The French silent science fiction comedy Paris Asleep by René Clair is about a scientist who invents a time-freezing machine that sends out a ray making people caught in its beam fall asleep. For four days he brings Paris to a standstill and everyone – except the watchman of the Eiffel tower and five people in a plane, above the ray’s reach – are frozen into immobility.
Above: a man steals the necklace from a sleeping woman.
Paris Asleep is an experiment with stillness and a display of how the manipulation of movement can affect the characters of the film. By experimenting with film speeds, directions and shots, Clair also experiments with the concept of time and a filmmaker’s ability to manipulate time and stop time all together. The experiments with stillness begin when the watchman wakes up, looks down from the Eiffel Tower and we see a still image of Paris. He immediately notices that something is wrong as the city seems unusual without the movement of cars and people. Then, he looks at his watch, which has been halted during the night – suggesting that the common metric to organise everyone’s life has been removed. Next, we see the watchman walking around the empty streets of Paris, discovering that everyone else is completely immobilised. The arrest of time and suspension of characters seems comical, but also invokes a frightening feeling that they could be stuck in the instant of time forever.
Above: The watchman is looking down upon a Paris asleep.
Above: all the watches have come to a halt.
He meets the other unaffected people from the airplane, and they immediately start taking advantage of their sudden freedoms; indulging in good food, driving in the “frozen” people’s cars and stealing their things. When boredom starts to set in, they hear a cry for help from the scientist’s niece and hurry down to help her. After convincing the scientist to make everything normal again, they quickly miss their previous freedoms. Not being able to face being poor again, they decide to turn on the ray once more. The scientist finds out, turning it off again and the police catch them while they are trying to steal more money.
When the time-freezing machine is turned on and off, Clair manipulates the direction and speed of time by using accelerated motion, slow motion and reverse motion. To make these manipulations realistic, the movement is not limited to people and we see several shots of traffic and city life edited together to create an overall image of the city. The combination of still (paused) images and moving images illustrates the transition from the still life of stopped time to the movement of normal time. In the end of the film no one believes their story about “a sleeping Paris” and they consider if it was all a dream, but after finding a diamond ring at the Eiffel tower they know it was real.
I believe, Paris Asleep is Clair’s way of playing with the magic of cinema, namely the way – especially early cinema – played with the audience by controlling the movie projector from first showing a still image to suddenly “bringing the image into life”. The people frozen by the scientists ray remind me of people in the cinema sitting still (frozen) watching the rays of the film. The filmmaker has the power to freeze people in a moment of time and to temporarily liberate them from their social classifications, to alter their relationships and to change the outcome of events. Paris Asleep turns reality inside out, making reality a dream, and dream a reality.
Above: a chase scene is paused, the theft is without consequence.
Above: a suicide is delayed, and perhaps prevented.
Watch the film here: Paris Asleep – 1925