T. alt.: Le Rayon de la mort. Sog., Scen.: René Clair. F.: Maurice Desfassiaux. M.: René Clair. Scgf.: André Foy. Mus.: Jean Wiener. Int.: Henri Rollan (Albert), Madeleine Rodrigue (Hesta), Albert Préjean (l’aviatore), Marcel Vallée (il ladro), Charles Martinelli (il professor X), Myla Seller (la nipote del professor X), Louis Pré Fils (il detective), Antoine Stacquet (l’industriale miliardario). Prod.: Henri Diamant-Berger per Les Films Diamant. DCP. D.: 59’. Bn.
The security guard at the Eiffel Tower wakes up as a scientist, in his madness, brings the city of Paris to a stop. The streets become a fantastical playground wherein he and a happy band of comrades who have escaped the effects of the ‘Devilish Ray’ can come out to play. Paris qui dort is a cheeky and elegant, witty and bumptiously poetic film that breathes the spirit of freedom. It was René Clair’s first work, designed, as he put it, “to bring cinema back to its roots and rid it of all that stifling artistic fakery”.
It was shot on a low budget in the summer of 1924. A work print was given a press screening in November, but René Clair’s concurrent commitment to Entr’acte delayed its release. The first cut included shots with a few passersby. But a later version, in which the action is frozen, was distributed in England in January 1925, shortly before it came out in France.
René Clair’s first film is a comic fantasy that synthesises much of the then current narrative avant-garde film practice. […] Its roughness testified to his desire to revive “the prewar tradition, that is, the tradition of the French comic shorts” and of Méliès’s féeries. Although he shared the narrative avant-garde filmmakers’ fascination with the ‘cinematographic machine’, Clair disapproved of what he believed to be their excessive aestheticism and redirected the apparatus toward different ends. In Paris qui dort, consequently, the narrative avant-garde film practice is placed explicitly in the service of an amusing fantasy and a wittily satirical vision of society. […]
Like some of its predecessors, Paris qui dort concocts a mixture of the real and the unreal, of reality and fantasy. Its combination of the two, however, is quite unlike that of films by L’Herbier, Epstein, or Dulac. And it involves nothing like the complexity of rhetorical figuring or syntactical relations that characterise their work. Much of Clair’s film is documentary footage of Paris – of its famous monuments, of the inhabitants and vehicles traveling its streets. […] In reproducing that first moment when photographs ‘came to life’, Paris qui dort recovers the magic of the cinema with a simplicity that reminds one of Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. (1924). […] For all of its longueurs and flaws of execution, Clair’s film offers a truly fresh vision of another, marvellous world.
Richard Abel, French Cinema. The First Wave 1915-1929, Princeton University Press 1984