Adapted by Georges Perec from his 1967 book, Un homme qui dort follows a twentysomething student as he (mostly) walks the streets of Paris, including at night and in rain, “[rejecting] nothing and [refusing] nothing,” “[letting] go and [allowing] himself to be carried along.” He is, in some sense, asleep, dreaming. Like Perec, whom the Second World War orphaned, the student appears solitary, unconnected; an existential wanderer, he ends up nowhere in particular, except that most of the time he goes back from the tiny apartment from which he started. Perhaps that first from in the previous sentence should be to; but who can say?
The central—the one stabilizing—image in this arty black-and-white film is the poster on the boy’s wall above his bed. It is based on Magritte’s 1937 oil painting La reproduction interdite, in which a man facing a mirror sees the image of himself that we see: the back of his head. (Back, front; from, to: see the point of my earlier joke?) The film’s title refers to the man in the poster.
In three ways the young protagonist is visually linked to the man in the poster. (Magritte used poet Edward James, who had commissioned the painting, for its dreamy back-headed portrait.) We see the boy sitting up in bed, with the poster on the wall visible just above his head. Later, a double exposure giving us two images of the boy’s face seems to be mimicking Magritte’s double-image of the back of a head. Finally, in a darkened movie theater the boy appears in a vast multiplication of Magritte’s double-image, its components showing both the front and back of his head, with the whole shot resembling the infinitely reflective Hall of Mirrors in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941). Something else ties together boy and poster. The latter, necessarily, is mute; and we never hear the former say a word or make some other sound, a hm, a grunt, whatever. His is the muteness of dream. He inhabits a silent film except for its plethora of realistic sounds both inside and out. The film’s dreamlike associativeness includes nifty transitions wherein one sound becomes another, such as the dripping faucet at home that becomes a beating clock—or heart, perhaps?—in the vast room where the boy and countless others are taking an academic exam. The film is edited by Andrée Davanture and Agnès Molinard.
It is not the case, though, that the film is without speech. There is extensive voiceover; Ludmila Mikaël, who reads Perec’s third-person, largely sophomoric “philosophical” narration (one assumes this is deliberate), in effect plays an invisible projection of the boy’s inner life: his adolescent psyche; the pretentious and, then, roiling moods and impressions hiding behind his largely impassive façade. There is much preciousness and some rage in this boy.
Heavily influenced by Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961), written by Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Robbe-Grillet’s own remarkable L’Immortelle (1963), young Moroccan-born Bernard Queysanne directed Un homme qui dort with exceptional fluidity. His camera becomes the eyes of the boy, liberated by dream, roaming Parisian streets, entering, withdrawing, compensating for an impoverished, mundane existence that vaguely reminds us of Raskolnikov’s and, perhaps, faintly refers to the post-1968 collapse of French political idealism, the waking dreams of committed youth. Visually, the film may be too derivative to suggest anything more than a generalized dream; but it sharply situates its protagonist in a perpetual present that expunges the participation of memory that characterizes its principal influence, Resnais’s masterpiece. Jacques Spiesser, near the outset of a still flourishing, prolific career, is excellent as the student.
Queysanne and Perec, who died of lung cancer at age 45 in 1982, won the Prix Jean Vigo for this film.
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