L’Homme qui Marche is a short, elliptical film that takes us on a long, slow, nearly silent walk through Paris over a period of 14 years, between 1974 and 1998, in the company of one man.
Victor Atemian (played by the fine Spanish actor César Sarachu), a Russian refugee in Paris, is a tall, thin, courteous man who doesn’t speak much, except to occasionally express sudden, startling bursts of irritation or anger. He works in a translation agency, but stubbornly refuses to have a bank account. At the beginning of the movie, he is always well-dressed in a suit and lives in a large, empty apartment. He doesn’t seem to like to eat.
It is a surprise, then, to suddenly see him sitting behind a table reading aloud to a group of a people. The story is about a man who has agreed to become another person’s pet dog and is setting down the conditions for their relationship – shoes must be supplied to protect his hands when he walks on all fours, for example. Victor has published a book called Fils de Chien, apparently to some critical success.
The few scenes in which something actually happens – a photographer sees Victor in a café and asks to take his picture, for example, or he meets a woman at a concert and has dinner with her the following evening – are stitched together by Victor’s perambulations around Paris, mostly around the literary Left Bank, and scenes in which he drinks coffee and writes in fancy cafés like La Coupole and Les Deux Magots. We don’t learn much about him, except that his father was a prisoner in the Russian Gulag and that he has difficulty connecting with people.
The publication of the book was apparently the high point of this poor man’s life. Encouraged by this first success, he leaves his job, but none of his subsequent writing finds a publisher, and eventually he sells his apartment for cash and goes to live in a hotel. When the money runs out, Victor ends up on the street, desperate enough to sell his hat to a young woman who thinks it’s trendy and grateful for the coffee and croissant the money buys him. The fiercely proud but ever-enigmatic Victor gets older and dustier but remains well-dressed right up until his sad end.
I appreciate the way first-time director Aurélia Georges has recounted this touching story through telling moments in a man’s life without overexplaining or analyzing, but there is something dissatisfying and incomplete in the result. I suspect that she was constrained by the fact that the film is loosely based on the life of a real man, Vladimir Slepian (who really did publish a book called Fils de Chien in 1974) and was being too respectful to what little was known about him to make this a fully realized tale.
While it doesn’t quite succeed in elucidating the mystery that is Victor (if that were possible) or even shedding much light on it, this haunting, visually appealing film leaves a lingering impression and bodes well for the director’s future efforts.Favorite