Let me start off with a confession. These last couple of months I have been obsessing over an obscure book that I once found in a secondhand bookstore. Escape attempts: The Theory and Practice of Resistance to Everyday Life (1976) by Stanley Cohen and Laurie Taylor, deals with our (mostly unsuccessful) strategies to escape from the ubiquitous clutches of modern existence. Think of those countless times you have been stuck in traffic, commuting to a bullshit day job. The mindless routine and the senseless grinding that await you when you have finally arrived at your cubicle. The long day comes to a close with the prospect of leaving the office and going home. A sanctuary where, according to Cohen and Taylor, we can focus on identity work and our “real” lives.
We try to escape the drudgery and repetition of everyday life and use a wide variety of strategies. We can go to the movies for instance, or lose ourselves in a hobby. We can also retreat in our minds or, with the help of drugs or alcohol, find a way out by means of intoxication. All these attempts are fed by a nagging feeling of discontent. Or, to use the words of Guy Debord and the Situationists: that real life is elsewhere.
But even though Cohen and Taylor seem to acknowledge the gloomy predicament of modern man they also stress the eventual futility of our wish to escape. In the book they investigate the aforementioned escape routes. For each category they cleverly describe the pitfalls and paradoxes. For every temporary escape can only increase the feeling of entrapment once we have to get back to the daily grind or confront what they call paramount reality. Just as problematic to them is the standardization and commodification of escape routes. A package holiday becomes just as organized as a day at the office. A film that tries to transport us to another world uses tropes and clichés that can feel standardized and soulless.
Whilst reading Escape Attempts, images of the nameless protagonist in Bernard Queysanne’s hypnotic Un Homme Qui Dort (1974) came to mind. He also realizes that to continue his daily routine is a pointless act. He feels as though he was never meant for this life. All the things he is aspiring to as a student, feel artificial and pointless. Therefore he chooses the path of the internal exile: Hiding in his small attic apartment, skipping his sociology lectures at the university and avoiding contact with his friends. In the eyes of Cohen and Taylor, he would be classified as an escapee delving into his own mind and keeping the world around him at bay. One of the more extreme escape attempts that precariously borders on mental illness and insanity.
Un Homme Qui Dort is an adaptation of Georges Perec’s eponymous novel that uses the uncommon second-person narrative and starts with this beautiful quote by Franz Kafka:
The book is a hauntingly detailed account of someone who is caught in his own head because he can’t deal with the world outside it. Queysanne’s adaptation is largely faithful to Perec’s text using fragments of the book as a basis for monologues accompanying black and white images of Paris that alienate and mesmerize in equal measure.
Ludmila Mikaël is the unseen female narrator, who meticulously chronicles the protagonist’s mental journey inward. Jacques Speisser plays the troubled student in a silent role. The film shows him in various situations. Sitting on his bed in his small garret apartment. A poster of Rene Magritte’s Not to be Reproduced on his wall indicating his state of mind. Later, we seem him going to a movie. Afterwards, he strolls through the streets trying to blend in with the anonymous crowds so he can disappear. He never utters a word, making his alienated looks and blank stares do all the work. Surprisingly, the English version has a dispassionate Shelly Duval talking us through his quest for complete self-effacement.
Un Homme Qui Dort is sort of a missing link between the nouvelle vague exuberance and the more down to earth filmmaking that followed in its wake. The seventies setting seems apt. It was the hangover decade that followed the possibilities of the sixties. Gone were all the promises and illusions. The spirit of ‘68 becoming a distant memory. One also feels this in other films of that decade such as Jean Eustache’s powerful La Maman en La Putain (1973). Just like the bored characters in Eustache’s movie the student in Un Homme Qui Dort is grounded in a lethargic state realizing that the world can not be changed. But his stagnation and wish to dissolve feels all the more contemporary in a time where reality seems to have tightened its grip. Take this monologue for example in Philippe Harel’s underrated Extension du Domaine de la Lute (1999), an adaptation of Michel Houellebecq’s book. In it the main character, a depressed forty-something office worker, has a dark epiphany strolling through a deserted city late at night:
It is through the act of walking and wandering that these characters still seem to feel free. The idea of idling has a long tradition going back to the 19th century strolls of Charles Baudelaire and the fascination for the Flâneur that led Walter Benjamin to work on his unfinished Arcades Project in the 20th century. Closer to Perec’s and Queysanne’s time where the psychogeographic journey’s through Paris that Guy Debord undertook with his situationist chums in the fifties and sixties. The escape starts at your doorstep and the streets surrounding you. Or take these wonderful words from the main character in Eric Rohmer’s L’Amour l’apres-midi (1972) who wants to be lifted from the present:
Our student also wanders through Paris in the tradition of all those others before him. Finding in the city a labyrinth without a center where losing oneself is all that matters. Queysanne has a knack for showing us the changing faces of Paris. Charming and picturesque in shots of old arcades and the Seine but also a monstrous metropolis in the grips of change and modernity. Building are demolished and brutalist flats rise up on the boulevards.
For all its promises, the street only delivers a partial escape for our hero in Un Homme Qui Dort. As the movie draws to its spellbinding close, the void that the student seems to look for is not so easily attained. Paramount reality slips through the cracks and reasserts itself. The escape attempt has proved to be a temporary diversion. The closing monologue accompanied by a haunting electronic score hints at some hard knowledge that has been attained whilst the camera hovers over the city. It is a fitting epiphany that brings the film full circle to Cohen and Taylor’s book which also end on an ambiguous note: