The principal members of the new generation of cineastes were Abel Gance, Germaine Dulac, Jean Epstein and Marcel L’Herbier, but always in the vanguard was Louis Delluc. In 1922 he made the first of the three films he would direct in his short life, La Femme de nulle part, but he was responsible for a hive of other activities that give one the sense of a film laboratory in which a new kind of cinema was being forged. With his natural publicist’s flair for the memorable phrase, Delluc dubbed the group “Impressionist”, more to distinguish it from the Expressionist film-makers in Germany than to suggest any particular allegiance to the French movement of painters. In many ways a fairly disparate group of film-makers, what they had in common was a desire to forge a “pure cinema” observing its own rules, free from the undermining conventions of the theatre.
One of the most significant landmarks of the avant-garde cinema that was taking place after the First World War was Paris qui dort, a short film made by a young journalist called Rene Clair.
The nightwatchman of the Eiffel Tower looks out over Paris. To his alarm, he notices that nothing is moving. He hurries down the hundreds of steps to find out what is going on. In the streets he comes upon motionless cars and pedestrians who have been frozen like mannequins. The whole of the city is asleep. Only he, safe in his perch at the top of the tower, and the six passengers of an aeroplane that had been flying above the city, have been high enough to escape the effects of a mad scientist’s sleep ray.
Paris qui dort is a charming film that eludes any attempt to categorize it. It contains elements of comedy, science fiction and documentary; it is a fantasy whose poetry lies in harnessing the extraordinary in the real. The nightwatchman invites the little group of air travellers, the only people in the city to have been spared the sleep ray, to come back to his home. As we watch them picnic in the airy heights, laying out their rugs amid the iron girders of the tower, much of the appeal of the sequence lies in the authencity of the location. We feel exhilaration at this spectacular use of space, seeing for ourselves the real streets below, knowing that the wind ruffling the edges of the rug comes not from some machine in a studio but from Paris skies.
When the film was first shown, Clair wrote an article to explain what he had hoped to achieve with his startling debut: “I believe that the cinema must be above all visual”.