René Clair, “Paris qui dort” (1925)
An amusing and light-hearted moral fable about what would happen if individuals suddenly had unfettered freedom to do what they wanted without having to answer for the consequences, this short film is an early example of science fiction based around a stock character stereotype of the mad scientist and the idea of a city made immobile, in this case by sleep. A night-guard on duty on the Eiffel Tower wakes up one morning to discover the whole city of Paris has fallen into a deep slumber. He hurriedly descends the tower and, walking around the city, can’t believe what he sees: empty streets, abandoned buildings, eerie spaces. He meets five people who have just come off a plane and who are just as bewildered as he is at the city’s apparent desertion. Before long though they discover the delights of being able to do what they like without getting into trouble: they start stealing small items from people frozen in walking or running stances, snatch a jacket from a slumbering woman sitting in a restaurant and take bottles of wine from waiters’ hands. Like children, they rejoice by joining hands and dancing in circles in fountains and swimming pools and going up the Eiffel Tower to see the sights for free but quickly endless freedom spoils them and petty jealousies and rivalries lead to fisticuffs on various perches of the Tower itself.
Fortunately the six people are saved from falling into complete savagery by a young woman (Myla Seller) who sends out an SOS. The cause of Paris’s slumber is quickly diiscovered and the solution is found just as fast but the film has made its point: a potentially new society with opportunities for new growth and development doesn’t necessarily turn out any better than the old society with all its social conventions, foibles, laws and other restraints. After the city is restored to its normal circadian rhythms, the film continues with the night-guard and the young woman trying to force the city to fall asleep again so they can steal money but their plan is foiled and they end up arrested for robbery: a telling comment that unlimited freedom, once tasted, is difficult to let go.
Images of 1925-vintage Paris landmarks, standing in their lonely and dignified grandeur, can be very eerie or can stir up deep emotions: their geometry and the geometry of the city streets and park layouts suggest a perfect fantasy world. The night-guard can’t quite get his head around this unexpected alien beauty – is he dreaming or is the deserted city for real? – and insists on inspecting cars in the street and trying to wake up people he encounters. The early third of the film in which the night-guard wanders the streets alone is perhaps the best part: the plot stands still while a montage of still shots of city locations passes by. For this reason too the film is of historical value to students of Paris’s growth and urban development.
There is plenty of slapstick comedy in the six wanderers’ adventures as they start to bicker and then fight, and in their discovery of the mad scientist (Charles Martinelli) who turns out to be an imposing yet absent-minded eccentric. Oblivious to the potential power his invention gives him, the scientist proves to be just as human as the six wanderers as he is dotty: he gets into a fight with a fellow scientist and the invention explodes on them. Paris ends up racing at hyper-kinetic speed and, as far as some foreign visitors who have visited the place and experienced the city’s traffic are concerned, has stayed that way since.
Special effects are used imaginatively and some simple animation shots that explain how the night-guard and the plane passengers escaped being put to sleep are very well done. The film chugs along at a medium-fast pace with fighting scenes sped up quickly to suggest emotional frenzy. It seems to this viewer that director Clair uses the limitations of the film technology available to him at the time as much as its benefits: scenes where everyone moves at a fast clip (often common in 1920’s silent films) are used to suggest that the scientist’s invention can influence the speed of life as well as cause it to sleep or to wake.
Although “Paris qui dort” is over 80 years old and the characters’ fashions and mannerisms and the cars they drive have come to look more quaint than dated, the film’s comment on human nature and society and its exploration of Paris as a fantastic sleeping beauty come true while the real Paris of human activity, all dirty, smelly and ill-mannered, exists in the night-guard’s head temporarily ensure that it will continue to enthrall audiences.