Tuesday Morning Foreign Region DVD Report: "Un Homme Qui Dort" (Perec & Queysanne, 1974)

"The directors admitted outright that they had made a film of the sort that neither of them would normally go see—both of them preferred 'Hollywood' to 'art' movies..."

So notes David Bellos in his exemplary biography of Georges Perec, the French literary master and gamesman whose best-known work, the epic epic novel Life: A User's Manual is merely one highlight of a massive and massively inventive oeuvre. A lettriste of almost preternatural power and erudition, Perec not only mastered pretty much every literary form he tackled, he invented a number of new (and daunting ones). But he wasn't just about formal ingenuity. His novel La Disparation (translated into English by Gilbert Adair as A Void) is a long lippogram, written entirely without the use of the letter "e." But beyond its virtuosity and madcap, reflexive humor (one character actually, and for no good diegetic reason, explodes before he can say the word "egg" ["oeuf"]) its haunting, Kafka-esque story of inexplicable loss and free-floating sadness. Perec's 1967 novel Un homme qui dort is, by Perecian standards, a relatively straightforward work—its most noteworthy stylistic feature is its unfailingly beautiful use of the second person singular. It tells the story of its title character's attempted withdrawal from the world. At first the book's "you" seems a victim of depression; but the narrative grows more acute, and eventually genuine philosophical ideas emerge, and intertwine with the question of how to apply a philosophy to life as actually lived in a society/world that one cannot, finally, turn one's back on.

In the early '70s Perec and his friend Bernard Queysanne, a filmmaker whose experience had heretofore been as an assistant director, teamed up to make a film of the book. While much of the film's narration—which comprises the entirety of the film's verbal content; there is no dialogue—is taken directly from the novel, Perec jettisoned the book's linear structure in favor of, Bellos explains, "a mathematical construction. After the prologue (part 0, so to speak) there are six sections. The six sections are interchangeable in the sense that the same objects, places, and movements are shown in each, but they are all filmed from different angles and edited into different order, in line with the permutations of the sestina. The text and the music are similarly organized in six-part permutations, and then edited and mixed so that the words are out of phase with the image except at apparently random moments, the last of which—the closing sequence—is not random at all but endowed with an overwhelming sense of necessity."

Indeed. It's this structural sophistication that makes the 77-minute film so peculiarly compelling. As the screengrabs here suggest, much of the film's imagery comes from the playbook of the surreal and avant-garde. It's not hackneyed—we will never get our fill of reflections in cracked mirrors—or presented in a hackneyed way...merely familiar. It's in the differing permutations that they gain power. We start seeing them in new ways. An entire world is created through shifts in perspective and dislocations, and it's achieved so seamlessly that the viewer may well become hypnotized without quite understanding why.

Here's the conclusion of Bellos' sentence about the filmmakers' attitude towards their final product: "...but now that they had seen it properly, they, too, were moved to tears." As you may well be.

One can't credit lead actor Jacques Spiesser enough, for embodying the disengaged protagonist without making him seem like a prat, always a risk with this kind of material. Because the film only has a narration track, dubbing isn't the problem it usually is with foreign language films, and the wonderful La Vie Est Belle Region 2 DVD edition of this film presents it with its original French narration by read by Ludmila Mikael, and an English translation of the narration read, with exemplary flatness, by Shelley Duvall. The second disc contains two films about Perec (who died in 1982), both by Queysanne, featuring reminiscences from varied friend and colleagues, including the invaluable American-born litterateur Harry Mathews.

All the supplements are in French only, which may provide a pretext for one's brushing up. Still, one wishes for an all-Englished version of this wonderful package.

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  • Jake Savage

    Wonderful film, and a wonderful write-up.

    I wrote a review, too. http://cinematalk.wordpress.com/2008/04/11/a-man-asleep/

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