PARIS QUI DORT (Films Diamant, FR 1923-25)
Regia/dir., scen: René Clair; f./ph: Maurice Desfassiaux, Alfred Guichard; scg/des: André Foy; cast: Henri Rollan (Albert), Albert Préjean (l’aviatore/the aviator), Charles Martinelli (Professor Bardin), Madeleine Rodrigue (la donna indipendente/the independent woman), Louis Pré fils (il poliziotto/the detective), Myla Sellar (Jacqueline, la nipote del professore/the professor’s niece), Marcel Vallée (il ladro/the thief), Antoine Stacquet (l’industrale/the industrialist); data uscita/released: 6.2.1925; 35mm, 1527 m., 67’ (20 fps); fonte copia/print source: Cinémathèque Française, Paris.
Didascalie in francese / French intertitles.
Imagined one November night in 1922, after “two or three pipes full of opium”, and filmed during the summer of 1923, Paris qui dort brought the revelation of a singular and enchanting new film talent – René Clair, farceur, ironist, and cinematic troubadour of Paris cityscapes. That the film sat on a shelf for some 15 months before finding a distributor suggests just how novel (and thus risky) Clair’s nascent comic vision was, untainted by the interminable serials and turgid melodramas that then monopolized national screens.
Ironically, Clair owed his debut to one of the leading purveyors of rank commercialism of the day, Henri Diamant-Berger. A discerning film journalist turned canny producer (he’d chaperoned Raymond Bernard’s feature debut, Le Petit café, with Max Linder, in 1919) and mediocre director, Diamant-Berger had made pots of money for Pathé with his serial adaptation of Dumas’s The Three Musketeers in 1921 and had immediately followed it up with 20 Years After, which was less successful. Alarmed by the diminishing returns, Pathé withdrew its backing before Diamant-Berger could get the last instalment of Dumas’s musketeer trilogy, The Viscount of Bragelonne, into production. Stranded with several of his “stock players” (notably Henri Rollan and Charles Martinelli, who had been Athos and Porthos) and technicians (cameraman Maurice Desfassiaux), he finally succeeded in honoring their contracts by producing a series of on-the-cheap comedies. When Clair’s hopes of making his first film under the supervision of his mentor Jacques de Baroncelli fell through, the latter gave him a recommendation to Diamant-Berger... And the rest is film history.
What still enchants today in Paris qui dort is the first-time director’s sheer delight in expressing himself with a camera, and the manifest pleasure he takes in discovering his hometown through a lens – though openly harking back to the early cinema of Méliès, Lumière, and knockabout pre-war comedy (be on the look-out for a Chaplin effigy Clair briefly places in the restaurant décor), the film also looks forward to the French New Wave, which celebrated Paris and on-location shooting with equal abandon (yet mean-spiritedly refused to see in Clair a kindred auteur). Most of all, Paris qui dort is a very funny film, full of witty detail and gags (the hero’s discovery of Parisians frozen in their most comical social attitudes; the wild party in the restaurant; the survivors’ alternating moments of boredom and frenzy on their makeshift home on the third platform of the Eiffel Tower).
Paris qui dort is least interesting for its science-fiction pedigree, and Clair was certainly right to treat his plot with MacGuffin-like offhandedness (the perfunctory, underdressed sets, in particular the mad scientist’s lab, have a cartoonish simplicity that suits Clair’s blithe purpose – they were the work of André Foy, a leading illustrator for some of France’s leading interwar political and cultural journals). Instead, Clair uses his catchy premise – six characters on holiday from society’s constraints when a mad scientist invents a ray that turns the world into a modern-day Pompeii – to animate a series of permutations on the theme of motion and rhythm: the foundation of Clair’s vision of the cinema.
In later life, Clair would show less indulgence with this youthful indiscretion. Embarrassed by what he considered crude or botched aspects of his early pictures, Clair had long reserved the right to revise them and edit out “a lot of bad things”. In 1971, he got around to a makeover of Paris qui dort. But in excising continuity errors and tightening up the film’s rhythm – exit some 600 metres of film! – he also destroyed the mood of a midsummer flânerie that is crucial to the film’s enduring charm. Non-speed-corrected and disastrously cropped to make room for a piano track (by Jean Wiener), Paris qui dort was reduced to a jerky, impatient 34-minute featurette.
The story, however, has a happy ending. In 2000, the Cinémathèque Française unearthed and restored the film to its original, full-aperture feature length. Clair perhaps would have been displeased, but Giornate audiences will find this a perfect introduction to the world of René Clair.