Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Film's first Cinemagician: The Magic of Georges Méliès (1898-1905)

 In a recent interview, James Cameron stated what he thinks lies beyond 3D:

Imagine a movie in which the viewer is swept along by a narrative, following the action from place to place, but without the intervention of a camera. You can choose which character to watch in a scene, as if you’re an invisible witness standing there while a real event plays out. This is still years away, at a level of realism people would consider cinematic, but certainly not decades away.

The rapid advancement of film's visual trickery continues unabated. And if we retrace its evolution: from Avatar, through to the Matrix a decade earlier,  George Lucas’ first Star War trilogy, right back to Lang’s Metropolis to the final years of the 19th Century, we arrive at Georges Méliès, film’s first Cinemagician. 


The son of a shoe manufacturer, in 1895 Méliès was a successful magician and the owner of the Theatre Robert-Houdin in Paris. Méliès also happened to be a member of the audience at the first screening of the Lumiere Brothers’ Cinématographe on December 28, 1895.

Méliès was bewitched by the Lumières’ invention and asked them if they were prepared to sell their device.  When the brothers refused his offer, Méliès commissioned a lens maker, William Paul, to build a similar machine which, with some custom modifications by Méliès, would become known as his Kinetograph. 

In the second half of 1896, Méliès accidentally discovered something that would alter his perspective on film-making. Whilst recording a Lumière-esque scene (of a horse-drawn omnibus), his camera jammed. Fixing the camera after several seconds, he thought nothing of the incident. When Méliès processed the film, he was struck by the effect this incident had on the scene – the horse-drawn omnibus transformed into a hearse. Méliès discovered from this incident that cinema had the ability to both manipulate and distort space and time. He expanded upon his initial ideas and devised some complex special effects.

This discovery would result in him becoming the most creative and inventive filmmaker of the next decade. Over the course of the next few years, his trickster’s impulse for experimentation would result in his pioneering of indispensable cinematic techniques such as fade-out, super-imposition, double exposure and slow-motion.  

 Too often though, reviews of Méliès have over-emphasised the technical aspects of Méliès’ films at the expense of the other aspects of his film-making. This blog shall focus on these other aspects, beginning with a brief look at his early shorts, following which it will emphasise the importance of both Le Voyage dans la Lune and  Le Voyage à travers l'Impossible.

The Early Shorts

1898- Un homme de têtes (The Four Troublesome Heads)
1899- L'impressionniste fin de siècle (An Up-to-Date Conjuror)
1900- L'homme-orchestre (One Man Band)
1901- L'homme à la tête de caoutchouc (The Man With The Rubber Head)
1903 - Le chaudron infernal (The Infernal Boiling Pot)
1903- Le Mélomane (The Melomaniac)
1903- Le monstre (The Monster)

Superseding the many technical effects on offer in these films is Méliès the magician. So much so, that I would argue that two weakest shorts here are Le chaudron infernal and Le monstre, both of which suffer from Méliès’ physical absence. Both films lack the humour of the Méliès centric films, as well as lacking any points of interest beyond the technical wizardry on show. The later films Sorcellerie culinaire (1904) and Le diable noir (1905) are beset by similar problems, except on a grander scale (the films are twice as long as their earlier counterparts). The latter film is an excellent example of a Méliès film being admired primarily for its technical merits.

 Méliès’ on-screen persona however, manages to find the right balance between comedy and theatricality. His hyperactive energy seems to match the average length of these shorts (between one and two minutes) and his penchant for comic timing (a great example of this is his performance in Le Mélomane) surely makes him a precursor for Chaplin and Keaton. (Chaplin acknowledged Méliès’ influence on his work, and described Méliès as “the alchemist of light”).

Whether the film involves Méliès conducting an orchestra of himself (L'homme-orchestre - see above) or mechanically expanding the size of his head with a mechanical device (L'homme à la tête de caoutchouc), his charisma as a performer is self-evident.

However, it is in the following two films (both of which were loosely based on work by Jules Verne) that Méliès honed his craft in order to become a significant director. 

Melies’ two masterpieces

Cendrille (1899) and Barbe bleu (1901) are considered by film historians as key components of Méliès’ oeuvre and are well worth watching, but I have decided to focus on the following two films:

Le Voyage dans la Lune – (1902)

Le Voyage dans la Lune cost Méliès ten thousand francs to make, which in 1902, made it quite comfortably the most expensive film made to date. With its elaborate set pieces, sustained narrative, impressive cast (although Méliès himself was producer, director, set-designer, and leading actor, the nautically dresses girls who launched the cannon were from the Châtelet ballet and the lunar inhabitants, were played by acrobats from the Folies-Bergère) coupled with a running time approaching twelve minutes, this was an audacious piece of filmmaking from Méliès, his chutzpah is apparent throughout the film.

 The immediacy of images such as the celestial beings appearing in the astronomer’s dreams (see above) bedazzled contemporary audiences while also managing to resonate with the modern viewer. As with Méliès’ early shorts, it is his indefatigable energy which sustains the narrative force of the film.

However, whereas in the early shorts it was Méliès the magician carrying the film, it is now Méliès the director who is the driving force behind this film. This is apparent from the opening of the film, where a group of servants hand over telescopes to the astronomers, led by Professor Barbenfouillis at their Institute (see above). This opens the film with a colourful pageantry akin to that found at the opening of some of Shakespeare’s history plays among other things, providing the film with a sumptuous visual feast for both the contemporary and modern viewer to delight in. Nor is the visual majesty isolated to this particular scene, it can be found throughout this film.

I would like to shift the focus, however, to the allegorical aspect of the film. When the astronomers land on the moon, they meet a species called Selenites. The astronomers’ first instinct is to attack them with their umbrellas. The astronomers are subsequently taken prisoners and are presented to the king (see above). Professor Barbenfouillis breaks loose from his captor, attacks the king, who disappears into thin air. The astronomers then flee from the Selenites, find their ship and escape back to Earth.

At the time of the film’s production, the French colonial empire was second in size only to Great Britain, and was in the process of expanding. For example, only nine years earlier, the French had participated in the Franco-Siamese War, which resulted in the rapid expansion of French Indochina.

Therefore, one could view Le Voyage dans la Lune as an allegory of the dangers of colonial expansion. A counter argument to this interpretation would be that the astronomers at no point attempt to seize power from the Selenites, therefore the allegory does not quite work.

Although we do not see the astronomers take power from the Selenites, we do see them murder their king and swiftly leave the moon attempting to escape the repercussions of their actions. Not only does the film mimic the superiority complex and violent urges that both British and French colonialists demonstrated in their imperialistic ambitions, it also prophesises the problems that can occur when a colonial country withdraws from power. If we use the aforementioned example of French Indochina, the subsequent problems that Vietnam had after the French withdrawal are well documented.

Le Voyage à travers l'Impossible - (1904)

Le Voyage dans la Lune is often considered Méliès most important film; I would argue however, that Le Voyage à travers l'Impossible is of equal importance.

Le Voyage à travers l'Impossible (watch the first part of the film below. Follow the links on youtube to watch the remaining two parts) employs a similar structure and plot to Le Voyage dans la Lune; the latter may have been a more groundbreaking film, but the former is an even more daring and imaginative film. Its running time is almost twice the length of Le Voyage dans la Lune. This is significant, because it allows Méliès to accentuate both the beauty and importance of certain scenes.

A good example of this is the scene in the interior of the machine shop where their ‘travelling machine’ is being built. The revolving wheel takes up the bulk of the screen (see above), but there is much other movement to be found in this scene, both from the machines and the men. But it is the various pistons, wheels and machines that dominate the scene rather than the men. It provides an evocative sense of what the industrialisation of major Western nations at the turn of the 20th Century entailed. It is colourful, chaotic and claustrophobic.

There is a sense that Le Voyage à travers l'Impossible is very much about the second wave of the Industrial Revolution and its limitations. Led by an engineer called Mabouloff (which translates as ‘Scatterbrains'), a group of travellers embark on an ‘impossible’ journey, which manages to entail a trip to the Swiss Alps as well as the sun (see above). You can draw parallels with their trip to the sun and Icarus flying too close to the sun. Perhaps Méliès is suggesting that man’s flirtation with technology will see it share Icarus’ fate.

Most importantly, the film provides sheer cinematic enjoyment. The group's escapades on the surface of the sun are particularly entertaining, and the brief touches of hand colouring provide Le Voyage à travers l'Impossible with an added dimension that enriches the viewer's experience of the film. The helpful contrast that the colour provides becomes self-evident when the travellers are on the submarine - there is now a clear demarcation of where the sea, boat and sky are (see above). 


Returning to James Cameron’s quote, it is clear that film is heading towards creating a complete immersive world that is independent of ‘reality’. Méliès began this journey, by accident, and was brave enough to develop and pursue distorting the concepts space and time on the human eye.

However, Méliès was not only a technical visionary; he also made two substantial films that are essential components of cinematic history.    


  1. Thank you for this great biography of Melies. I had heard of The Trip To The Moon, but after seeing Hugo I think I may try to hunt down some of these other titles. Thanks again!

  2. I echo the above sentiment. It is becoming more and more apparent how important and influential George Melies's work is. Many thanks.