Rene Clair’s first movie Paris qui dort marked the beginning of a long career for the French director, actor, and writer. Made in the early 1920’s (different sources date it in 1923, the year it was produced in, and others in 1924, the year it was released) it “wedded formal experiments with Surrealist fantasy and a touch of populism.” (Vincendeau, pg. 52)
One of Clair’s goals with his early works was to “dispel ‘film d’art’ theatrics (embraced by Able Gance) and recapture the magical zeal of George Melies.” (McGerr, pg. 33) With this ideal in mind, one can place Paris qui dort in the same fantastical genre as Melies' A Trip to the Moon. However, unlike Melies, who was often criticized for his use of static sets in his films, Clair shot Paris qui dort entirely on location.
The movie opens with shots of a night guard, Albert, at the Eiffel Tower awakening for the day only to find the city of Paris frozen, asleep in time. The movie follows him through Paris, where he meets four men and one woman who also escaped the effect of the slumber. They return to the Eiffel tower, fearing what might happen to them as night falls upon the city. For the next few days they enjoy the freedom of having the city to themselves.
Four days later, the receive a plea for help over the wireless from a woman going out to anyone who is awake to hear her. Thrilled by the shear notion of another woman being awake (as there is only one woman- Hesta, in their party), they quickly leave to find the mystery woman. Upon meeting her, she retells the story of her uncle and his ray that is responsible for freezing the city. Eventually the group convinces the uncle to reverse his ray and awaken the city and the party goes to back to their regular lives.
Albert then realizes has no money and uses the ray to freeze the city for his own personal financial gains
. Once the ray is brought under control, the six people find themselves together again, retelling the events of the past few days to the police
. They are eventually released, and the movie ends on a romantic
note with Albert and Hesta returning to the Eiffel Tower.
Clair’s true accomplishment with this movie comes from the visual and technical aspects. The camera is remarkably mobile within the space of the frame, fluidly moving in and out of the rigid tower and “frozen” city. Clair felt after making this film that the:
“esthetic” of the cinema...could be summed up in a single word “motion,” The Crazy Ray is a visual essay on that subject, the film deceives motion and obstructs it; it creates it where it didn’t exist, and constantly juxtaposes the mobile to the immobile...he takes human beings, twists them into shapes and poses, and his camera records their immobility.(McGerr, pg. 36)
Clair’s first film would set the foundation for his entire career. The light-hearted comical tones mixed with elements of fantasy would surface in many of Clair’s other films (i.e., Entr’acte and The Italian Straw Hat). In a response to Tay Garnett, Clair wrote “comedy and the rhythm of comedy were my genre, right or wrong” (Rediscovering French Film, pg. 83)
The budget for the film was so small that filming took place on 21 different days over the course of four months. It was fairly common for movies filmed during the early 1920’s to have a small budget, as France and much of Europe had been devastated by World War I. In addition to the financial limitations, Clair had no editing equipment, so Paris qui dort was shot in sequence and cut as they filmed.
The popularity of comedies in France was growing at the time Paris qui dort was made. At the same time, the Impressionist movement was gaining steam as well, spilling over into French cinema. A counterpart to other avant-garde movements in Europe at the time, such as Germany’s Expressionist movement and Russia’s Montage efforts, Impressionism used the medium of film to express an artistic vision to evoke a viewer’s response.
Although Paris qui dort is not generally placed in this genre, there are certain overlapping elements in the camera work and editing. Clair uses point of view shots, a common technique in Impressionist cinema, but as a whole he lacks the speed between cuts also associated with Impressionism. The one exception to this is the sequence near the end of the film as Albert and his friends tell the police about the events that had taken place, which moves back rapidly through the shots of the sleeping Paris and the party’s adventures in it. One can argue that this sequence is a representation of what is occurring in the minds of Albert and his friends in the form of a flashback, as opposed to being a representation of the story’s narration. Equally, one can also argue that Clair’s point of view shots and flashback sequences in this film lack the depth and emotional involvement in comparisons to Impressionist treatments of the same.
Henri Rollan as Albert
Martinelli as The scientist
Albert Prejean as The pilot
Madeleine Rodrigue as Hesta
Myla Steller as The niece/ daughter of the scientist
Stacquet as The rich man
English titles for the film include The Crazy Ray
, At 3:25
, and Paris Asleep
Bordwell, David and Kristen Thompson, Film History An Introduction, McGraw-Hill INC., New York, 1994.
Dale, R.C., The Films of Rene Clair, Volume I: Exposition and Analysis, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., Metuchen, New Jersey, 1886
McGerr, Celia, Rene Clair, Twain Publishers, Boston, 1980.
Rediscovering French Film, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1983.
Vincendeau, Ginetle, The Companion to French Cinema, British Film Institute, London, 1996.