Un homme qui dort (“The Man Who Sleeps,” or “A Man Asleep”) is a 1974 French film directed by Bernard Queysanne and Georges Perec, based on Perec’s story of the same name. It stars Jacques Spiesser.
The film’s script is taken completely from the text of Perec’s prose, though in a condensed form. The text is in the second person singular, as though the narrator (recited by Ludmila Mikaël in the original French, and by Shelley Duvall in English translation) were speaking to Spiesser’s character.
The black-and-white film was almost lost, but it was restored on DVD in 2007. It received some critical acclaim, winning the Prix Jean Vigo in 1974.
Here is a link to quotes from the film in English translation, here is a link to an English translation of Perec’s story (or is it the script for the film?), and here is a link to the film with English subtitles. Here is a link to the English language version.
A twenty-five-year-old Parisian university student (Spiesser), whose name is not given (thus making him a kind of everyman), lives in a one-room chambre de bonne. His feelings of alienation have risen to such a pitch that he no longer wishes to participate in social life. “…you discover, without surprise, that something is wrong, that you don’t know how to live and that you never will know.”
The notion that he is “a man asleep” is metaphorical. Actually, he wanders the streets of Paris instead of going to school and hanging out with friends. He’s living the life of an automaton, devoid of human interaction; it’s an attempt at indifference as a way of alleviating suffering. Self-isolation, he hopes, is a way to nirvana.
He’s as passive as can practically be achieved: “…it’s not action at all, but an absence of action…”
He imagines that someone else, his twin, his double, will get out of bed, wash, shave, dress, go out, and attend school for him. This idea of a double is significant, for it is expressed in other forms: the narrator, addressing him as “you,” is the rambling of his own thoughts in a kind of unwritten diary; also, there’s his cracked, Lacanian mirror, the specular image of which he is alienated from, too.
Finally, there’s the reproduction of René Magritte‘s 1937 surrealist painting, La reproduction interdite, showing a man standing in front of a mirror, his back to us and facing it; but instead of seeing the man’s face reflected back to us, we see the back of his head just as we do of the actual man in front of the mirror. About fifteen minutes into the film, when the student has gone into a theatre to see a movie, we see a surreal variation of this picture, but it’s the student, and the images show him repeatedly facing away from his ‘reflection.’ More self-alienation.
All of these doublings of himself indicate his having left the social and cultural world of the Symbolic Order in order to regress into the narcissistic, dyadic world of the Imaginary. In time, the horrors of the Real will jolt him out of his isolation, and force him to reintegrate into the Symbolic.
It’s also significant that the movie is in black-and-white, when colour film was easily available, and when, by the early 70s, virtually all movies were in colour. I see the choice of black-and-white to be symbolic of black-and-white thinking, or psychological splitting, part of the cause of this young man’s psychological problems.
According to Melanie Klein, the paranoid-schizoid position causes us to split people into being perceived as all-good or all-bad, the bad ones being projected outward and split off from us. This is what the student is doing, though he seems to feel that virtually all elements of society are bad, so he splits them off, including his internal objects of them, and projects them outward, imagining himself to be safe without them.
But of course, he won’t be safe without them, because the internal objects are a part of himself; hence, towards the end of the film, when the tension is raised and he realizes he can’t just cut himself off from the world, we see the black-and-white film in negative images.
Still, for the time being, anyway, he feels a sense of peace and bliss from no longer engaging with the world. Wouldn’t we all love to break away like this?! To give up on all responsibilities, to let Freud‘s death drive kick in, and be at rest, no longer suffering with the rest of the world.
Pleasure, for Freud, consists in the relaxation of tension, which in the form of death, is the ultimate relaxation of it; hence, the death drive as being merely the other side of the same coin as that of the libido, part of Eros. We sense that the young student is aiming for just such a relaxation of tension, though, like Hamlet, he’s too chicken to go through with suicide.
So life as a passive, indifferent automaton seems a reasonable compromise. Indifference, in this regard, is like that of the Buddhist avoiding gratification of desire, or attachment to the world…but without the Buddhist’s hard discipline, of course. The non-existence of nirvana, no-thing-ness, the escape from existence as pain, dukkha, is the death-paradise the student seeks.
We’re reminded of Hamlet’s soliloquy:
“…to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep…” (III, i)
It is in this sense that we should understand the young student to be “the man who sleeps.”
Recall that the narrator, his anima mirror-double, says, “You have no desire to carry on […] the fleeting and poignant desire to hear no more, to see no more, to remain silent and motionless. Crazy dreams of solitude.”
At one point, in the middle of this solitude, he imagines he has reached this point of nirvana, for the narrator says the following to him:
“As the hours, the days, the weeks, the seasons slip by, you detach yourself from everything.
You discover, with something that sometimes almost resembles exhilaration, that you are free, that nothing is weighing you down, nothing pleases or displeases you.
You find, in this life exempt from wear and tear and with no thrill in it other than these suspended moments, an almost perfect happiness, fascinating, occasionally swollen by new emotions.
You are living in a blessed parenthesis, in a vacuum full of promise, and from which you expect nothing.
You are invisible, limpid, transparent.
You no longer exist…”
His friends have stopped over to say hello, but he ignores the knocking on his door and the paper messages slipped under it. He wants no contact with others, for he has come to understand that hell is other people; he doesn’t want to bear their judgemental gaze…yet the narrator, his internalized Other, addressing him with a judgemental “you,” ensures that he will never escape the hell of judgemental others. Therefore, there is no exit for him, not even in indifferent solitude.
(We hear, almost an hour into the film, “Il n’y a pas d’issue,” that is, “There is no way out,” or “There is no exit”; now, Sartre‘s play is named Huis clos–“Closed Door”–in the original French, but English translations of the play with titles like No Way Out and No Exit would have been well known by the time Perec began writing his story. Besides, the student, when in his chambre de bonne, typically has his door closed, anyway.)
When we see him wandering the streets of Paris, we usually see few if any other people there. This can be seen in the middle of the day, when the streets presumably would be far busier: could he be dreaming during these moments, experiencing wish-fulfillment?
Alone, in his chambre, he smokes, drinks Nescafé, looks up at the cracks on his ceiling (easily associated with the cracks in his mirror, all symbols of his fragmented self), and plays a game of cards similar to solitaire. This escape from the social world, into one of solitary play and contemplation, is not too far removed from the maladaptive daydreaming of traumatized people, or the self-isolation of sufferers of stress from Adverse Childhood Experiences.
His room–small, hot, claustrophobic, and with those cracks in the ceiling and on the mirror–is nonetheless “the centre of the world” for him. The room thus in many ways represents himself: fragmented, narcissistic, a place to hide himself in sleep, and a place to escape from when he can no longer stand himself. He’s as passive as that dripping tap, or those six socks soaking in the pink plastic bowl–sharks as indolent as he is.
With his loss of interest in social life comes also his loss of interest in time, whose passing he barely notices. Similarly, when during his wandering of the Parisian streets, two twin boys in identical clothes are running past him from behind while rattling a ruler against the palings of a fence he’s walking beside, he isn’t at all irritated by the noise. The boys’ duality parallels his duality as against his alienated self, his image in the mirror, the man twice seen in the Magritte picture with his back to us, his imaginary double replacing him in going about his normal daily routine, and his anima narrator…except that the boys are, in their energetic, enthusiastic participation in life, his dialectical opposite–what he still could be if he weren’t so alienated from everything and everyone.
In the Luxembourg Garden, he watches the pensioners playing cards, comparable to his own playing of his solitaire-esque game in his room. Such a comparison suggests a unity of self and other vis-à-vis him and the pensioners…also a dialectical unity between the elderly and his young self.
In a development of this theme of self and other, young vs. old, we see him watching an old man sitting on a bench staring into space “for hours on end,” as if mummified, “gazing into emptiness.” The young man, admiring the elder, would like to know his secrets, for the latter seems to have attained the ideal of detached indifference for which the former has been striving. (One is reminded of Prince Siddhartha seeing a holy man, and thus being inspired to find enlightenment himself.) He looks at the old man as if staring into a mirror, gazing at his ideal-I…so much better than his reflection in his cracked mirror in his room.
At one point, while reading the business news in Le Monde, he imagines himself to be some important businessman or politician smoking a cigar and getting out of a car. Ending the narcissistic fantasy of him identifying himself with important men, he is seen as his ordinary self, playing pinball.
When playing his solitaire-like card game, he removes the aces, so he has no ‘ace in the hole,’ or ‘ace up his sleeve.’ Accordingly, he rarely succeeds at the game, yet winning doesn’t matter to him, for what would winning mean to him, anyway? The card game, after all, is like life: if he’s indifferent to life, why would he care any more about winning at some card game? He goes through the motions like an automaton, all meaninglessly, just as he does through life.
We’ve noticed, by now, that he’s been biting his nails.
As I mentioned above, he reaches a point when his ‘mastery,’ as it were, of the indifferent life has allowed him to attain a kind of bliss. He seems as indifferent as the dripping tap, as the six socks soaking in the plastic pink bowl, as a fly, as a tree, as a rat.
He speaks no more than is absolutely necessary: in this disengagement with language, and therefore with society, he is leaving the Symbolic. “Indifference dissolves language and scrambles the signs.” Though he’d seem to be blissfully regressing to the narcissism of the Imaginary, before long, he’ll experience the trauma of the undifferentiated Real.
In this sense of non-differentiation, he finds himself with a series of choices of ‘you do, or you don’t do.’ These include:
You walk or you do not walk.
You sleep or you do not sleep.
You buy Le Monde or you do not buy it.
You eat or you do not eat.
A little later, the narrator says, “You play pinball or you don’t.” All of these ‘do or not do’ expressions remind us of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy. Just as Hamlet suffered from an inability to act, whether in killing his uncle Claudius or in killing himself, so does the young Parisian student feel incapable of acting, hence his automaton-like passivity and indifference. Still, in the end, like Hamlet, he must act.
Tense music can be heard playing in the background, suggesting that he is reaching the limit of how long he can continue to live the ‘indifferent’ life. Though I mentioned above the black-and-white film as representing his black-and-white psychological splitting, there’s also the preponderance of grey, for he is “a grey man with no connotation of dullness.” Indeed, his life has grown so dull that he’s forgotten what excitement is.
In his narcissism, in his imagined mastery of the indifferent life, he fancies himself “the nameless master of the world.” Buddha-like, he has seen that motionless old man the way Prince Siddhartha saw the impressive holy man (after having seen the old, sick, and dead men, as you’ll recall from his legendary life story), and now he imagines he has attained enlightenment. “All you are is all you know.” Total, narcissistic solipsism…nirvana? I think not.
So in his ‘mastery’ of the indifferent, he’s “inaccessible, like a tree, like a shop window, like a rat.” We again see a shot of him watching the motionless old man, as if he were looking in a mirror at his ideal-I, or like the Buddha seeing the holy man. We see a shot of that indifferent dripping tap, too, as well as shots of a walkway with trees, benches, and fences on either side, yet devoid of any people…the misanthropic young man’s ideal world.
But he soon comes to realize all of the ways that he is not at all like the ‘enlightened’ and ‘indifferent’ rat; for rats don’t have sleepless nights, they don’t bite their fingernails, they don’t wake up bathed in sweat, they don’t dream, against which the young man has no protection.
We come back to Hamlet: “to sleep, perchance to dream.”
Just as Hamlet couldn’t use the “sleep of death” as an escape from his problems, for he’d then have the nightmare of hell to deal with after having committed the sin of suicide, so can’t this young student use the sleep of indifference as an escape from his alienating world, for his nightmares are the return of repressed pain that he’ll never be able to project onto the world and be rid of.
Such an understanding “makes us rather bear those ills we have, than fly to others that we know not of”.
To get back to the biting of his fingernails, we learn that he bites them so violently that they bleed and are in unbearable pain. This violent biting is an example of his excessive attempts at splitting off and projecting those ‘black’ parts of himself that he doesn’t accept. The biting represents his alienation from himself, his refusal to integrate his Shadow.
Rats don’t play pinball, either, and when he plays, for hours on end, he’s in a rage…hardly indifferent. No, he isn’t much of a Buddha. But like Hamlet, he “can play or not play.” He can’t start up a conversation with the pinball machine, though, and this incidentally would seem to be his reason for preferring pinball to people. At the same time, a pinball machine cannot give him the human response, the love, that he so obviously needs.
It is in this very retreat from human company, replacing it with things that will never satisfy, that we can all relate to the young man; for don’t we all, in our own way, attempt a sleep of indifference to the world?
The narrator says repeatedly that he drifts around the streets, an odd behaviour for someone who has supposedly ‘found the answer’ to his problems. He goes back to his room and tries to go to sleep, but he can’t; instead, he would “calmly measure the sticky extent of [his] unhappiness,” and he goes out again and wanders the streets at night.
It is around this point that we start noticing a switch to negative film, back and forth between this and regular black-and-white film. We also hear the first of a series of references to “monstrous” things, or to “monsters”–in this case, “the monstrous factory gates.” We also hear of “impatient crowds,” which I believe are the “monsters” he’s been trying so hard to rid himself of.
Now, unhappiness hasn’t come to him all of a sudden: it’s gradually appeared to him, as if without his knowing until it was fully formed. Unhappiness has been in the cracks on his ceiling, and on his mirror, in the dripping tap, in those things in which he saw blissful indifference. All of his wandering has been meaningless.
As we see him biting his fingernails again, there’s a rapping, percussive sound in the background, reinforcing the sense of his agitation. He keeps playing his absurd card game, having removed the aces, but it offers no way out of his malaise…the same as with his wandering.
By now, an hour into the film, the narrator is speaking faster, with more urgency in her voice. We see negative film again, with crowds of people on the street. That rapping noise is still being heard. “The monsters have come into your life,” the narrator says, “the rats, your fellow creatures, your brothers. The monsters in their tens, their hundreds, their thousands.” These crowds of people are the ones he’s been trying to get away from…but can’t. This is also one of the first references to “rats” that is negative…interesting that this is happening now.
As we see more of the negative film, we hear the narrator say, “You follow their shadows [i.e., those of the “monsters,” the crowds of people], you are their shadow [i.e., you are the very thing you see in them that you won’t accept].” As the rapping sound continues, we also hear the narrator speaking faster, and we hear a dissonant chord played on a keyboard.
We see more shots of crowds of people walking on the streets, we hear more rapping, and the dissonant keyboard chord. Images of condemned, torn-down buildings, too. More references to “monsters,” all those people he hates. The juxtaposition of all these jarring images, sounds, and words is, of course, deliberate. The narrator’s voice is getting more and more agitated. The film alternates between normal black and white and negative film during this climactic moment.
The narrator mentions “…all the others who are even worse, the smug, the smart-Alecs, the self-satisfied…” These people seem suspiciously like projections of himself as the would-be indifferent Buddha. Again, he’s trying to split off and throw away what it is inside himself that he doesn’t like–the Shadow he needs to integrate.
After more repetitions of “monster,” the wanderer in his ongoing bitter meditation starts tossing around the word “sad” through his narrator mouthpiece: “sad city, sad lights in the sad streets, sad clowns in sad music-halls, sad queues outside the sad cinemas, sad furniture in the sad stores.”
His heavenly bliss of indifference has become the hell of a most non-gay Paris.
He feels like a prisoner in his cell, like a rat trying to escape its maze. Again, how odd it is that only now is a rat being used as a simile for something negative. He’s starting to realize that his retreat from the world has never been anything good.
The narrator has finally calmed down. Among the shots of rubble, we see a surrealist image of a sink standing alone; instead of containing water, though, we see a flame on it. Should we interpret this rubble of torn-down buildings, and his flaming sink, as representative of his chambre de bonne, in turn representative of himself, torn apart, fragmented, burning, in a psychotic break with reality, in the traumatic agony of Lacan’s Real Order?
“You are afraid,” the narrator says as he looks at all of the rubble, the home he meant to return to. We see a shot of his cracked mirror again, in between the shots of him looking at the rubble. He runs away, another attempt to run away from himself and his problems. We see the burning sink collapse.
Next is a shot of him calmly walking down a street between parked cars. He is calm, and it seems that he has come to accept the necessity of returning to a life in the real world. We hear an eerie tune played on an organ: a repetition of D to G on the right hand (and variations thereof), a descent in the bass from G to F, then to E-flat and to D-flat. A female voice accompanies the organ by singing a high G.
The young man is no wiser from his detachment from the world. “Indifference has not made you any different.” The nirvana of indifference has led back to the samsara of involvement with the world. Still, he won’t be judged for his failed experiment, for he has done nothing wrong. “No, [he is] not the nameless master of the world.” He’s no Buddha. He is afraid, waiting for the rain to stop…as we all are.
The film ends with the same shot of the buildings of the city that we saw at the beginning. The film has come full circle; he’s back where he began. He’s woken up from his metaphorical sleep, ready to go back into the world with the rest of us. We must all wake from our sleep of death, of indifference, and be involved in life again.