(7/10) In a nutshell: A poetic and beautifully filmed 1924 short about a group of people rummaging around a Paris that has been frozen in time. A clever and funny sci-fi subject, but perhaps not a masterpiece of the genre.
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 for Films Diamant. IMDb score: 7.3
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 (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 unlucky young man about to leap into the Seine. Soon Albert meets the only people who seem to be awake, passengers of an 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 showings 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 (review) – 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.
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. 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.
The film in its cut-down version does not seem to suffer at all. On the contrary, it seems a lot longer than 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 done 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 when returning to France with more emotional films after a decade, but the New Wave movement in the fifties disregarded 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 i a supporting role in the French version of Karl Hartl’s 1932 sci-fi mystery melodrama F.P.1. Does not Answer (review).
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.