PARIS QUI DORT (René Clair, 1923)

René Clair had acted, in films by Louis Feuillade in fact, but the first film he wrote and directed, launching a long and estimable career, is Paris qui dort (Paris, Which Sleeps), also known as The Crazy Ray, and first released in the United States as At 3:25. It’s the sort of thing that seems lightly tossed off, as a lark almost, but actually the film, a short (and, alas, shorter still in the U.S.), is a meditation on our sense of place and time, that is to say, concepts allowing us to “get our bearings” and navigate reality. Clair was twenty-five years old when he made it; Paris qui dort is a young man’s attempt to grapple with the burden of mortal awareness. It is an auspicious piece of work.

The protagonist, Albert, is a Parisian, like Clair, who is the same age as Clair. In a sublimely comical yet utterly natural moment, the comedy of which we have yet to learn, the boy begins the day by stepping out from his work post onto a kind of terrace, yawning. He is still half-asleep. But where, though? At the highest point in Paris. Albert is the night watchman on the highest level of the Eiffel Tower. Albert looks down below—a position of command fitting the strength, the seeming indomitability, of youth. But his life is about to turn upside-down and inside-out by what he sees and hears: silence; peoplelessness; a vacant city. The absence of life. Here, the silence of the silent film wittily and startlingly contributes to our sense of what the boy is all of a sudden experiencing.

The resilience and resourcefulness of youth: Albert wanders the deserted city, adapting to its features, rationalizing his ability to contain it, coping pluckily with its challenges. He finally encounters a person frozen in time, a man hunched over a public garbage receptacle; Albert pokes and laughs, and the comedy is great. What we see (beneath the play, beneath the bravado) is Albert’s anxiety in two dimensions, the existential and the social. His existence, as he knows it, has been challenged; his play at being superior to this frozen-in-time man he encounters, who wears a working-class cap that draws his close connection to Albert, discloses Albert’s uncertainty in the new reality in which he finds himself. From the jacket pocket of a subsequent “frozen” figure, Albert pulls a handkerchief that he mockingly whips up and down in front of the owner’s face. He plays at mocking the man, but he is really mocking death, which suddenly terrifies him.

Our awareness of the economically depressed post-World War I conditions in Europe translates Albert’s uncertainty, his discomforting bewilderment, into desperation. The scavenger at the trash can becomes a kind of mental image: a projection of the precariousness of Albert’s own economic state. But for his fortuitous (although marginal) job, for which he likely qualified because of his youth, Albert could be this stranger. And more: the “frozen” condition of the man enables Albert himself to take all this in—a psychological fact we deduce from the adolescent display of his defensive coping mechanisms. In normal reality, given the callowness of his youth, Albert would not even notice such a person on the street, let alone identify with him. In a powerful way that has to do with his thematic interests here, Clair is making three points: one, that young people normally live in their own minds, in their own worlds, perhaps because they feel alienated from those older than themselves who seem to have the power in the world; two, that the most marginal members of the working class, however diligently they attempt to survive, are in constant danger of landing without income onto the streets; and three, in a society, disparate people are connected in ways normally they themselves might never realize. What Clair embraces here is more than a postwar concern; it has to do with the course of France, post-1789 Revolution the promise of France.

Much of the film is a mediation between public and private, between the sociopolitical and the (psychological) individual. (Thus we may say that the film is Freudian.) Albert, the working-class boy who has heretofore been an individual in Paris—to widen the reference, substitute for Paris any other specific locale—is no longer able to think of Paris, solipsistically, as merely where he happens to be; now it has a separate reality, and yet one intimately connected to him. For the first time, Albert is able to comprehend how place locates and helps identify him; and, of course, time does no less. Albert is no longer just being; despite his youth and his daily input of activity aimed at survival, he is now in a position to consider better such things as his position in Paris, and the widest reference of this consideration, which perhaps for the first time in his life he is now able to take in, is both his existential and socioeconomic and political fragility—the sum of his mortal condition. Young people, after all, don’t normally think about death (except as a poetical abstraction) or about the end of their productivity, hence, the end of their socioeconomic viability, except insofar as they implement strategies for day-to-day survival. Albert has a job; therefore, it doesn’t occur to him that the contrary might come to be the case. One can always get a job, at least in one’s mind; so what’s the problem? Young Clair confronts his young protagonist (and himself) with the truth: Life is uncertain, shifting, unreliable. Circumstances change, and for the worse, despite attempts to “manage” reality by trying to affect those circumstances to one’s own advantage.

In order to stabilize his new, foundationless life, Albert, settled on a public bench, imagines the Paris he otherwise knows: a bustling metropolis. Cars in motion become the visual key to this fantasy, given the current reality. This waking dream, however disconcertingly, establishes the tawdry movement of automobiles as an indicator of normally active reality. (This is done wonderfully well, too, in Mark Sandrich’s 1934 The Gay Divorcée starring the pair who epitomize modernity, Astaire and Rogers.) Alice Liddell (obviously a nom de plume) brilliantly essays the relationship between Clair’s film and the Surrealist movement and aesthetic (see the Internet Movie Database), but in tandem with this person’s reading, however greatly it surpasses mine, I press for another understanding of this film. Albert’s attempt to reinstall his grounding sense of the reality of Paris reveals for us, by indirection, the inability of his particular circumstance prior to the current one afflicting Paris to locate him in a way that made him “safe” in his own cultural, economic, social and political skin. When we prevail even to a limited and immediate extent, in certain sociopolitical contexts we remain at risk. For me, this is the most trenchant aspect of Clair’s extraordinary film.

Shoving the “frozen” driver over, Albert takes someone else’s car; one implication is that his daily labor is insufficient for providing him with a car of his own. A very funny moment occurs when others who have flown in from Marseilles check out the usurped driver’s heartbeat. Life-and-death: what could be more important? Here, it is simply the thing to do. The privately airborne group includes a Scotland Yard detective, as yet unaware he has an unexpected “case” on his hands, and a dairy merchant. Albert and these other “investigators” determine that all clocks in the city stopped at 3:25 a.m.; Albert’s and the plane passengers’ altitude left them unaffected.

Now part of an exploratory and exploitative group, Albert enters a restaurant and relieves a “frozen” patron of her gold necklace in order to buttress his sexual selfconsciousness with the luscious female member of the group. Taking something of value that isn’t yours, that ordinarily you wouldn’t have taken: this encapsulates the film’s theme, disclosing the mortal awareness and widened consciousness pressuring young Albert. Underscoring the wider frame of reference is a Marseilles flight member’s jovial invitation, even to Albert, to attend the day’s opening of the Bank of France and the department stores nearby. Yes, this is more bravado and compensatory good spirits, for it isn’t apparent at this time that any such opening will ever again occur. It’s a good moment, therefore, to treat as equals those whom as a capitalist you disdain.

Indeed, given their shared predicament of being alive in a dead world, the group accepts Albert into their fold. At his invitation, and to preserve their “alive” status by maintaing a lofty elevation, they all mount the Eiffel Tower. By doing so, they are also fortifying their sense of importance by identifying themselves with the nation of France (which the Eiffel Tower represents) that seems somehow to have slipped out of their hands. With the city below, the trick shots of their ascent constitute an amazing aspect of the film; after all, the higher-ups are pursuing an actual position higher up, in defense against the social standing they feel has slipped away. This is both irony and sociopolitical commentary.

In this new setting, the men hover around the one young woman in the group “like moths around a flame.” Clair and his cinematographers, Maurice Desfassiaux and Paul Guichard, capture her image as one of perfect, almost diaphanous beauty, while at the same time establishing the subjective basis for the men’s subsequent jealous quarrels over her and, worse, their general boredom. Sexual titillation counts, but it’s no match for the Paris they expected to find. This is more than humorous; what grounds you in reality is more significant than what fills your reality with fleeting pleasure. The circumstance of this film tests postwar hedonism to the limit.

We summarily discover the reason for the change in Paris: a scientist has sent out the ray that thus affected reality. Our (now) unhappy group has petitioned him to undo the damage he caused, and he complies with sufficient endeavor to deduce mathematically the needed antidote to render the petitioners “asleep” in their boredom awaiting the results. Unlike Caligari, to which he undoubtedly refers, the troublemaker here proceeds by science, not spirit, by (Freud again) guilt, not presumptuous prerogative. The presence of his helpful daughter humanizes the scientist and helps move the film’s premising predicament from God’s hands (symbolically) to our own. This in turn helps draw forth the theme of mortal awareness.

The world resumes. The scientist reverses the earlier stasis his experiments imposed, and the resumption of normal movement accounts for wondrous images the idea of which François Truffaut would call upon for Le nuit américaine (1973), where the shifted context is the miracle of film action. (Weeks after writing a piece disparaging Truffaut’s film, I find myself now reconsidering it.) Indeed, Clair’s little debut—I have seen none of the earlier animated short films by Emile Cohl from which some say Clair’s first film derives—looks ahead to subsequent French cinema; Marcel Carné’s Les visitors du soir (1942) and Jean Cocteau’s postwar work come immediately to mind. However, these other films don’t necessarily engage the predicament in which Albert finds himself in the same way.

Albert, the invincible boy who leads everyone up the Eiffel Tower: what irony here. Albert, the night watchman, is surviving the onslaught of reality by the skin of his teeth, and Clair employs fantasy to underscore the point. Like so many his age, Albert knows exactly where he is; the time stoppage reveals to him, and to us, that he really doesn’t know what he thinks he knows. The painful disclosure of Clair’s rollicking comedy is how vulnerable we may be when we think otherwise—when in fact we even think nothing on the score. Compare Paris qui dort to the sentimental It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) by Hollywood’s Frank Capra, and you realize what a gem it is.

All the changes in his circumstance—all the changes in his Paris as he used to know it—underscore Albert’s shift from careless, unmindful experience to mortal awareness and, in so doing, disclose, in retrospect, the psychological basis for wartime and postwar French existentialism. In any case, Albert’s mortal awareness is inflamed by the magical circumstance that this wonderful film posits.

Germany’s Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel more than a hundred years earlier might have had Clair’s first film in his prescient mind: “Appearance is the process of arising into being and passing away again, a process that itself does not arise and does not pass away, but is per se, and constitutes the life-movement of truth. . . . [T]he particular shapes which mind assumes do not indeed subsist any more than do determinate thoughts or ideas . . . [T]hat which obtains distinctiveness in the course of its process and secures specific existence is preserved in the form of a self-recollection, in which existence is self-knowledge, and self-knowledge, again, is immediate existence.”

More generally, and again presciently, Hegel might have had something else in mind. Cinema.

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