(7/10) The first feature film dealing with the stopping of time, French experimental movie Paris qui dort is a poetical comedy that uses science fiction trappings to recapture the romanticism of a Paris before the hustle and bustle of the modern speed-crazy world of the 1920s.
The Crazy Ray (Paris qui Dort). 1924, France. Written, directed and edited by René Clair. Starring: Henri Rollan, Madeleine Rodrigue, Charles Martinelli. Cinematography: Maurice Desfassiaux, Paul Guichard. Produced by Henri Diamant-Berger. IMDb score: 7.3. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A.
In 1924 filmmaker René Clair thought the French cinema had fallen into a bit of a slump, and wanted to make a film to comment on the problem. Thus we got Paris qui Dort (literally Paris Asleep), one of the few French sci-fi films before the country completely fell off the genre map for almost three decades. Available for home viewing is primarily a shortened 35 minute version released in the fifties, and that is the one that I’ll be reviewing.
The long and the short of it all is this: The Eiffel Tower nightwatchman Albert (Henri Rollan) wakes up one morning to find that Paris is asleep. Well not so much asleep, as frozen in time. All streets are empty, apart from a few inhabitants that all seem to have been frozen in mid-step. We have a businessman leaning against a wall, a gendarme chasing a thief, an unhappy young man about to leap into the Seine. Soon Albert meets the only people who seem to be awake, passengers of a small airplane: a tycoon, a pilot, a Scotland Yard detective, a thief, and a flapper – note that these are all staples of the cinema of the era. Soon they realise that Paris is their oyster and much glee and merrymaking ensues as they begin relieving the Parisians of their belongings, and spend a joyous night at a high end restaurant.
Naturally all joy must come to and end, and things turn sour as the men start competing for the sole woman showing signs of life in Paris, the flapper Hesta (Madeleine Rodrigue), and we get a superb chase sequence atop the Eiffel Tower, that is interrupted by a radio message from the niece of a scientist (Myla Seller), whose uncle, we learn, has created a machine that sends out a ray that traverses the Earth. In an animated sequence we are shown that it is effective only at a certain height, which is why the Eiffel Tower watchman and the airplane passengers are unaffected. At exactly 3:25 all clocks in the world stopped, except theirs. They find the scientist and convince him to turn the machine off, and then we get a few comedic scenes with on-off action, and finally all the waking protagonists are assured by a shrink that is has all just been temporary madness on their part – nothing really happened. That is until Albert and Hesta find a ring atop the Eiffel Tower that was part of an earlier scene, assuring them that it was really reality all along. They get engaged as the sun sets over Paris.
The dormant Paris is beautifully filmed in René Clair’s feature debut, in a style later used ad infinitum by post-apocalypse and zombie film makers. Clair shows a steady and inventive hand for filming and directing, and the actors portraying the frozen Parisians are impressive, despite the occasional movement here and there. This is the first film to portray the stopping of time – H.G. Wells was one of the authors that had been toying with the idea in a short story. The film has many English names, and has been called The Crazy Ray, At 3:25 or the literal translation; Paris Asleep. It might as well have been called The Day the Earth Stood Still, a name that would have better suited this film than the 1951 sci-fi classic of the same name – where the stopping of time really is more of a macguffin that only appears for a few minutes on film. Or why not The Last Woman on Earth, as was the title for Roger Corman’s surprisingly sober post-apocalyptic 1960 film, made in only three days. Originally an hour in length, Clair himself cut it down to 35 minutes upon is re-release, and only as such was it available for decades. It has been restored later, close to its original running-time.
In his film Clair tells a little anecdote of French cinema, combining the stark reality of the Lumiére Brothers with the technical stop-frame photography of Georges Méliès. But where Méliès only let us see the result of the stopping of the camera with his magical replacement shots, Clair takes us backstage, to see what happens when the camera isn’t rolling. In a sense we become the all-knowing film makers and the startled actors that come to as time starts again, are portraying the audience. The film is a ode to the film and cinema its juxtaposition of action and stasis, a salutation to that dreamland of movies where dreams and reality meet. As Fernando F. Croce puts it at Cinepassion: “Cinema as reverie, cinema as rhythm: Are the characters dreaming of this petrified world, or are they the dream itself, the cavorting freedom projected by a slumbering city? The answer may rest with the filmmaker’s absent-minded proxy, Professor X (Charles Martinelli), a sort of blobby, benevolent Gallic cousin to Rudolf Klein-Rogge’s Rotwang who can control the freeze-frame by simply throwing a switch.” It is all made with a light and humorous touch, and title cards are used very sparingly, Clair relying on the images themselves to tell the story.
While Clair’s intention was to make a film about film, it is no coincidence that he chose the genre of science fiction to tell it through in 1924. Clair’s mad scientist isn’t using a deadly ray, but the story is clearly inspired by the death ray commotion the same year. Paris Asleep/The Crazy Ray came out on the heels of another French science fiction movie, The City Struck by Lightning (La cité foudroyée, 1924, review), in which a scientist invents a death ray in order to destroy Paris. The movie was closely followed by Soviet director Lev Kuleshov’s The Death Ray (1925) and the American film serials The Power God (1925, review) and The Scarlet Streak (1925, review), both containing death rays, or allusions to such.
The reason for this sudden burst of death ray films spelled “Harry Grindell Matthews“, a British inventor who made headlines all over the world in 1924 and 1925 after his claims of inventing a death ray. Matthews tried to sell his invention to the British army, but refused to give a demonstration of his device. The military refused to buy, but also forbade him from selling it to anyone else. And in the summer of 1924 Matthews left for a short trip to France, where he claimed to have several buyers lined up, causing an uproar in the British press, as gullible people feared that a super-weapon would land in the hands of Britiain’s eternal enemy, France. Despite a few years of travel and big headlines, no-one ever purchased Matthews’ invention, and no proof that anything remotely resembling any sort of ray machine ever existed has surfaced after his death. Most devices used for demonstration purposes look like ordinary search lights with some science fiction-looking modifications.
Ten years earlier, France had had another death ray craze as Paris-based Italian inventor Giulio Ulivi demonstrated his supposed death ray for the French army. Ulivi claimed that his ray could detonate explosives from a distance, and he even gave the military a demonstration in which he was actually able to detonate a number of underwater mines and an ammunition deposit by pointing his ray at them. However, the explosives were set up by himself, and before the military brass agreed to buy his invention, they, like the later Brits, wanted a demonstration where they would do the setup themselves. Ulivi agreed, but unfortunately his death ray “broke down” three days in a row, and the French were unwilling to cough any money. Later, it has been speculated that Ulivi prepped his underwater mines by drilling a hole in them, stuffing them with magnesium and cotton. When water hit the magnesium it ignited and detonated the mines. The cotton worked as a fuse, and by careful planning, Ulivi could anticipate when each mine would go off, and point his death ray at the right spot at the right time.
There’s also another science fiction trope in the film, namely that of stopping time. However, Clair doesn’t so much stop time as he stops people in mid-step. So he’s not manipulating time the way for example Adam Sandler did in Click (2006), but causing people to fall asleep and freeze instantly with the pull of a lever. It’s not clear whether the frozen people are, for example, ageing normally and if their bodily functions work as usual, or if they are preserved in some sort of stasis-like state described in old stories like the Mountain King myths (King Arthur etc) or Snow White in the tale from the Grimm brothers.
This idea of “sleeping oneself into the future”, so to speak, was a popular trope during the 19th century Romance literature, incorporated perhaps most famously in Washington Irving’s 1819 novella Rip Van Winkle and Mary Shelley’s 1826 short story Roger Dodsworth, the Reanimated Englishman. One very influential book on the subject was H.G. Wells’ The Sleeper Awakes (1910), in which a man takes an experimental insomnia drug, falls into a coma and awakes in the year 2100. Cryostasis was probably first explored in film in Harry Houdini’s The Man from Beyond (1920, review), expanded upon in the 1930 musical comedy Just Imagine! and became a popular trope in the forties: a number of Boris Karloff films spring to mind.
Still, the film focuses little on the people who are actually sleeping and more on those still awake. In a way, The Crazy Ray is a continuation of the rather modern idea of super-speed, wherewith characters move so fast that they in a sense become invisible to those around them, and in all practicality are able to “stop time”. This is an idea that is closely linked to the birth of cinema. Early trick filmers like Georges Méliès and Walter R. Booth quickly learned to utilise the possibilities of over- and under-cranking the film camera, thereby creating effects of slow-motion and ultra-rapid photography. One of the first authors to put the idea of super-speed into a scientific context was, again, H.G. Wells. In his 1901 story The New Accelerator a scientist invents a new drug that gives him the power to move faster than he eye can see, and Wells explores the practical implications of this, such as clothes catching fire due to friction and the body’s rapid burning of energy. Immediately after its publication filmmakers all over Europe and the US started making short films which encompassed some super-speed, although it was most often brought on by some use of the exciting new power of electricity in the films. But Paris qui dort is certainly the first feature film built on a similar premise, even if the technique used is really the reverse: slowing down the rest of the world, while leaving the protagonists and antagonists functioning at normal speed.
Nigel Honeybone at horrornews.net also comments on the close relationship between the subject-matter and the nature of film: “More important perhaps, the film is an ode – not so much to Paris as a showcase for technological innovation – automobiles, aviation and, above all, the Eiffel Tower as a formidable beacon of progress – as to a modernity born in, and with, the invention of cinema. Not only are the two founding ends of the cinematic spectrum here reconciled – the realism of August Lumière and Louis Lumière and the magic of Méliès – but Clair implicitly pays homage to other great pioneers like Louis Feuillade and his serial films – the urban dreamlike poetry of Fantômas (1913) and Les Vampires (1915) – as well as Mack Sennett and his madcap comedies with their zany chases and slapstick fist-fights. While shaped by a set of proliferating divisions – utopia versus dystopia, stasis versus motion, still photography versus moving pictures – and demonstrating the power of cinema – the on/off lever and the magic ray of the scientist’s device as analogues for the filmic process – the narrative is not overly ‘knowing’ and the socio-political subtext – anarchy versus monetary society – is kept in check by the comic shenanigans.”
In a way the absence of any other conscious people means that the movie also toys with the empty world subgenre, which is another one that hadn’t really been explored on film at this point, with the exception of the US comedy The Last Man on Earth (1924, review), which came out the same year as The Crazy Ray. But that film only killed off half of humanity: the male population. This was a trope that wouldn’t really catch on until the nuclear war scare of the fifties, perhaps first in Arch Oboler’s no-budget gem Five (1951).
The Crazy Ray seems longer than its run-time of 35 minutes, and the scenes of the group rummaging around town almost gets a little dreary at one point. There is only so much you can do with people looting an empty city. I really do not see how this film could have held up as a longer feature, and Clair certainly made the right decision in cutting it down for its re-release.
René Clair continued his career with intellectual comedy and a dry, often dark, wit. He made a triumphant transition into talkies in 1930-1931 with a string of dark musical comedies; Under the Roofs of Paris, Le Million and À nous la liberté – films that all played slightly with dystopian and sci-fi elements without actually being sci-fi films. Clair’s films often worried about the future society and the advance of technology, reminiscing about a France of bygone days. His first sound films garnered a lot of attention abroad, and his avant-garde attitude and techniques set him forth as the leading renewer of French cinema in the thirties along with Jean Renoir. He moved to UK and USA when WWII broke out and had a successful career abroad, even if critics thought he was stylistically and thematically stuck in old routines.
His reputation improved slightly when returning to France with more emotional films after a decade, but the New Wave movement in the fifties dismissed him as ”making films for old ladies who go to the cinema twice a year”. Nevertheless a new generation of film goers and critics have regarded him as one of the big innovators of French cinema alongside Francois Truffaut. This is a bit ironic, since it was Truffaut who uttered the quote above. Outside of France Clair is perhaps best known for his Hollywood films I Married a Witch (1942) starring Fredric March (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) and femme fatale Veronica Lake, and the Agatha Christie adaptation And Then There Were None (1945). He is sometimes falsely credited for being the first film maker accepted to the l’Académie française, but others, including Jean Cocteau, were included before he was in 1960, but he was the first to be included primarily as a film maker.
Marcel Vallée, playing the thief, would turn up in a supporting role in the French version of Karl Hartl’s 1932 sci-fi mystery melodrama F.P.1. Does not Answer.
The Crazy Ray (Paris qui Dort). 1924, France. Written, directed and edited by René Clair. Starring: Henri Rollan, Madeleine Rodrigue, Charles Martinelli, Loius Pre Fils, Albert Prejean, Myla Seller, Antoine Stacquet, Marcel Vallée. Cinematography: Maurice Desfassiaux, Paul Guichard. Produced by Henri Diamant-Berger for Films Diamant.