Saturday, 4 October 2014

Paris in the dreamtime… Paris Qui Dort (1924)

A recurring dream of my childhood involved the world or at least Merseyside, “stopping” enabling me to walk freely amongst the statuesque neighbours, classmates and teachers… I enjoyed the liberty although I can’t remember the narrative going much further than pushing Timothy Pollard off his bike…

I don’t know how common this dream is but back in the Dadaist days of the early twenties, René Clair was expressing the same fantasy for his first film Paris Qui Dort (also known as The Crazy Ray).  The magic still works for me with the added thrill of seeing this most overcrowded of cities almost completely empty, all roads and avenues quiet and inhabited only by people asleep or frozen in stop-motion. A tourist’s dream: the Louvre without the queuing, Notre Dame without the camera phones and the Champs-Élysées without manic traffic and distracted, slow-moving pedestrians…

But what would you do with your time and without human interaction, how long would the fun of freedom last?

The story begins with the Eiffel Tower’s night watchman, Albert (Henri Rollan) awaking to find an unusually quiet city below him: he stares out but cannot hear or see a living thing. He runs down the Tower’s stairs (pre-figuring Alec Guinness’ panicked descent in The Lavender Hill Mob…) to find the streets emptier than the earliest of Sunday mornings (when did they film the silence?).

Stop motion
At first he’s thrilled by the novelty, a drunk leans frozen against a window, a policeman is just on the point of catching a thief and a man on the point of suicide hovers over the Seine bankside… human life interrupted in the course of its everyday process.

Meanwhile a plane lands off-loading a group of very awake passengers: the pilot (Albert Préjean, later to feature in Under the Roofs of Paris), a rich man (Antoine Stacquet), the glamorous Hesta (Madeleine Rodrigue) and an international thief (Marcel Vallée) accompanied by a detective (Louis Pré Fils). The group walk past frozen airport staff and drive into Paris in disbelief.

By this time Albert has grown a little bored of being on his own and he welcomes these animated people with relief. They head off to the rich man’s house where he is shocked to find his wife caught in an amorous tableau with her lover…

After some more examinations of Parisians asleep the party make themselves to a café: what better thing to do when you’ve the freedom of a sleeping city but get drunk. They take the best wine on offer and Albert homes in on Hesta, stealing clothes and jewellery to impress her.

After the debauchery is concluded the party is seen high up Eiffel Tower in some vertiginously impressive settings: playing chess, picnicking and in the Pilot’s case, hanging off the side of the girders. They’re wearing fine clothes and have an excess of money and jewels… boredom is setting in.

And, when men are bored… their attention shifts to the only woman and pretty soon all of them are fighting over Hesta with Albert and the Pilot in the most energetic confrontation… Is this really the future of free will?

Just as they’re about to knock themselves off the heights, Albert hears a faint voice on their radio: there’s someone else awake in Paris and they want to meet.

Following the radioed instructions, the group makes its way to the house of a young woman (Myla Seller) who explains that her scientist father (Charles Martinelli) is the cause of the city’s sleep and that she needs their help to stop him. They follow her inside and make a grab for the man who, like all truly mad scientists has overlooked the impact of his experimentation.

Myla Seller requests silence
He explains how his ray had covered the lower-lying areas of the city and induced the sleep with Albert and the airplane passengers escaping as they were too high up to be in range. The only problem is; he hadn’t worked out a way to reverse the process…

The Professor explains...
We’ll leave the scientist working frantically on corrective sums and you’ll have to find out for yourself if Paris was ever re-animated. The meat of the story is already in Clair’s impressive set-up and I wonder if his point was not so much about the consequences of total freedom or just the excitement of its possibility?

He’s helped by some amazing city shots from cameramen Maurice Desfassiaux and Paul Guichard who help to paint a convincing picture of a city robbed of consciousness and of the daring Tower-side recklessness of the group.

The film is included as an extra on the Criterion edition of Under the Roofs of Paris* making it doubly hard to resist. It’s available from as well as direct.

*Reader, I was so close to entitling this post Under the Snooze of Paris... sorry.

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