Thursday, July 15, 2010

Un homme qui dort (Georges Perec & Bernard Queysanne, 1974)

You are just a murky shadow, a hard kernel of indifference, a neutral gaze avoiding the gaze of others.


The title of Bernard Queysanne and Gerges Perec's 1974 haunting masterpiece, Un homme qui dort (based on Perec's novel of the same name), translates roughly to "A Man Asleep", and that is an accurate description of the sole character in this beautifully fractured tale of alienation and isolation. The character is a man 25 years of age (Jacques Speisser), living alone in a cramped, lonesome Parisian apartment. We never learn his name, and we never hear him utter even a single word of dialogue. We simply view him going about various chores and activities that seem to take on a ritualistic importance: making a cup of Nescafe, reading, brushing his teeth, playing solitaire, attempting to fall asleep, piling dirty laundry into a basin of murky water, avoiding contact with friends and family so that a pile of crumpled letters accumulate near his door, and on occasion, trudging outdoors for a trip to the cinema or the diner. The film's opening segments contrast this unnamed man indulging in these repetitive routines with exterior shots of inhabitants in the city systematically going through the motions of every day life, and it becomes quickly clear that we are observing a human all but completely removed from the rhythms of society, marching to the beat of his own drum. The only words spoken in the film are done so by a female voice-over, who reads strikingly poetic passages from Perec's novel that convey the various emotional turmoils and anxieties felt by the nameless protagonist, as the character continues to avoid all contact with family and friends, and interaction with society in general as he slips further and further into this solipsistic void.

Un homme qui dort
is shot in gorgeous black and white by cinematographer Bernard Zitzerman, and the film more than once recalls the work of Alain Resnais; with its classy compositions and gliding camera and enigmatic voice-over, and especially with its use of high contrast black and white in the latter part of the film, which is used to further give the outdoor scenes an alien quality, so foreign does the nameless hero feel walking the streets of his very own block. It is also fascinating how the camera methodically pushes in and out on the man in moments of contemplation, as though he were a specimen of loneliness under some giant existential microscope, whose very existence is on the verge of dissipating at any moment. The music in the film is sparse but used effectively, alternating between a high-pitched ambient tone that crescendos arbitrarily without warning, and an urgent clicking gallop, punctuated by harsh bangs on a piano. This disconcerting and distressing soundtrack only heighten the overwhelming sense of angst and disquietude that accompany the continuous shots of the young man and his vacant, lifeless stare, as he embarks on one lonesome, meaningless endeavor after the next.

There is no traditional narrative here, no backstory, no indications as to what could have possibly gone wrong in this persons life, or if anything ever went wrong at all. There is only the shell of a man, withdrawn, cut-off, sitting around and waiting until there's nothing left to wait for. By the end of the movie, the character is indulging himself in various delusions and launching into venemous, misanthropic speeches comparing humans to monsters, before a final bleak voice-over seems to suggest that nothing has been learned here, and that the character may never find peace, may never find a compromise, a possible means of actually living his life, as opposed to sleepwalking through it, as long as he is giving himself to these conditions. Un homme qui dort is a powerful experience for anyone who's ever felt like cutting themselves off from the world completely, for anyone who's just wanted to totally disappear from everything. It's a terrifying yet beautiful glimpse into a sad, sick life not led, and a piercing call to arms against neutrality and indifference. To disappear from the world is not difficult; to disappear from yourself is an entirely different matter, and this is a film that recognizes that with a deep, aching conviction.






2 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

"Un homme qui dort is shot in gorgeous black and white by cinematographer Bernard Zitzerman, and the film more than once recalls the work of Alain Resnais; with its classy compositions and gliding camera and enigmatic voice-over, and especially with its use of high contrast black and white in the latter part of the film, which is used to further give the outdoor scenes an alien quality, so foreign does the nameless hero feel walking the streets of his very own block."

Drew, this is a beautifully-written essay on yet another film you have carefully chosen for its apparent underexposure. I have not seen it, but am fascinated by it's stated comparison to Resnais' work (and maybe even Antonioni's?) and by it's Bressonian minimalism. Some of what you pen here also recalls Melville's first film UN SILENCE DE LA MER, with the 'wordless, daily routine' sequences, and it's a clear case of building the essence of a character with little narrative embelishment. It has the descriptive power of literature, with an apparent poetic visual style. I'll look for it, and thank you for bringing everyone's attention to this vital work of French cinema, and for stating your case so magnificently!

Drew said...

Thanks for the comment, Sam. You are right of course that the theme of alienation here is highly reminiscent of the great Antonioni, and that the minimal nature certainly evokes the spirit of Bresson. Outstanding points, as always.

Melville is one of the next major director's I plan on exploring in the near future. I've been neglecting his work for no real reason for years, but have finally come around and am ready to delve into what promises to be an impressive body of work. His first work that you've mentioned here sounds very intriguing, and as I always approach new director's in a chronological fashion, this will surely be the first one I end up watching. Looking forward to it!