanly, allowing it to dance and move around in a natural manner. This also holds true in a few sequences where smoke is present, like in an early scene involving a train passing under a bridge, with the grain and smoke keeping a smooth look and lacking a blocky appearance. Grayscale is impressively wide and there is a lot of range to be found between the whites and blacks, the grays cleanly blending to aid in pulling out those finer details in the darker shadows.

The restoration work has been incredibly thorough and I’m hard pressed to recall any sort of severe blemish ever popping up, things limited mostly to very minor marks or scratches that rarely call attention to themselves. Even the overlays for the opening credits come out looking clean. I was also surprised by just how sharp the picture ultimately is, allowing for very distinct finer details at times.

It surely helps that they were able to reference the original negatives but the presentation is still a wonderful little surprise, especially when on considers how scattershot the restorations for Carné’s films can be. It’s just a sharp looking presentation.

Audio 6/10

The film’s audio—presented in lossless single-channel PCM—is also another pleasant surprise. Faint background static is present but it’s mostly faint and it's clear excessive filtering hasn’t been applied. Due to that dialogue comes off sharp and clean and shows off excellent range and fidelity. What music there is can maybe get a little edgy here and there but it’s also clean and free of distortion. Major damage is also not an issue. Overall, despite the film's age, the audio sounds incredibly good.

Extras 5/10

Supplements end up being disappointingly slim but Criterion at least offers up a new piece featuring director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and journalist Philippe Morisson discussing the role Carné’s film played into the development of “poetic realism.” Jeunet of course references his films when discussing how this film and others of their ilk have been influences since, even pointing out at one point how he had his stars in Amélie watch a scene from Le jour se lève to better understand what he wanted. In what ultimately works out to be a nice little primer the two go over the film’s tragic/comic story and its photography, the use of sets that are slightly off in scale in place of actual locations, and how this all lends a certain “artificiality” and dreamy nature that is central to poetic realism (interestingly it sounds like sets were done in place of using the real locations more out of necessity than any purposeful attempt in creating an artificial look). Jeunet also owns a copy of the film’s script and original sketches, which are presented here. Altogether the two provide a great little overview of the film and some of Carné’s other work, though it still feels to only touch the surface of things. (The interview does feature clips from Le jour se lève, though the footage appears to be from the older restoration used on Criterion's Essential Arthouse DVD release, suggesting they aren't planning to revisit that one anytime soon.)

Criterion then digs up two French television programs, one from 1972 around the making of Hôtel du Nord and the other, entitled Carné, You Said Carné, from 1994 and focused on the director's career. The latter one is an okay primer on the director (as Criterion’s notes specify) and features interviews with various historians, critics, technicians, and actors, but is typical of other programs like this: it looks at his early life before quickly moving through his more notable works and quickly summarizing his later ones. The making-of is a bit better, featuring interviews with the director along with screenwriter Henri Jeanson and actors Arletty and Jean-Pierre Aumont, but only a little over half of it ends up being about the film’s production. The first half is made up entirely of excerpts from newsreel footage from 1938 in order to (I assume) contextualize the period in which the film was released, war clearly becoming more of a reality. In that regard I did appreciate it a bit.

The disc then closes with a restored presentation of the film’s trailer (which promises a “film d’atmosphere!”) while an insert features a 5-page essay on the film by Edward Baron Turk, who examines the film’s story, characters, and visual sense.

The archival material leaves a little to be desired but I still enjoyed the interview, as short as it is.

Closing

Skimpy on features but the digital presentation proves to be a fantastic surprise.

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Directed by: Marcel Carné
Year: 1938
Time: 96 min.
 
Series: The Criterion Collection
Edition #: 1139
Licensor: MK2
Release Date: August 23 2022
MSRP: $39.95
 
Blu-ray
1 Disc | BD-50
1.37:1 ratio
French 1.0 PCM Mono
Subtitles: English
Region A
 
 New conversation between filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie) and journalist Philippe Morisson   Television program from 1972 on the making of the film   Documentary from 1994 on the life and career of director Marcel Carné   Trailer   An essay by film and theater scholar Edward Baron Turk