Archive for the 'Genres' Category

Joan of Arc

Jeanne d’Arc, 1900, 10m19s
Star Film Catalogue Nos. 264-275

At the age of thirteen, while tending sheep, Joan of Arc is visited by Saints Catherine and Margaret, and then by Saint Michael, who orders her to free France from the English yoke and to lead the Dauphin to the French throne. She returns home in a trance-like state, but won’t cross the threshold. Her uncle tries to persuade her to stay in her native village, but she refuses and runs off. She reaches the fortified city of Vaucouleurs, and persuades the guard to admit her. She finds the garrison commander, Robert de Baudricourt, enjoying a wild party with his friends. Joan tries to convince him of her plan, and though he initially rubbishes the idea (and has to be restrained from throwing her out), but Joan persuades him to give her his sword and entrust his army to her. Orléans is freed from the English oppressor, and Joan leads a huge army through the town. On 17 July 1429, in the cathedral of Rheims, King Charles VII is blessed by Archbishop Regnault. Joan and her army try to break in to the castle of Compiègne. After a pitched battle, Joan is captured by the English. Her followers try to scale the castle, but to no avail. Joan awakes in a cell, where she has another visitation from Saint Michael, this time flanked by Saint Margaret and Saint Catherine. The jailer orders her to accompany him. On 15 March 1431, Joan is put on trial, with the indictment read by Bishop Pierre Cauchon. He orders her to sign a retraction of her claim to have heard voices. She refuses and throws the quill on the floor. In the market square at Rouen, a pyre is constructed, with a sign reading ‘Relapsed Heretic’. Flanked by Cauchon and his allies, Joan is tied to the post and burned. A soldier adds fuel to the fire, and falls to the ground, overwhelmed both by the smoke and by the magnitude of what he has contributed to. But Joan has ascended to heaven.

Despite being made as early as 1900, Georges Méliès’ Joan of Arc was in fact the second adaptation of the legend: Georges Hatot’s The Execution of Joan of Arc (Execution de Jeanne d’Arc) was made in 1897. However, with its ten-minute running time and eleven separate scenes, Méliès’ film was undoubtedly the first to attempt an overview of the entire saga, from the teenage Joan hearing voices to her military triumphs, capture and execution. In fact, when compared with the earlier multi-sequence The Dreyfus Affair (L’Affaire Dreyfus, 1899) and Cinderella (Cendrillon, 1899), the narrative of Joan of Arc is noticeably more coherent, with just one digression to a scene not featuring Joan (the blessing of Charles VII).

The title role was played by one Mademoiselle Calvière, with Méliès regular Jeanne d’Alcy as her mother, and Méliès himself in multiple roles. As with Méliès’ other longer-form films, there are a reasonable number of extras, though the primary justification for an otherwise interminable march-past through Orléans seems to be so that Méliès can convince us that he really had a cast of thousands at his disposal. In actual fact, his performers would exit the shot at the right of the screen, and would quickly dash behind the backdrop to reappear again on the left.

Other effects are more sophisticated, and are dotted throughout the film. The appearances of the various angels in the opening scene were achieved by a combination of dissolve and superimposition - not that much earlier, he’d have been forced to use a much cruder jump-cut. Saint Michael is sporting an animated halo, presumably a mechanical effect being cranked by an invisible underling. Later, Joan’s army lays siege to the castle of Compiègne (clearly visible as a painted backdrop, since it wobbles when a ladder is placed against it) before being captured and burned at the stake, an effect achieved by releasing lots of smoke and stencil-tinting the print so that it looks as though it’s glowing with unbearable heat. Finally, a gloriously kitschy conclusion in Heaven echoes the similar apotheosis that concluded Cinderella (1899).

But Joan of Arc also proved that Méliès was becoming increasingly sophisticated as a metteur en scène. In terms of film grammar, he’s still conceiving his film as a series of lengthy tableaux shot from a fixed camera position and mostly separated by dissolves, but the blocking and compositions make effective use of the frame (particularly in the festivities in Robert de Baudricourt’s castle, the siege of Compiègne and Joan’s trial and execution), and once the march through Orléans and the blessing of Charles VII have finished, the film moves at one hell of a lick. Presumably Méliès could rely on his audience’s familiarity with the story to get away with not providing too much background information, but even without prior knowledge it’s much clearer what’s going on here than was the case with the Dreyfus films. Other directors, notably Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928), Robert Bresson (The Trial of Joan of Arc, 1962) and Jacques Rivette (Jeanne la Pucelle, 1993), would probe far more deeply into the legend, but Méliès’ film deserves credit for being the first serious effort, and one that ranges rather wider than its director’s reputation as a trick-film specialist might suggest.

The print on Flicker Alley’s DVD starts off in dreadful condition, with the whole of the first scene marred by severe damage. However, things quickly improve, and much of the rest of the film looks ravishing, augmented by the stencil colours. This is the first of a handful of Méliès titles to feature a soundtrack narration, delivered in heavily accented French by Lobster Films’ Serge Bromberg. The decision to record it in English triggered knee-jerk complaints from purists, though in actual fact this is Méliès’ original text, written in English to make his films more accessible to the international marketplace. (His films on the Dreyfus Affair would certainly have benefited from something similar). The narration is accompanied by an electronic score from Brian Benison, which makes frequent use of a martial mode as Joan’s military victories pile up.

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Posted on 13th June 2008
Under: Mechanical Props, Historical Re-enactments, Superimposition, 1900, Dreams | 1 Comment »

The One-Man Band

L’Homme orchestre, 1900, 1m33s
Star Film Catalogue Nos. 262-263

A man lays out seven chairs in a row and counts and recounts them to make sure. He sits down in the one on the far right, and splits in two, his double moving to the seat next to him. This process is repeated until there are seven men, identical except for their differing musical instruments, occupying all the chairs. They chat amongst each other until the man in the middle stands up to conduct. The six instrumentalists perform, then sit back and relax. The conductor stands up again and indicates that they should come closer. They do so, blending into each other until only the conductor is left. He makes the chairs disappear and reappear en bloc, then individually. As he is bowing to the audience, a gigantic fan rises behind him, startling him when he turns round. He sits on the only remaining chair and sinks through the floor of the stage. He then reappears on the other side of the fan, jumping over it before disappearing in a puff of smoke. The fan descends to reveal him behind it. He bows to the audience.

In many ways a sequel to The Four Troublesome Heads (Un Homme de têtes, 1898), The One-Man Band ups the ante to a considerable degree by featuring no fewer than seven identically-dressed Georges Mélièses playing musical instruments and interacting with one another in remarkably convincing synchronisation. Buster Keaton pulled off a similar trick in The Playhouse (1921) with greater technical polish, but Méliès beat him to the screen by over twenty years.

Even though it’s obvious to our more enlightened eyes how the trick was achieved, the level of precision and planning involved in getting seven multiple exposures to sync up perfectly in terms of both image and movement is remarkable, especially given that the director was also the performer. The synchronisation goes further than just getting them to play and bow together - at one point, the conductor stretches out his arms and the two men either side of him duck to avoid him. The registration wobbles at times, but is generally superior to that in The Four Troublesome Heads, providing further evidence of how Méliès was constantly refining his techniques through repetition and variation.

Méliès was no stranger to playing the lead in his films, but it’s worth noting that in this and The Four Troublesome Heads, he’s performing without any elaborate costume or make-up, as though he wanted to be as recognisable as possible. Given that the early screenings would presumably have been held in his own theatre with the man himself in attendance, this would have added an extra dimension to the fakery. It’s the work of a showman with plenty to show off, though the film’s second half sadly lacks the fireworks of the first - the multiple-Méliès orchestra is such a tour de force that the solo business with the fan can’t help but seem a bit anti-climactic.

The print on Flicket Alley’s DVD has quite a few tramlines (possible side-effects of having to rewind it seven times for the multiple exposures?) and exposure fluctuations, but has plenty of fine detail. Robert Israel’s score begins with a drumroll before launching into a highly convincing impression of a circus orchestra, entirely appropriate to the subject.

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Posted on 12th June 2008
Under: Stage Magic, Superimposition, 1900 | No Comments »

The Misfortunes of an Explorer

Les Infortunes d’un explorateur ou les momies récalcitrantes, 1900, 0m17s
Star Film Catalogue No. 244

An explorer, clad in pith helmet, wanders into an Egyptian tomb and is struck by a sarcophagus displayed in the centre. After examining it from either side, he opens it, revealing it to be empty. He climbs in… (print ends here)

Surviving only as a very short fragment of some seventeen seconds, The Misfortunes of an Explorer ends just when it looks as though it’s going to get interesting, as the explorer in question climbs into an Egyptian sarcophagus. The fact that it’s not merely empty when opened but completely blank signals some kind of superimposed special effect(s) is/are in the offing, but what form they take must remain conjectural - though the title suggests that they’re hardly going to be pleasant. (The French title translates as ‘The Misfortunes of an Explorer, or The Recalcitrant Mummies’). The explorer appears to be played by Méliès himself, and the backdrop gives an excellent impression of depth in its use of the usual foreshortened perspective, here emphasised by the tomb’s well-defined brickwork receding into the distance.

One thing that is worth noting is that this film predates the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb by some 22 years - which is when the notion of the mummy’s curse decisively passed into the popular imagination after the excavation’s patron Lord Carnarvon died in mysterious circumstances. However, the theme of the Egyptian curse itself was centuries old, so Méliès was drawing on extant tradition.

It’s a particular shame that so little of this film survives, because what’s presented on Flicker Alley’s DVD is generally in very acceptable condition, barring a couple of out-of-focus frames near the start. There are speckles of damage throughout, but the level of detail is impressively high, almost right up to the very end of the surviving fragment. Neal Kurz’s piano accompaniment is a Chopinesque waltz that comes to a conclusion as the explorer steps into the tomb - wisely, it refrains from building any kind of anticipation, given the inevitable letdown at the end.

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Posted on 11th June 2008
Under: Horror, 1900 | 3 Comments »

The Cook’s Revenge

La Vengeance du gâte-sauce, 1900, 0m56s
Star Film Catalogue No. 243

In the kitchen, a cook attempts to seduce a maid, making her drop a plate. It shatters on the ground, causing both to jump and remonstrate with each other. The cook hears someone approaching and hides in a cupboard. The horrified manager enters and sends the maid off with a flea in her ear before sitting down to contemplate the shards. The cook peeks out of the cupboard, and the manager spots him. He runs over to the cupboard and slams the door, severing the cook’s head at the neck. In a panic, the manager picks up the head and puts it on a nearby table, where it comes back to life. Alarmed, the manager grabs a saucepan and hits it. It disappears and reappears on the other side of the kitchen. The manager picks it up and tosses it back in the cupboard, closing the door behind it. The now intact cook emerges from the cupboard, and knocks the manager’s head off before tossing his limp body around. He then exits via the door.

Another slice of comical Grand Guignol in a vein already established by Adventures Of William Tell (Guillaume Tell et le clown, 1898) and The Mysterious Knight (Le Chevalier mystère, 1899), The Cook’s Revenge devises perhaps the most appropriate setting yet for Méliès’ distinctive brand of ultraviolent knockabout comedy, since it’s well known that the kitchen is one of the prime locations for fiery tempers and unreasonable behaviour.

However, it’s unlikely that Gordon Ramsay ever had to put up with a scenario like this, where an accident caused by the cook’s over-amorous intentions towards the maid leads to a situation whereby his head is accidentally severed by (one presumes) the restaurant manager or maître d’. This being a Méliès film, it’s a bloodless experience, with the head blithely coming back to life in the manner of The Four Troublesome Heads (Un Homme de têtes, 1898) or The Mysterious Knight, though the superimpositions this time round are more accomplished in that the joins are now virtually seamless, a sign of Méliès’ technical confidence increasingly matching his conceptual imagination. Finally, the roles are reversed, with the newly intact cook knocking the manager’s block off and tossing his beheaded body around the room for good measure.

The English title is a simplification of the original French, as the term ‘gâte-sauce’ literally means “sauce spoiler”, a term that originally literally referred to a bad cook, but was then turned into a slang term meaning “kitchen help”. In other words, the “cook” in this film was probably a barely qualified underling, hence his clear preferment of the charms of the maid over anything else in the kitchen - and the rage of his boss when he hears his precious plates getting smashed as a by-product.

The untinted print on Flicker Alley’s DVD wobbles at times, but is otherwise rather better preserved than average, with damage and exposure fluctuations kept to a minimum for the most part. As with his accompaniment for Adventres of William Tell, Eric Beheim’s jolly, tinkling score maintains an upbeat tone throughout, as if to emphasise that none of this should be taken seriously.

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Posted on 10th June 2008
Under: Horror, Jump-Cuts, Superimposition, 1900 | 1 Comment »

Addition and Subtraction

Tom Whisky ou l’illusionniste toqué, 1900, 1m00s
Star Film Catalogue No. 234

Tom Whisky performs a lively dance. Exhausted, he pulls up a chair and sits on it, only to find a woman appearing underneath him. He leaps up, grabs another chair, and the same thing happens - and then again with a third. The three women get up, and Tom pushes them together until they turn into a single, much larger woman. Alarmed, he pushes down on her head, shrinking her to a small child. This fails to meet with his satisfaction, so he pulls her up to the large woman again, and splits her into the original trio. He pulls out the chairs for them and lets them sit down… (print ends here)

The French title of this lively piece of knockabout slapstick translates as ‘Tom Whisky, or the Mad Illusionist’ - presumably the name is a reference to something lost in the mists of time (the novelist William Carleton has a character of that name in his Stories of the Irish, but it’s hard to see the connection), but we can safely assume that the raffish, bearded figure with his frenzied dancing goes by that name. In essence, this is a set of variations on an effect that Méliès previously created in The Famous Box Trick (Illusions fantasmagoriques, 1898), in which a child was “split” into twins with the aid of an axe and a well-timed jump-cut.

No such props are necessary for Tom Whisky - just a lively and possibly well-lubricated imagination as he conjures up three near-identical women, fuses them together to create a much plumper one (which he finds much less prepossessing, as indicated by his horrified reaction), shrinks her to create a child, and then puts everything into reverse so that he ends up with the original female trio. The print under review ends with him offering them chairs: it’s unclear whether this is the actual ending, though given the film’s minimal narrative content and running time in line with Méliès’ other single-reelers, this must certainly be a possibility.

What’s also striking about the film is the way the many jump-cuts have been carefully planned so that they integrate seamlessly with Tom Whisky’s whirling dance routine, which was clearly much less wild and random than it appears at first glance. Even though it’s obvious how they were created (to a large extent, this film harks back to Méliès’ earliest jump-cut experiments of 1896), the rapidity of his movements is clearly intended to distract the viewer’s eye from the trickery being performed elsewhere. It’s an age-old trick that an experienced stage magician like Méliès would have mastered long before he came anywhere near a camera.

Sadly, this untinted print used as the source for Flicker Alley’s DVD is in dreadful condition, and looks like a very poor-quality dupe. It’s extremely grainy, there’s lots of damage (which looks printed-in), and it’s so contrasty that Tom Whisky often appears as a silhouette: it’s just as well that the film is one of Méliès’s less subtle efforts. Robert Israel’s jaunty piano-and-violin accompaniment enhances the music-hall feel.

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Posted on 9th June 2008
Under: Jump-Cuts, Stage Magic | No Comments »

Cinderella

Cendrillon, 1899, 5m41s
Star Film Catalogue Nos. 219-224

In the kitchen, Cinderella pleads with her sisters to let her go to the ball with them, but she is rebuffed. She sits in a chair and weeps. The cauldron turns into her fairy godmother, who asks her to open a rat-trap. Cinderella does so, and a rat emerges. The fairy godmother touches it with her wand, and it’s transformed first into a giant-sized rat, and then into a human footman. Two more rats emerge, and are given similar treatment. The fairy godmother asks Cinderella to place a large pumpkin on the table, which is transformed into a carriage. Cinderella’s rags are transformed into a gorgeous dress, and the footmen help her into the carriage prior to mounting it themselves. As they leave, the fairy godmother indicates the clock, prior to sinking through the floor. At the ball, a dance is in progress when Cinderella enters, kissing the King’s hand and captivating the Prince, who gladly dances with her. Suddenly, Old Father Time leaps into the centre of the dance floor to remind Cinderella of the time. But it is too late: she changes back into her original rags. Her sisters laugh at her, and she runs away in shame. The Prince picks up one of her slippers and runs after her, but to no avail. The dance recommences. Cinderella enters her bedroom, sits at her table and sobs unconsolably. Her freestanding clock sidles up to her and Father Time re-emerges, complete with four female assistants. Father Time himself turns into a woman, and the quintet rock from side to side, each holding a clock face showing midnight. They are then transformed into large ornate clocks that jump up and down as though taunting Cinderella. They turn back into the five women, who form themselves into a group and turn into a much larger clock face, with Father Time in the middle. It vanishes, and Cinderella’s sisters appear. They order her to answer the door. The Prince enters, holding the abandoned slipper. He tries it on each of the sisters’ feet, but it doesn’t fit. He goes over to Cinderella, ignoring their taunting, and slips it onto her foot - it’s a perfect fit. The fairy godmother appears and transforms her rags back into her earlier finery. The Prince takes her hand and leads her out. Cinderella’s sisters protest, but can do nothing. A crowd gathers to watch a marching band heralding the approach of Cinderella and the Prince - she is now wearing a wedding dress. A long retinue follows them into the church. A group of boys and girls is prevented from entering, but stays outside to dance in formation with the help of a violinist. A ballerina performs an elaborate pirouette. The Prince, Cinderella and their followers strike a pose.

Almost immediately after the eleven-film The Dreyfus Affair cycle (L’Affaire Dreyfus, 1899), which presented the story of late nineteenth-century France’s most notorious scandal as eleven separate tableaux (of which nine survive), Georges Méliès made an even more ambitious film that adapted Charles Perrault’s 1697 fairytale into a series of sequences that, unlike the Dreyfus films, were clearly designed to be presented together - since Méliès devised various elaborate transitions between shots.

Twenty sequences are listed:

  1. Cinderella in the kitchen.
  2. The fairy.
  3. The transformation of the rat.
  4. The pumpkin changes to a carriage.
  5. The Ball at the King’s Palace.
  6. The hour of midnight.
  7. Cinderella’s bedroom.
  8. The dance of the clocks.
  9. The Prince and the slipper.
  10. Cinderella’s godmother.
  11. The Prince and Cinderella.
  12. The arrival at the church.
  13. The Wedding.
  14. Cinderella’s sisters.
  15. The King.
  16. The nuptial cortège.
  17. The Bride’s Ballet.
  18. The Celestial Spherics
  19. The Transformation.
  20. The Triumph of Cinderella.

However, it should be noted that many of these are combined into one shot (for instance, 1 to 4 inclusive), so the final film isn’t quite as narratively advanced as the list implies. That said, it was still amazingly sophisticated for 1899, especially in its scene transitions. Three of them - between 4/5, 6/7 and 11/12 - are linked by dissolves, achieved by closing the lens aperture, rewinding the film, and opening the aperture again, and it is generally believed that these are the first dissolves in film history. The final transition, which is apparently given its own entry as ‘The Transformation’, is more visually elaborate, as the background and side flats are removed to let the dancers blend seamlessly into a tableau involving the Prince, Cinderella and her retinue, but much more redolent of a stage production. (Although this is believed to be the first film adaptation of the Cinderella story, it had long been a popular stage favourite).

The film also appears to be a conscious synthesis and summation of everything that Méliès had developed to date, both theatrically and cinematographically. The first scene (or tableaux 1-4), in which Cinderella’s fortunes are transformed by her fairy godmother consists of a familiar sequence of Méliès’s jump-cut special effects, albeit with two distinct stages - so a small rat is transformed into a bigger rat before reaching its final form as a footman. The second scene (tableaux 5-6) is initially more straightforward, consisting of Cinderella wooing the Prince via a dance - but the surprise entry of a man with a long white beard, presumably meant to be Old Father Time towards the end promises to ring some changes on otherwise familiar material.

This promise is fulfilled in the next scene (tableaux 7-8), which begins with the film’s second dance number - though unlike the sedate court dances, these are complex routines involving Father Time, four female assistants and a great many clocks, with jump-cuts facilitating various mid-dance transformations (Father Time turns into a woman at one point) complex dance routine involving not just Father Time but four female assistants (he occasionally transforms himself into a fifth), culminating in an extraordinary image of a giant clock face with Father Time suspended in the middle - this has distinct echoes of the gigantic devouring moon in The Astronomer’s Dream (La Lune à un mètre, 1898).

There is then a very abrupt cut to the scene (tableaux 9-11) of the Prince and the slipper which, like the scene at the ball, is staged entirely straight. This is, as it turns out, the film’s final scene that has a primarily narrative purpose, as the rest of the film is given over to the most elaborate dance routine of all. After a lengthy procession into the church (tableaux 12-16), eight dancers are left outside, and begin to perform with the aid of a violinist (tableau 17). A ballerina enters and dominates the action (tableau 18) - and finally (tableaux 19-20) the backdrop is lifted, revealing Cinderella, the Prince and the members of their cortège in formation, blending seamlessly with the dancers in the foreground. The film has now definitively shifted from theatre to ballet - the final tableau being an authentic apotheosis, representing the Triumph of Cinderella, framed as though she was a successor to Marianne, France’s national emblem. (Although Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet wouldn’t be written for another four decades, there had already been several balletic adaptations of Perrault’s story dating back to the early 19th century, plus of course Rossini’s 1817 opera La Cenerentola).

Clearly sourced from more than one print, Flicker Alley’s presentation of Cinderella incorporates a very brief segment of stencil-tinted colour as the fairy godmother makes her first appearance. The colours aside, the condition of the print is generally fairly poor, and improves noticeably when the image cuts to a slightly sepia-tinted black and white - there’s still a fair bit of surface damage, but the definition is altogether sharper, and this quality is generally maintained to the end. Donald Sosin’s score mostly consists of solo piano, though there are interpolated electronic harp effects at key moments, such as the fairy godmother’s appearance.

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Posted on 7th June 2008
Under: Jump-Cuts, Mechanical Props, 1899, Literary Adaptations, Fairytales | No Comments »

The Court Martial at Rennes

L’Affaire Dreyfus, Le Conseil de guerre en séance à Rennes, 1899, 2m11s
Star Film Catalogue No. 214-215

12 August 1899. The court martial of Alfred Dreyfus at the Lycée in Rennes. The sergeant of the court strides up and makes an announcement. Colonel Jouast and the other judges arrive and take their seats, along with Maître Labori, Commandier Cordier and Adjutant Coupois. Dreyfus is then brought in, and Jouaust questions him. General Mercier, the first witness, enters, salutes the judges, and mimes that he’d like a seat. One is brought, and a debate ensues, which becomes heated to the point when Mercier leaps up and begins gesticulating. When he sits down, Dreyfus rises and makes a protest.

This double-length instalment of Georges Méliès’s series The Dreyfus Affair (L’Affaire Dreyfus, 1899) is now effectively the climax, as successive episodes are now lost. Sadly, it’s actually more of an anticlimax, largely because it requires far more footnotes than the other films, and if the viewer isn’t already aware of the various participants in the court-martial, the end result will probably be largely meaningless. That said, Méliès’s audience of the time would certainly have known what was going on.

The first half of the film is largely ceremonial, as we watch the judges and lawyers filing in, including Dreyfus’s defence counsel Maître Labori. This film is actually set a couple of days before the assassination attempt depicted in The Attempt Against the Life of Maître Labori (L’Affaire Dreyfus, Attentat contre maître Labori, 1899). Auguste Mercier (1833-1921), the witness who dominates the film’s second half, was in many ways the ringleader of the ‘Antidreyfusard’ faction, and his statement to the court lasted more than four hours. The film concludes with Dreyfus trying to challenge him - in vain, as it turned out, as the judges found in Mercier’s favour. As the highest-ranking military officer in the courtroom, Mercier effortlessly dominated the proceedings, and it was said that the presiding judge, Colonel Albert Jouast, was simply obeying his orders.

In terms of staging, this makes use of the same backdrop as that featured in Méliès’ previous film, The Fight of Reporters (L’Affaire Dreyfus, Bagarre entre journalistes, 1899), though the blocking of the actors is much more sedate, reverting to Méliès’ usual approach of arranging people in lines on different planes. The judges sit in the background, with Mercier and Dreyfus dominating the mid-point of the screen, and another line of people along the right-hand side, distracting attention from the set’s artificiality. In the absence of intertitles, we can tell little about the exact content of the speeches and altercations, though Méliès does deftly convey the impression of time passing when he has Mercier asking for a chair before launching into his epic denunciation.

On September 9, just under a month after the events depicted in this film, Dreyfus was found guilty by five votes to two, and duly sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment. Presumably the final film in Méliès’ cycle, the now-lost Dreyfus Leaving the Lycée on His Way to Prison (Dreyfus allant du lycée à la prison), depicted the immediate aftermath of the verdict. However, such was the outcry that by September 19th, French President Émile Loubet (1838-1929) issued a pardon - though it wouldn’t be until 1906 that Dreyfus was formally cleared of all the original charges. Méliès wouldn’t have been aware of this, of course, and since he began shooting his Dreyfus series in August 1899, there’s every possibility that they were finished before the announcement of the Presidential pardon, leaving Dreyfus in legal limbo.

Flicker Alley’s untinted print is generally in excellent condition, with damage kept to a minimum and the only other blemishes consisting of occasional exposure fluctuations. Eric Beheim’s electronic score is surprisingly Bachian in its contrapuntal interweaving of two themes, though this is entirely appropriate to the subject at hand.

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Posted on 6th June 2008
Under: Historical Re-enactments, 1899 | No Comments »

The Fight of Reporters

L’Affaire Dreyfus, Bagarre entre journalistes, 1899, 1m08s
Star Film Catalogue No. 213

Rennes, August 1899. Various journalists take their seats in the courtroom at the second court-martial of Arthur Dreyfus. Though the atmosphere is cordial at first, Arthur Meyer of the ‘Gaulois’ starts an argument with Madame Séverine of the ‘Fonde’. She leaps to her feet, and so do most of the other journalists, triggering a pitched battle with many laying about them with their sticks. Many participants flee when the gendarmes get involved, and the remaining reporters are subsequently expelled.

This instalment in Georges Méliès’s series The Dreyfus Affair illustrates a key aspect of the saga that’s been ignored by the films thus far: the passionate side-taking by various parties into ‘Dreyfusard’ and ‘Antidreyfusard’ camps. The press was extensively involved, most notably when the novelist Émile Zola published his front-page tract ‘J’accuse!’ in the inaugural 13 January 1898 issue of L’Aurore - an act that sent shockwaves through French society and forced him to flee to England for a time. Long before then, journalists had indulged in much spreading of rumour and counter-rumour, which reached a peak in 1899 during Alfred Dreyfus’s second court-martial that summer.

The two identifiable figures in the mêlée depicted here are Arthur Meyer (1844-1924), the Jewish-born but nonetheless virulently anti-Semitic editor of ‘Le Gaulois’ (he would convert to Catholicism a couple of years later) and Caroline Rémy (1855-1929), popularly known as ‘Séverine’, one of the most vocal of the pro-Dreyfus supporters and the first female journalist in France to earn a living exclusively from her writing.

However, their altercation quickly spills over into all-out group violence, whose most immediately noteworthy point is that its visual treatment lacks Méliès’ usual careful staging that arranges the actors in clearly-defined planes. Here, it looks like a straightforward fight, and when it’s broken up, the various characters walk (or are bundled) towards and past the camera instead of exiting to the left or right. The result is much more three-dimensional and less “theatrical” than Méliès’ other films - of all the films in the Dreyfus cycle, this is the one that most closely resembles genuine actuality footage, the size of the cast and the amount of foreground action making it much less obvious that the backdrop is still a painted flat.

Flicker Alley’s untinted print starts with the usual chemical damage, and there are also some quite severe exposure fluctuations, frame jitter and even mild warping - though the image is sharp and clear enough underneath. Eric Beheim’s electronic score is surprisingly low-key given the impassioned verbal and visual assaults depicted on screen, though this is in line with his other accompaniments to this series.

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Posted on 5th June 2008
Under: Historical Re-enactments, 1899 | No Comments »

The Attempt Against the Life of Maître Labori

L’Affaire Dreyfus, Attentat contre maître Labori, 1899, 1m01s
Star Film Catalogue No. 212

Rennes, 14 August 1899. Maître Labori (Alfred Dreyfus’s lawyer), Colonel Picquart (the man who unmasked the real forger), M. Gast (Mayor of Rennes) and an unidentified woman are walking near a bridge. They stop for a chat, and the woman leaves. A man creeps up behind them, behaving suspiciously, but although the trio notice him, they don’t think anything of it. They turn to walk across the bridge, whereupon the man draws a gun and shoots Labori twice in the back. He runs off, pursued by Labori’s companions. Labori lies on the ground in agony, trying and failing to attract the attention of two passers-by - but a third comes to his assistance, and calls for help.

As with Suicide of Colonel Henry (L’Affaire Dreyfus, Suicide du Colonel Henry, 1899), this latest instalment of Georges Méliès’s Dreyfus Affair serial temporarily moves away from Dreyfus himself to focus on one of the supporting characters - in this case his lawyer, Maître Fernand Labori (1860-1917), who had already been depicted in the previous film, Dreyfus Meets His Wife At Rennes (L’Affaire Dreyfus, Entrevue de Dreyfus et de sa femme à Rennes, 1899).

However, his appearance here is in altogether more dramatic circumstances, since Méliès reconstructs an assassination attempt that befell Labori in real life on 14 August 1899, a week after Dreyfus’s second trial had commenced. However, the wounds proved superficial, and Labori was back in action by the 22nd. No less a figure than Marcel Proust claimed that the attempt on Labori’s life gave him an increased moral stature, since it proved that he was prepared to shed blood for the cause. One of Labori’s two companions is Georges Picquart (1854-1914), a crucial figure in the Dreyfus saga since it was he who first unmasked the real author of the ‘bordereau’, the incriminating document depicted in Dreyfus Court Martial - Arrest Of Dreyfus (L’Affaire Dreyfus, La dictée du bordereau, 1899).

In terms of mise en scène, the film’s action is played out against a backdrop of the bridge at Rennes, with another painted flat to the left creating a side alley for the would-be assassin to escape down. As in Landing Of Dreyfus At Quiberon (L’Affaire Dreyfus, Débarquement à Quiberon, 1899), Méliès is keen to establish at least a sense of realism, with various passers-by crossing the frame at regular intervals. The assailant himself, with his theatrically furtive, quasi-Groucho Marx stoop, is straight out of a comic strip caricature, but he’s on screen relatively briefly. There is a plausible rumour that Méliès himself is playing Labori.

The film then turns to an intriguing coda, taking up almost a third of the running time, whereby two passers-by completely ignore Labori as he’s writhing in agony on the ground. There’s a passing possibility that this might be deliberate (Labori would have been an extremely well known figure in Rennes by this stage of the trial), though it’s more likely that they simply don’t want to be involved. However, the third - dressed altogether more raffishly and with long hair and a beard - more than makes up for this by sounding the alarm.

Aside from some forgivable damage (mild blotching and scratching), this is one of the better prints in Flicker Alley’s Dreyfus cycle, resolving so much fine detail that it’s all too easy to see the join between the painted backdrop and the studio floor. Eric Beheim’s electronic score begins in chirpy early-morning mode before becoming more agitated during and after the assassination attempt, though it eschews overt nudging in a particular direction.

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Posted on 4th June 2008
Under: Historical Re-enactments, 1899 | 1 Comment »

Dreyfus Meets His Wife at Rennes

L’Affaire Dreyfus, Entrevue de Dreyfus et de sa femme à Rennes, 1899, 1m05s
Star Film Catalogue No. 211

In the military prison at Rennes, Alfred Dreyfus is seated at a table poring over books. A guard enters and salutes him, indicating that there are people outside. Dreyfus asks him to show them in. His lawyers Edgar Demange and Fernand Labori enter and are greeted by Dreyfus prior to the three of them taking seats around the table. Dreyfus points out something in the book he was reading earlier, which leads to an animated conversation. He has just got up to show them another document when the guard re-enters to say that he has another visitor. It is his wife Lucie, and her friend Madame Havet. Clearly overwhelmed with emotion, the reunited couple embrace, prior to Dreyfus sitting on the bed with his head in his hands.

Dreyfus Meets His Wife at Rennes is the second of two films (the first being Landing of Dreyfus at Quiberon/L’Affaire Dreyfus, Débarquement à Quiberon, 1899)describing the events of the night of 30 June-1 July 1899, during which Dreyfus was transferred from Devil’s Island to the far more salubrious military prison in the city of Rennes, Brittany, northwest France. There, he was initially reunited with his legal team, Edgar Demange (1841-1925) and Fernand Labori (1860-1917), the latter the subject of the next film in Méliès’s Dreyfus cycle, The Attempt Against the Life of Maître Labori (L’Affaire Dreyfus, Attentat contre maître Labori, 1899). Finally, his wife Lucie (1869-1945) joins them, and the couple have an emotional reunion - rendered more so by Dreyfus’s evident despair at the end, as he knows the encounter will be all too brief. (Neither he nor Méliès would have known this at the time, but he was still seven years away from freedom).

Instead of the special effects-fuelled fireworks of the previous film, the focus here is on a realistic presentation of Dreyfus’s emotional state - in many ways an expansion of the two previous films about Dreyfus incarcerated, Devil’s Island - Within The Palisade (L’Affaire Dreyfus, A l’ile du diable) and Dreyfus Put In Irons (L’Affaire Dreyfus, Mise aux fers de Dreyfus, both 1899). The New York Times, in an article dated 2 July 1899 (i.e. the following day), described the encounter as follows: “The meeting between the long-parted husband and wife can better be imagined than described. Naturally, it was most touching. Both Dreyfus and his wife were deeply affected. They remained long clasped in each other’s arms, tears and smiles intermingling with tender endearments.”

So far so touching, but it went on to say: “Mme. Dreyfus issued from the prison in a state of collapse. She found her husband much aged, with beard and hair whitened, and body shrunk and stooped. She said Dreyfus knew nothing of the events of the past two years.” Presumably, French newspaper accounts proceeded on near-identical lines, because it seems clear that Méliès is trying to convey this impression in the final seconds of the film, when Dreyfus retreats into a world of his own and Lucie can offer no more than a comforting caress.

Aside from some chemical blotching at the beginning and intermittent damage thereafter, the untinted print on Flicker Alley’s DVD is generally in excellent condition, with plenty of fine detail - enough to appreciate that the roles have been casts with sufficient care to ensure a certain physical resemblance to their models. Eric Beheim’s electronic score is considerably less doom-haunted than has been the case with the earlier Dreyfus soundtracks, starting off in a stately mode for the conversation with the lawyers before becoming altogether sweeter-toned when Lucie Dreyfus enters.

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Posted on 3rd June 2008
Under: Historical Re-enactments, 1899 | No Comments »

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