Archive for the 'Religion' Category

The Devil and the Statue

Le Diable géant ou le miracle de la madone, 1901, 2m03s
Star Film Catalogue Nos. 384-385

In a lavishly appointed room, a woman is serenaded by a man playing a lute while balanced on a ladder propped up just outside her window. After they clasp hands and gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes, he descends to the ground. She crosses the room, beside herself with emotion. A devil appears in the alcove, causes bars to appear on her window, taunts her, and then performs a suggestive dance, gradually growing in size until he towers above her. In desperation, the woman pleads to a statue of the Madonna, who comes to life and shrinks the devil back to his original size, causing him to disappear. She then banishes the bars, and the lovers are reunited.

The Devil and the Statue is a variation on a theme established by The Man with the Rubber Head (L’Homme à la tête en caoutchouc, 1901), in that once again the narrative is essentially an excuse for a living creature to appear to grow to gigantic size, by dint of superimposing a shot with the camera tracking in over a shot of a static room. (In this case, the joins are more obvious, and the floor on which the expanding and contracting devil is standing is all too visible).

Here, the effect is in the context of a love story, in which a courting couple is forcibly separated by the devil before being brought back together by a statue of the Madonna coming to life - a rather simpler effect than was the case in earlier Méliès films like The Magician (Le Magicien, 1898), as it only seems to involve the actress in question standing very still for most of the running time. However, it’s unlikely the audience would have been looking at her given the attractions of the increasingly imposing devil. Whereas the title character of The Man with the Rubber Head consisted entirely of a head, and therefore posed no threat, the newly gigantic devil is much more alarming.

However, despite the impressive build-up (in every sense), the dénouement can’t help but be a little disappointing, consisting largely of a reversal of the previous effect, at the end of which the devil simply fizzles out. Compared with the Grand Guignol head explosion of the previous film, one is entitled to feel a little short-changed, and for all the elegance of the set (the Renaissance Italian ambience is very effective), this is one of Méliès’ minor efforts.

The untinted print on Flicker Alley’s DVD opens with severe chemical damage, but quickly settles down to present an image that’s generally in very good condition, with plenty of fine detail visible (including, as mentioned above, the floor on which the devil is standing), only occasionally beset by tramlines. Joe Rinaudo’s electronic-organ accompaniment uses scales to create the impression of things growing and shrinking in size.

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Posted on 5th July 2008
Under: Horror, Jump-Cuts, Camera Movement, Superimposition, Religion, 1901 | 3 Comments »

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’.

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Posted on 26th May 2008
Under: Horror, Jump-Cuts, Mechanical Props, 1899, Religion | 1 Comment »

The Temptation of Saint Anthony

La Tentation de Saint Antoine, 1898, 1m10s
Star Film Catalogue No. 169

In his cave, the hermit Saint Anthony prays before an effigy of the crucified Christ. A scantily-clad woman suddenly appears, and St Anthony shields his eyes from the sight of temptation. She vanishes, and he recommences reading the Bible. Two women appear either side of him, and he recoils in horror. They vanish, and he picks up a skull from the base of the cross. However, when he kisses it, it turns into another woman, with two more appearing in quick succession. They dance in a ring around the tormented Saint Anthony before vanishing. A desperate Saint Anthony kneels before Christ, who turns into another woman. But an angel also appears, to which Saint Anthony turns with undisguised relief. The woman vanishes and Christ reappears.

Although The Temptation of Saint Anthony contains a familiar collection of Georges Méliès’ trademark jump-cut-triggered appearing and disappearing acts, the overtly religious elements are entirely new - at least when it comes to his surviving titles (I don’t count the devil in The Astronomer’s Dream/La Lune à un mètre, 1898, as his role is more akin to the horror film than any spiritual dimension). The subject of the various mental and moral torments of Saint Anthony was already well established, having inspired sixteenth-century masterpieces by Hieronymous Bosch and Mathias Grünewald, though Salvador Dalí’s variation was still several decades away.

From a distance of over a century, it’s hard to know how seriously to take Méliès’ film, since in essence it’s very similar to The Vanishing Lady (Escamotage d’une dame chez Robert-Houdin, 1896) - the only differences being that the various scantily-clad ladies are appearing and disappearing entirely unbidden by the hapless Saint Anthony, who would rather be left alone to read his Bible in his cave.

The first two encounters - with one and two women respectively - help set the scene, but Méliès then rings a more intriguing change as he has Saint Anthony picking up a skull from the base of the effigy of Christ on the cross, kissing it as if to exorcise the image of the women. But the skull then turns into another woman, followed by two more, who join hands around him, completely trapping him in a circle of temptation. Having failed to obtain satisfaction with the skull, he turns to the effigy of Christ Himself - surely He will remain pure? But no - his eyes are further sullied by the image of a crucified woman clad in a diaphanous dress, who descends from the cross and advances on him. When an angel then appears and banishes her before blessing Saint Anthony, his relief is almost palpable.

Although on a technical level The Temptation of Saint Anthony is something of a step back for Méliès (there are no effects more sophisticated than those he developed two years earlier), it nonetheless marks an advance in terms of subject matter, being one of the earliest films to tackle an explicitly religious theme. In this respect, Méliès proves himself the ancestor of Cecil B. DeMille and Franco Zeffirelli, whose own religious epics offer a similar blend of the solemn and the kitschy.

The print on Flicker Alley’s DVD is marred by noticeable chemical blotching pretty much throughout, though the underlying image is very sharp and clear - rather too much so, in fact, since it is obvious that Christ is a painted flat, as is the cave set. Neal Kurz’s piano accompaniment begins with shimmering scales before heavier chords signal the increasingly intolerable moral pressure being placed on Saint Anthony.

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Posted on 24th May 2008
Under: Jump-Cuts, Historical Re-enactments, 1898, Religion | No Comments »

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