One and two and con-ga!
While 1925’s Paris Qui Dort is not, as some exceptionally forgetful film historians have claimed, the first French science fiction film (Hello—Georges Méliès?), it’s certainly a seminal work. Its descendants include a couple of classic Twilight Zone episodes and its imagery is echoed in later end-of-the-world films like On the Beach. Yet Paris Qui Dort is short and sweet, a surreal little confection, slapstick frosting over a disturbing center. It’s a remarkable maiden effort for a young filmmaker, even one as talented as René Clair.
As the film opens it’s dawn in the City of Light, and a young night watchman emerges, yawning, from his shelter up on the third level of the Eiffel Tower. A vast silence greets him; this is a silent film anyway, of course, but Clair still manages to convey the immense unnatural absence of the sounds of a living city. Albert, the watchman, rubs his eyes and stares down in disbelief. The streets and parks are all deserted; there isn’t a soul moving anywhere below him in the brilliant morning light. Bewildered, he descends through the labyrinth of the tower and emerges at last at ground level.
As the sun creeps higher and Albert wanders through the empty streets, we get a lovely look at prewar Paris. With their human context removed, the streets and landmarks take on personalities of their own, almost become another world. At last he finds a solitary figure, a ragpicker frozen in the act of going through a trash can. He attempts to speak to the stranger, who might as well be a wax mannequin. Albert reacts with nervous humor, treating the whole situation as a joke. He wanders on and sees a thief frozen in the act of running with a stolen necklace, with a gendarme frozen in close pursuit. Albert removes the necklace from the thief’s hand and tucks it into his own pocket, and we see exactly how long it takes for notions of a social contract to fall by the wayside in a disaster. Why not help himself, if the world has gone crazy?
More people are encountered, in solitary immobility—a well-dressed drunk leaning against a wall, a taxi driver asleep at the wheel of his cab. All the clocks have stopped at 3:25, and it becomes plain why there are so few people in evidence: these are all night wanderers. The rest of Paris is dormant indoors. Exhausted and scared now, Albert collapses on a bench and puts his hands over his eyes, envisioning the crowded streets, the automobiles and horse-drawn carriages, the throngs of people. They vanish, however, as soon as he uncovers his eyes. He can’t wake up from this dream.
And then, Albert glimpses an automobile in motion. He tries to signal to the motorists, and finally commandeers the taxi and drives off in pursuit (the taxi driver makes no protest as he’s shoved into the back seat like so much luggage). Albert catches up to the other car, which is full of people: a pilot, a wealthy businessman, a beautiful girl, and a Scotland Yard detective handcuffed to the petty thief he has been transporting. Explanations are exchanged and Albert learns that the others were all passengers on a plane that landed shortly after 4AM, only to find that the airport crew—and everyone else—is in the same state of immobility as the citizens of Paris. The party works out that whatever it was that happened at 3:25 only affected people at ground level, since neither the plane’s passengers nor Albert up on the top level of the tower were affected.
The businessman insists they rush off to see whether his young mistress is all right. Arriving at her apartment, they find the door locked—apparently the businessman hasn’t got a key—and so the thief offers his expertise. The detective uncuffs him and the thief gets the door open, but once they get inside the businessman finds his mistress frozen in the act of entertaining a gentleman caller with whom she seems to be on affectionate terms. Everyone has a good, if slightly uneasy, laugh at the businessman’s expense.
Off they all go to a nightclub in Montmartre, petrified in dreary late-night revelry: a couple of partiers in paper hats and their lady friends, waiters, an orchestra in mid-swing. Most of them look as though they were already asleep when the catastrophe struck. Our survivors help themselves to champagne; more social order is flung to the winds as they drink. One of the clubbers is relieved of her jewelery and it is presented as a gift to the group’s only woman, in an indication of rivalries to come. The thief suggests they all go out and loot the banks and department stores of Paris. Why not, after all? The detective enthusiastically seconds the motion—so much for law and order! The businessman alone attempts to leave some money in a waiter’s hands as they leave. The thief ducks back and snatches it, not having realized yet that money has lost any practical value in this new world.
Having helped themselves to food, wine, fancy clothes and luxury items, the survivors withdraw to an Olympian existence on the top level of the Eiffel Tower, picnicking amid the clouds and perching like overdressed gargoyles on the girders. Paradise quickly crumbles, however, under their mounting sense of ennui and the fact that they number five men to one woman. In one scene the girl wanders restlessly around the tower platforms, followed by the edgy men all in a line like mallard ducks. Jealous quarrels and violence erupt, as do suicidal acrobatics a thousand feet above the pavement. What is left of civilization is about to collapse when a radio transmission is heard coming from the transmitter room—somebody else is alive out there! Frantic, our heroes—such as they are—descend to street level and pile into the car, speeding through the empty streets in search of the person sending the SOS…
Unlike a lot of silent films that have survived only in mutilated form, Paris Qui Dort has actually been padded out. The longest version clocks in at 54 minutes, but this one was unauthorized by René Clair and contains a lot of extended takes that add nothing to the story. The shortest version is the American release (under the alternative titles The Crazy Ray and At 3:25) at just about 19 minutes. Clair tinkered with the editing over his lifetime, and his final definitive version runs about 30 minutes. All prints are in good condition; Paris Qui Dort has aged well in just about every respect, especially the cinematography by Paul Guichard and Maurice Desfassiaux.
Where can you find it? The authorized director’s cut is included on the Criterion Region 1 release of Clair’s early sound film Under the Roofs of Paris, but you can watch the American version on Image Entertainment’s release of last week’s topic, The Bells. Just why it was thrown in with a supernatural melodrama I’ve no idea, but the contrast between the two is entertaining. The American edit manages to keep the plot nicely coherent and intact, also, which could be fairly rare— Metropolis was not only butchered in its stateside release, its plot was entirely rewritten. Whether you see Paris Qui Dort or The Crazy Ray, I guarantee its light and air, its empty Paris full of silence under silence, will haunt your memory long after its human protagonists are forgotten.
Kage Baker is a writer of science fiction and fantasy and a regular blogger at Tor.com. She has a short story, Are You Afflicted with DRAGONS?, in the forthcoming anthology The Dragon Book: Magical Tales from the Masters of Modern Fantasy, edited by Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann.