LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS [CHILDREN OF PARADISE] (Marcel Carné, 1945) – Criterion Blu-ray, 2012 of a Pathé 4K digital restoration from 2011
This is a very complicated one. A lot has been written in the last few weeks about the new US and UK Blu-rays of Pathé’s 2011 4K restoration of LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS – most of it quite damning.
Respected film restorer Robert Harris wrote:
“Purportedly “restored,” I was looking forward to bathing in this film’s glow. It didn’t happen. The image is so drained of grain, that I’m not certain what to make of it. Somewhere along the great, long line of digital restorative powers, someone, somewhere, turned something, that should not have been turned. The film is beautifully clean. The film is beautifully clean. Image - 1.5 / Audio - 3.5 Yours truly is saddened. Especially arriving on the Criterion label. Fail. With a film of this importance, it really should be recalled. And if the 4k restoration looks anything like this, I’m all for destruction of the data files. Begin again.”
Respected reviewer at Blu-ray.com, Dr Svet Atanasov, couldn’t recommend it either. He writes:
“While Pathé’s restoration and reconstruction of this classic French film might well be very impressive, their high-definition transfer is disappointing. Traces of moderate to very heavy filtering corrections are easily noticeable throughout the entire film. Unsurprisingly, detail and clarity are seriously compromised. During many sequences colors and contrast also collapse, especially when light is restricted, and large blocks of gray become prominent. Because of the excessive filtering there is virtually no depth, while at times definition is so poor that it is absolutely impossible to see the fine details a 4K restoration should expose. Additionally, Pathe’s text description mentions the soft-focus effects of the original cinematography, but more often than not what is present here is an entirely different type of softness, one that is undoubtedly accomplished with the help of powerful digital tools. Occasionally, there are even some halo effects/anomalies that pop up here and there. This being said, there are some portions of the film where one could get a basic idea of what could have been, mostly during the daylight sequences where there is an abundance of light and contrast levels are relatively stable, but even then often there is heavy smearing that tends to overwhelm the image. All in all, as far as I am concerned Children of Paradise’s transition to Blu-ray is every bit as frustrating as Pathé’s presentation of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai. Obviously, there are other issues here, but the final result is undoubtedly disappointing.”
Pathé handled the whole thing, and presented the US and UK licensees with finished HD masters for Blu-ray authoring (they provided a finished DCP to Janus Films/Criterion also).
“The digital restoration of Children of Paradise presented in this edition was performed by the legendary film company Pathe in 2011. Made by Pathé during the German occupation of France in World War II, Children of Paradise was shot on whatever types of scrap stock the filmmakers could get their hands on. That original nitrate camera negative was the main source of the restoration, but it was in poor condition, with significant damage from scratches, dirt, and mold., as well as some tape residue from old splices, all of which had to be digitally removed. Also, in several instances, frames were missing from the original negative. These were reconstructed from multiple sources, including two 35mm nitrate fine-grain positives.
Before digitization, all elements were ultrasonically cleaned. The reels of the original camera negative and the selected parts of the fine-grain positives were then scanned at 4K resolution on an ARRISCAN film scanner at L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory in Bologna, Italy. The 4K data was sent to Eclair Laboratories in Paris for reconstruction and picture restoration. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI, Image Systems, Da Vinci, and Cinnafilm restoration software. The poor state of certain shots could not be improved; characteristics of other shots, including soft focus and shadow effects in the theater scenes (typical of nineteenth-century stage lighting), were maintained in order to remain faithful to the film.”
It’s clear that a massive amount of work has gone into this, but not all of it worthwhile unfortunately. Based on the information given and the finished disc, it’s possible to speculate quite accurately about what shortcomings may be photochemical and which may be the undesired effects of digital restoration.
The first thing I noticed was that the black levels look off. I’d just watched the Criterion Blu-ray of LES VISITEURS DU SOIR, same director, same DP, made just a few years earlier. A fine, healthy disc, the film looked great – but black levels on LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS are consistently on the light side, noticeably lighter than the pillarboxing. Secondly, film grain only seems to appear in parts of the frame that are above 50% luminosity. Film grain is practically non-existent at less than 50% luminosity, creating an unnatural, non-organic, non-filmic look in darker parts of the screen. Shadow detail doesn’t have any detail because there is no film grain in it. This can’t be a result of any photochemical shortcomings (using “scraps of 35mm”, soft-focus lens effects, etc) it’s a sign of heavy-handed digital overprocessing and it paralyzes these parts of the screen – creating a disconcerting jarring effect with the lighter parts of the screen which do have some grain. The way the grain (the grain that is there) has been handled seems to have the effect of reducing detail and depth perception.
There is no visible film damage or sparkle (white/black spots), which suggests a huge frame-by-frame “restoration”. Together with the lack of film grain in dark areas which have a crushed, smeary texture, it reaffirms the sense that these shortcomings have been introduced digitally.
Ostensibly, it’s the sort of transfer that would impress the average viewer – the average viewer unfamiliar with B&W films of this vintage that have received stellar Blu-rays with healthy even grain and no over-processing, and the average viewer unfamilar with the side-effects of too much digital work.
What should have been a definitive, landmark release has unfortunately been overcooked. Robert Harris and Dr Svet Atanasov came down hard on this Blu-ray, and I concur – they have accurately described what I see.
Will Criterion customers be disgusted and send their discs back? – I very much doubt it, it just about does enough to impress the average viewer, and this is clearly the difficult decision that Criterion had to make (short of rejecting the restoration and not being able to release it for years). Should this kind of heavy handed digital work be pointed out and discouraged? Yes! — This film’s 4K restoration could have looked much more organic and natural than it does.
A number of shots in the film are frequently breathtaking (usually longshots) and it’s my hunch that this restoration fell at the last hurdle. The grading is inconsistent from shot to shot and often looks like the greyscale spectrum has been restricted (something which did not affect the previous Criterion DVD), and film grain should have been left to breathe and behave normally in parts of the image that are less than 50% luminosity. This would have increased detail perception.
I have no idea at which point in the restoration chain these shortcomings may have occurred (hopefully right near the end) but I hope the restoration workflow can be thoroughly investigated to unravel these specific problems and to discourage it from happening again.
Did I enjoy the Criterion Blu-ray? Just about. It’s watchable, but it could and should have been much better, and that’s not Criterion’s fault. Should they have fought harder? Maybe their hands were tied.
UPDATE: It transpires that during the Éclair digital “restoration” the film has been completely degrained and then regrained. So grain that is there is entirely software generated and fails to perform the same magic function that natural film grain does. This and the incorrect black level (all fades to black are noticeably lighter than the pillarboxing) has given the film its new peculiar look.