The Devil in a Convent

Le Diable au couvent, 1899, 3m11s
Star Film Catalogue No. 185-7

In a convent, a priest adjusts the position of some chairs before departing. As soon as he’s gone, the devil emerges from the font, and looks around. Spotting a rope dangling from the ceiling, he tugs on it, and a bell rings. He wraps his cloak around himself and turns into a priest. Seven white-clad nuns enter and kneel on the chairs as the priest/devil mounts the pulpit. He begins preaching, and the nuns cross themselves. He turns back into the devil, and they react with horror, fleeing the room as he laughs menacingly. He descends from the pulpit and makes the font and then the chairs disappear. He summons up demonic gargoyles to decorate the walls. He opens a trapdoor in the floor and two small children emerge. He conjures up a large pan, from which four other devils appear. A giant demonic cat-like head appears, from which three women emerge. The head turns into a gigantic toad, which the devil mounts while the others dance around him. A nun enters the room and holds up a crucifix. The devil reacts as though scalded, and the others vanish. He gets off the toad, which also vanishes. He confronts the nun, but cannot get past the crucifix. Three more nuns appear, each holding crucifixes, and they surround the devil. They then vanish, leaving the devil on the ground. He gets up, and is confronted by a guardsman. They fight, and the devil sends his opponent packing. Another man enters and chases the devil up to the pulpit. The devil jumps to the ground and vanishes. Bemused, the man descends from the pulpit, only to find the devil emerging from another trapdoor. The man tries to assail him, but the devil disappears down yet another trapdoor, immediately reappearing in the pulpit. A group of men and boys clad in white surplices enter. A statue of Saint Michel appears, and when the devil attempts to climb onto its plinth, the statue comes to life and throws him off. The devil disappears in a puff of smoke, while the men and boys file out.

Like The Astronomer’s Dream (La Lune à un mètre, 1898), The Devil in a Convent is a triple-length production running just over three minutes, and given three entries in Georges Méliès’ Star Films catalogue. In terms of content, it fuses the religious elements of The Temptation of Saint Anthony (La Tentation de Saint Antoine, 1898) with the knockabout slapstick quasi-horror of The Haunted Castle (Le Château hanté, 1897). When combined with Méliès’ greater technical confidence, the result is one of his most enjoyable films to date.

When a baby is baptised and it begins to cry, it’s said that this is the devil emerging. There’s no baby here, but the devil initially emerges through the font, thus reinforcing its image as a potential doorway to Hell. After gliding to the ground in an effectively unnatural fashion (I suspect a wire was involved here, though it’s hard to spot amidst the print tramlines), he immediately decides to mount the pulpit and tugging on the bellrope to summon the nuns to prayer, with the specific aim of revealing his presence to them partway through his sermon. Having sown the seeds of chaos, he replaces the trappings of the convent with decorations more to his own taste before summoning up various hellish creatures for what can only be described as a session of orgiastic revelry. There are four devils, three presumably dissolute women and two small boys, one of whom picks his nose and makes discreet but clearly offensive gestures with his fingers - a touch that serves to emphasise the essentially childish harmlessness of this film.

Then, in an echo of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, the devil is surrounded by nuns who form a deadly crucifix-bearing circle around him. However, these are banished, and the rest of the film turns into a knockabout chase comedy as the devil is pursued by (presumably) two armed guards or militia members. The final visual coup is performed by a statue of a large, bearded, helmeted and indeed vaguely Vikingesque Saint Michael (popularly seen as representing the vanguard in God’s army) coming to life and spearing the devil, who vanishes in what has now become a characteristically Mélièsesque puff of smoke. As ever, the various transformations are generally triggered by jump-cuts, though Méliès also makes use of seemingly randomly-placed trapdoors in the floor.

As with The Astronomer’s Dream, the set design is most impressive. Although clearly consisting of two painted flats (so the nuns have a viable “corridor” to enter through), Méliès makes much use of foreshortened perspective to give a very real sense of depth, and he has a lot of fun with the devil decking out the walls with gargoyles: most vandalism isn’t nearly so aesthetically appealing. The giant feline head with its swivelling eyeballs and the equally grotesque toad from which the devil conducts his revellers are just as effective, though the fact that they’re also flat is emphasised by the final appearance of an equally fantastical but very three-dimensional Saint Michael.

The print on Flicker Alley’s DVD starts off in excellent condition barring a few tramlines (which, as noted above, have the unintended side-effect of hiding the wire used to help the devil glide to the ground), but as the film progresses there’s more overt physical and chemical damage, as well as some sharp fluctuations in exposure and contrast. It also ends abruptly, though it’s safe to assume that this is only by a few seconds, as the devil appears to have gone for good. Eric Beheim’s electronic score is conscientious enough to include bell sounds at the appropriate moment, and (entirely understandably) can’t resist slipping in a brief quotation from Camille Saint-Saëns’ ‘Danse Macabre’.


One Response to “The Devil in a Convent”

  1. Mischa von Perger Says:

    The devil is scared not by a living nun but by a nun’s ghost, who suddenly appears in the chapel and is soon followed by three other ghosts of the same kind. - The man in black who attacks the devil after the guardsman’s defeat is the sacristan.

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