I doubt Perec was any kind of filmic scholar despite the avalanche of pop culture references in his tomes like Life: A User’s Guide and A Void will have you believe but there is a certain “C’est quoi ce bordel” that permeates his best work. A Man Asleep in a way manages to be self-biographical with it’s second person prose approaching this unconscious rhythm of writing. Only the barest of essentials are included in the text. The character you’re stuck with for 95 pages is this singular, drab, unappealing boring character that’s used to deflect whatever emotions you have outwards into the setting. Perec’s cipher for no-one is done in the book very well, His lack of detail works well in such a small allotment of time and the focus on Procedure or lack thereof mimics a universal measure that I think most people with any sense of ennui can relate to but what’s even more surprising is how the movie through only direct quotations manages to transform this into a bludgeoning critique of the Lost Boy movement and everyone associated with it.
For a first feature Quaysenne & Perec go for a literal adaptation of the text. Every line spoken from it is a direct quote and not much is changed as a translation but what is changed is the form and this is where it gets interesting. The mid 70s proved to be a bizarre transition in French cinema. Godard’s dream of a Maoist utopia had died that he’d explore in Numero Deux a year later, Truffaut finished Day For Night which would be his (poor) attempt at coming to terms with the cinema landscape he helped create and independent cinema allowed for a bunch of low budget productions like this. Rather than trying to jump ahead with cinematic advances, Perec works backwards. The opening credits pasted on the Paris suburbs echoes 400 blow’s opening of a car travelling around the Eiffel tower but never quite reaching it. It shows a black and white world not of necessity but by choice, the vibrance and promise of the New Wave is replaced with dilapidated buildings and physical/moral decay. This cuts to a pan to the titular man’s bedroom adorned with Eschers and Magrittes preserves the worst aspect of Perec’s writing and contorts it into a visual metaphor.
This approach decontextualizes a lot of the words Perec wrote in the novel. A narration of the novella tracks over the image, sometimes juxtaposing it and sometime contradicting it. This focus on the second person detaches this from conventional voiceover work. Ludmilla Mikael quotes the book with the passion of reading a shopping list as the man’s life is described in laborious yet somehow sparse detail (A five second cut is given to the man’s end of year exams while the dust motes on the top of a light switch take four minutes to adequately convey). Yet even with all these parts the film remains surprisingly unconventional despite the liberties it’s taking with the medium.
For most of this film the director’s sympathies are never clearly stated. Part of the reason is that you get very little sense of him as a character as he wonders round paris letting his body merge with the surroundings but I think there’s something far more sinister working at the sides. Most of the contemporary writing I’ve found on this seem to treat it as a work about the severity of depression and that I can understand. The unique ways that Perec captures the minutely insignificant detail of everyday life in an autonomous existence is a very tempting one. This parallel has aged very well, with the idea of the human who has no need to exist in the world in a world that has no need for him is a common feeling especially today with capital accelerationism making the modern world feeling abstract and unreal (It’s a shame Perec never lived to see the internet given he predicted what it would do to people).
Up to this point this was a movie I loved. It managed to capture a feeling of isolation and claustrophobia like nothing I’ve ever seen or since. It’s a life looking at art, science, architecture, The World as a knowing consumer and nothing else, every pot of coffee and bowl of cereal the same as the last, Jacques Spiesser (who probably a bit too old for the role but he pulls it off) fulfils the everyman role searching for meaning in the world which mimics the way I had memorised the position of every crack of plaster in my small one bedroom apartment, a lifetime enamoured with the machine that could access the internet. The physical became less and less real, what was the point of original ideas and art anymore when everything was so easily replicated (Took me ten years to realised Walter Benjamin wrote the same thing more eruditely in 1935). I thought this was a movie that finally understood me, one that I could finally relate to in a way that a self-contained introvert never could with other works of fiction, it was so inorganic and honest about the world. It made me feel like my world view was justified, it felt special.
And then the ending happened.
The last 15 minutes change the pace and tone entirely. The words are the same (In the times I’ve read the story I’ve never noticed this switch before) but the rose has welted leaving only thorns. The film directly attacks the viewer. It implicates them, ripping apart these feelings so common to the cis white able-bodied males this film does such a good at comforting now exposes their narcissism. The shift goes from the judgement of landscapes to the people around him, the black and white colours invert and the cuts are suddenly quicker barely giving time to process each image. Snap judgements are made of the artifice and the context the Man is placed in is suddenly more apparent. Quaysenne’s addition to the text turns this into a condemnation which is something the text sorely needed. Re-watching it now I can’t help but this this kind of mindset is a trap, a Nagleite motif that would be a ripe target for fascism. In this new lens the film gains even more power as not just does pit point directly to causes of it but it also presents a solution to the characters myopia through aggression and understanding of the wider world, a technique that endears it more than empty acts of compassion that plague it’s predecessors taking place in a fake world. Perec and Quaysenne understand fascism. I can’t speak for either of them but Perec’s writing indicates some element of biography in all his works but it’s Quaysenne’s whose able to take his prose and apply it like a scalpel to the flesh to remove the growing tumour.
A common theme I find in films I truly adore (This, The Man Who Stole The Sun and Love Exposure would be a good Top 3 for this example) are films that deal with unchecked privileged boredom and its consequences. This complete lack of existence under an oppressive world where these people are the top of the hierarchal food chain and yet remain miserable for the world (blame capitalism, it’s easier that way) and yet unlike other films in their genres these three give you characters with permanent goals at the end from making it to another day to finding where you are in the world or even blowing up Tokyo if you want to. Those three movies recognise how deadly this affect is but only this film offers a solution and isn’t that the thing people who watch these movies are looking for?