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- This article first appeared in the September 2021 issue of Sight and Sound.
About two years ago, on a shivery November afternoon in Paris, I did something that would have given my Vietnamese parents a fright. After a seminar on psychogeography, I and other attendees were instructed to experiment with a dérive, or a drift – a practice first adopted by the situationists, a group of avant-garde artists and radicals in the 1950s and 60s, with the aim of wandering the city without purpose, stripped of obligations, all while taking notes of the effects specific surroundings can have on a human body. And so, we took our shoes off and roamed aimlessly for about 30 minutes, flipping a coin at every crossroad to determine which way we should turn.
The experience was electric. When my bare soles touched the cold ground of the surprisingly clean boulevard, the sensation coursing through my limbs was striking, as if I could feel the pulse of the city beneath my feet. I became more alert to forbidding signs. Private courtyards. ‘No trespassing’ passageways. In mere months the pandemic would arrive, and such restrictions intensified. Each footstep carried a larger sense of anxiety, and unprotected interactions, whether with others or with the simple earth, grew precarious.
During lockdown – or confinement as the French call it – I became obsessed with The Man Who Sleeps (1974), codirected by the novelist Georges Perec and Bernard Queysanne. I was already a fan of Perec’s writings, especially An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, a short book that doubles as a psychogeographical exercise in which the author documents every detail that happens at Place Saint-Sulpice over the course of three days. From the number of passing buses to a man ravaged by tics, these quotidian occurrences are given equal poignancy. The rhythm of urban life in Paris comes startlingly alive, with plenty of winking charm.
The rarely screened The Man Who Sleeps is similarly attentive to minuities, though with an added dose of cynicism. Winner of the prestigious Jean Vigo Award and based on Perec’s own novel of the same name, this languid black-and-white debut follows an unnamed 25-year-old student, played by Jacques Spiesser, who decides to retreat from the demands of modern living. Neglecting his exams, he either lounges around in his tiny studio or promenades aimlessly through strangely empty Parisian streets. The film has no dialogue, only a hypnotic voiceover by Ludmila Mikaël that acts as an omnipresent narrator, revealing the young man’s thoughts and actions using the second-person pronoun. The result is eerie, otherworldly and utterly captivating. The unusual pronoun choice places the spectator both inside and outside the man’s point of view, which in turn mirrors his experience of living in the city: he might be a part of the madding crowd flowing through Gare Saint-Lazare, yet he is utterly alienated from it all.
If there were a contest for a film that lists the greatest number of Parisian streets, The Man Who Sleeps would surely win. In between descriptions of the man’s daily activities, a steady circuit of cinemas, cafes and museums, the unseen narrator rattles off street names. “You plunge into Ile Saint-Louis, you take the Rue Vaugirard, and head towards Pereire, towards Chateau-Landon,” the voiceover says, like a GPS app, and yet what’s visible on screen is not footsteps but a sequence of the man itemising his living costs. Specific places turn abstract, collapsing on to one another, bounded by monetary concerns.
Watching the film in isolation, and restricted from walking more than 1km from my own small studio, I revelled in a private game of identifying the neighbourhoods Spiesser passes through. The recognition was peculiar. I had felt settled enough in Paris to pinpoint specific locations, yet during this time, those places also turned unreal, outside my sphere of permissibility. Steering clear of iconic Parisian spots, the film does feature the Eiffel Tower at one point. However, here half of the edifice is obscured by a strange mist that’s slowly swallowing the structure whole. As Paris becomes specific and non-specific all at once, the transformation recalls sociologist George Simmel’s observation at the beginning of the 20th century that city dwellers tend to be a “blasé person” who is indifferent to his surroundings. Spiesser’s character could be one such person, as the narrator sombrely enunciates: “You are the wave that ebbs and flows from Place to Place, from the Madeline to Place de la République.” He is but a drop in the pool of modernity.
It is difficult to say whether the man’s act of resistance is a conscious attempt to thwart capitalistic impulses or a mere depressive episode. Nevertheless, the last ten minutes of The Man Who Sleeps suggest that such endeavours are ultimately futile. Suddenly, the leisurely narration turns frenetic, beckoning the young man to rejoin the rat race. This shift parallels the trepidations that come with current ‘return to normalcy’ urges, even when the pandemic still rages on in many parts of the world. I can’t help but think of how, in modern Athens, vehicles of public transport are called metaphori, and thus to take a bus is to take a ‘metaphor’. In other words, movement is a kind of language. During my confinement, I was at a loss for words, and The Man Who Sleeps and its wanderings provided a substitute. Now as I regain my ‘words’, and my movement, the film feels like a call for change, a way to interact with one’s environment outside of societal pressures and criteria.