Chez la sorcière, 1901, 1m51s
Star Film Catalogue Nos. 350-351
A bachelor visits a witch and asks her to find him a wife. She asks him for money, and he tosses her a small purse. She concocts a potion in her cauldron and sets fire to it. Once the flames die down, a beautiful woman emerges. The witch multiplies her into five women and asks the bachelor to choose. After carefully examining them, he picks the second and asks her to sit down on a stool. The witch then folds the other four women back into one, and makes her disappear in a puff of smoke. The bachelor begins to woo his chosen companion, but as he gets particularly ardent, she changes into the witch, who cackles with glee at the trick she has played on him. When the enraged bachelor tries to attack her, she transforms him into a donkey and mounts him, riding him around the cauldron to the accompaniment of regular beatings from her riding crop.
This comic cautionary tale (whose French title is the more prosaic “At the Witch’s Home”) highlights the potential drawback of choosing a mate by supernatural means. For much of the running time, the witch seems genuinely helpful towards the bachelor, spiriting up not just one but five potential brides, but she changes her tune towards the end when she reveals that they were a figment of her twisted imagination all along, and that the bachelor is helplessly in her power.
The bachelor’s comeuppance is particularly satisfying because everything about him in the early stages, from his foppish costume (topped by an absurdly Napoleonic hat) and airy waves of the hand, to what appears to be an initial assumption that he won’t have to pay - which is then followed by a casual, dismissive toss of a purse of money as if to suggest that there’s plenty where that came from. Clearly a fake himself, his desire for an equally fake bride seems all too fitting, as is his ultimate transformation into a humble beast of burden, which the witch then thoroughly mistreats for good measure.
The special effects are mostly very straightforward jump-cuts, though a combination of these and well-judged movement allows Méliès to create the impression that the various women are “unfolded” from each other, as though multiple cut-outs on a paper chain. The design of the witch’s lair includes many props familiar from earlier Méliès films, such as the outsized scissors from The Doctor and the Monkey (Le Savant et le chimpanzé, 1900).
Some severe damage at the start of the untinted print on Flicker Alley’s DVD quickly settles down to a generally very acceptable picture, with only a few faint tramlines and occasional surface blemishes (and a brief moment when the image blurs) marring what follows. Plenty of fine detail aids appreciation of the grotesque décor of the witch’s lair. Eric Beheim’s electronic score, augmented by tinkling bells, is fairly generic, but does the job effectively enough.