The Man with the Rubber Head

L’Homme à la tête en caoutchouc, 1901, 2m31s
Star Film Catalogue Nos. 382-383

In a laboratory, a scientist mixes some fluids together in a bottle before opening the doors to an anteroom. There, he finds a table and carries it out. On it, he places a smaller stand with a tube emerging from its base. He extracts a human head from the box and places it on the stand. The head is alive, and looks around quizzically. The scientist removes his wig to reveal that he’s the spitting image of the severed head. He picks up a set of bellows and attaches it to the tube. The head inflates to many times its original size, to its evident alarm. The scientist then turns on a tap connected to the pipe, and the head shrinks back to its original size. The scientist summons an assistant and invites him to inflate the head again - but he does it too enthusiastically, and it explodes. Enraged, the scientist throws him out before bursting into tears.

Deservedly regarded as one of Georges Méliès’ supreme masterpieces, The Man with the Rubber Head represented one of his most significant technical advances since the not dissimilar The Four Troublesome Heads (Un Homme de têtes, 1898). That film featured a protagonist, played by Méliès himself, apparently detaching multiple versions of his own head, the effect achieved by a combination of mattes and superimpositions. Much the same is true of The Man with the Rubber Head, with an important difference: the head now seems to expand and contract.

Méliès achieves this by a simple trompe l’oeil effect: the background remains static throughout, but the superimposed element (Méliès’ own head) is filmed with a camera that is moving towards and away from it. Because the background fools us into thinking that the film has been shot entirely from a fixed camera position (as are the vast majority of Méliès’ films), the illusion is instantly convincing. Like all experienced stage performers, Méliès knew that a single head-inflation wouldn’t be enough - so he contrives to include two, the second culminating in an head-explosion that predates David Cronenberg’s Scanners by some eighty years.

But even without this central show-stopper, the film is a superb example of Méliès’ mastery of comic setups and timing. The film opens with the scientist idly mixing fluids to no great purpose: the sense of random pottering is at odds with the amount of work that must have gone into planning the film. The first visual coup comes when he takes a living human head out of a nondescript box, places it on the stand, and removes his own wig to reveal that the head resembles his own (evidently some bizarre cloning experiment has taken place just before the start of the film) - the kind of effect that would have been a central set-piece not that much earlier, but which is casually tossed off here as though it was a mere trifle.

The set design is more convincing than with many previous Méliès laboratories - for instance, the one in The Doctor and the Monkey (Le Savant et le chimpanzé, 1900) - because the painted element has been enhanced with a clearly genuine anteroom, thus creating a sense of three-dimensional space that helps render the “rubber” effect that much more convincing. The word ‘Laboratoire’ can be read at an acute angle on the right-hand wall, and a slightly incongruous ‘Star Film Paris’ sign is affixed on the left-hand side of the frame, to register Méliès’ claim to ownership at a time when moving image copyright was in its infancy. Given how far ahead he was of the competition, it’s all too easy to see why he was so keen to assert his rights.

Disappointingly, given this film’s seminal importance in Méliès’ catalogue, the untinted source print on Flicker Alley’s DVD has clearly seen better days. It opens with a great deal of damage, and although this settles down later on, the image is beset by tramlines throughout, and the picture overall shows more grain and contrast than the norm. Eric Beheim’s electronic score is a little too generic, with no real attempt made to match what’s happening on screen.

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