[This is a guest post by one of my undergraduate students, Joe Hickinbottom. The assignment was to produce a set of notes for an imaginary programme of short films, connecting them by theme, artist or aesthetic. To be provided as a handout which is to be read prior to the viewing of the selected films. See more student work here.]
- Une Partie de Cartes / Playing Cards (1896)
- L’Auberge Ensorcelée / The Bewitched Inn (1897)
- La Lune à un Mètre / The Astronomer’s Dream (1898)
- L’Affaire Dreyfus / The Dreyfus Affair (1899) – selected sequences
- Le Voyage dans la Lune / A Trip to the Moon (1902)
Born in 1861, French film-maker Georges Méliès displayed an active curiosity in the arts from an early age, so much so that his particular interest in puppetry and stage design gained him a place at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His parents’ desire for him to learn English led him to London where, after attending the shows of John Nevil Maskelyne and George Alfred Cooke in the famous Egyptian Hall (Figure 1), he became fascinated by stage conjury. Returning to Paris, Méliès purchased the Théâtre Robert-Houdin. Here, he worked as a theatrical entertainer, integrating the magic and illusionist skills he studied in England into his performances, alongside the development of his own tricks. When Méliès witnessed the first demonstration of the Lumière brothers’ Cinématographe – a camera, printer and projector in one – he immediately proposed that he buy the machine, but the brothers refused. Nevertheless, his drive to explore moving pictures guided him towards electrical engineer Robert W. Paul who sold Méliès one of his projectors. Méliès subsequently started to construct his own camera and, on completion, he held his first film screening in April 1896.
Initially Méliès exhibited the films of other artists, most of which were produced for the Kinetoscope, patented by American inventor Thomas Edison. Yet, months later, Méliès shot his first ever movie, Une partie de cartes / Playing Cards (1896), using a single reel of film lasting approximately 1 minute. In the film we see a group of men, outside, casually playing cards and enjoying each other’s amusing company whilst drinks are brought to them by a waitress (Figure 2). A direct duplication of the 1895 Lumière film of the same name, Une partie de cartes is somewhat different to much of Méliès’ ensuing work in that it is an actualité (or ‘actuality’) piece, apparently recording factual everyday events as they occur. Méliès’ competent sense for camera positioning and shot composition, however, are clearly evident here, making full use of the frame in the array of actions carried out within it. His central role as an actor would be the first of many dramatic performances in his own films, maintaining the status as a showman which he very much enjoyed in the theatre.
During the shooting of another actuality in 1896, Méliès made a discovery that would strongly inform his films from thereon. When his camera momentarily jammed, the processed film showed the effect of objects suddenly appearing, disappearing and transforming. Realising that the camera possessed this ability to manipulate time and space, Méliès proceeded to build his own studio where he could create his ambitiously spectacular and magical moving images. In 1897’s L’auberge ensorcelée / The Bewitched Inn, we can observe Méliès’ complexly arranged combination of camera trickery, pre-prepared props and staged illusions. He brings to life the inn guest’s hat and clothes through the use of wires; makes various items of furniture vanish and materialise elsewhere by means of jump-cuts; and causes a candle to sporadically explode when the wick is lit by the guest, again played by Méliès (Figure 3). L’Auberge ensorcelée illustrates a distinct progression in Méliès’ work towards a more intricate and multifaceted approach to film-making, incorporating conjury and camera effects in a manner that transcended the marvels available to see on the stage.
As technical and mechanical advances were being made Méliès took advantage of the opportunities offered by the new equipment, introducing more sophisticated visual and narrative elements into his films. Longer reels allowed the assembling of a number of shots, or ‘scenes’, to construct a continuous story to act as a vehicle for his spectacles. Predating Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 movie The Great Train Robbery (often hailed as the first complete film narrative) by some years, La lune à un mètre / The Astronomer’s Dream (1898) saw Méliès produce a film three times longer than most of his earlier shorts. Here, Méliès’ recurring theme of dreams proves fertile ground for his deep-seated interest in the phantasmagorical, playing host to a devil, a celestial fairy and a gorging moon, amongst others (Figure 4). The hand-painted backdrops and décors provide distorted perspectives and depth-of-field, establishing an aesthetic of fantasy within which the astronomer’s ordeal unfolds. In this sense, and considering the advanced use of props, La lune à un mètre could be regarded as an elaboration on the earlier Le cauchemar / A Nightmare (1896), yet also as a precursor to the longer and more complicated tales Méliès would later deliver.
A common misconception is that Méliès dealt mostly with fantasies and fairytales. Throughout his career he made films of a diverse variety including topical satires, historical re-tellings, science fictions, literary adaptations and dramatised actualities. His 1899 mini-epic L’affaire Dreyfus / The Dreyfus Affair attempted to accurately re-enact (albeit dramatically), the political event of the seemingly false imprisonment of French Army captain Alfred Dreyfus. Running at 13 minutes, L’affaire Dreyfus tells its story across eleven individual films designed to be shown in sequence. Whilst we notice Méliès’ typical use of painted backdrops, the more realistic and faithfully representative perspectives offer here an authentic aesthetic (Figure 5). This, augmented by the more naturalistic performances of his actors, aided Méliès in conveying his own views, portraying the captain as a tragic character. The film caused so much controversy that it was banned by the French government and is thus acknowledged as one of the first instances of political censorship, debunking the notion that Méliès was simply a director of much-loved child-like fantasy films.
Notwithstanding this, Méliès is most remembered by audiences for his spectacular science fiction pieces. Le voyage dans la lune / A Trip to the Moon (1902), displays the culmination of years of developing magic tricks, set design, mechanical props, and stop-motion, multiple exposure and dissolve techniques. The fragmented yet generally coherent narrative is acted out on an immense scale; the fantastical voyage making full use of Méliès’ skills. We watch as a rocket is propelled into the moon’s eye, as strange monsters dance playfully, and as vast landscapes appear to engulf the travelers (Figure 6). Up until his retirement in 1913, Méliès continued to produce such fantasies in addition to various trick films, dramas and even a Western. Although many of Méliès’ 500 or so films have been lost, his innovations as a magician, photographer, performer and film-maker can still be deeply recognised in those that survive. Working during a time when the camera was thought of predominantly as a device for capturing real life and projecting it back to the audience, Georges Méliès pioneered an entirely new realm of cinema, exploring the hidden capacities of the camera and the opportunities of spectacle held therein.
© Joe Hickinbottom 2009
- Brooke, M., [n.d.], ‘George Méliès: An In-depth Look at the Cinema’s First Creative Genius’, FilmJournal.net [16 October 2009]
- Early Cinema, [n.d.], ‘Pioneers: Georges Méliès’ [16 October 2009]
- Ezra, E., 2000, Georges Méliès: The Birth of the Auteur, Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 1-49
- Herbert, S. & McKernan, L. (eds.), Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema: A Worldwide Survey, London: British Film Institute Publishing
- Joyce, S., [n.d.], ‘A Trip to the Moon: Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and Other Influences’ [18 November 2009]
- The Missing Link, [n.d.], ‘Méliès: Inspirations & Illusions’ [16 October 2009]
- Richard, S., 1991, ‘A Beginner’s Guide to the Art of Georges Méliès’, in Usai, P. (ed.), Lo Schermo Incantato: Georges Méliès (1861-1938), Gemona: Le Giornate del Cinema Muto / International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House / Edizioni Biblioteca dell’Immagine, pp. 39-55
- Roland, C., 1991, ‘Georges Méliès as L’Inescamotable Escamoteur: A Study in Recognition’, in Usai, P. (ed.), Lo Schermo Incantato: Georges Méliès (1861-1938), Gemona: Le Giornate del Cinema Muto / International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House / Edizioni Biblioteca dell’Immagine, pp. 57-111