Le Cauchemar, 1896, 1m09s
Star Film Catalogue No. 82
In the grip of a nightmare, a man tosses and turns in bed. He imagines a woman sitting at the foot end, clad only in a sheet, but when he reaches out to embrace her, she turns into a blackface minstrel with a banjo, and he reacts in horror, falling back onto the bed. The minstrel leaps up onto the bed and performs a song and dance routine. Unable to stand it any longer, the man grabs him by the shoulders, only to find him turning into Pierrot and the background changing to reveal a moonlit balcony. Pierrot leaps over it and runs away. The man in the moon comes closer and starts biting the would-be sleeper’s hand. He pushes it away, and Pierrot, the minstrel and the woman reappear on the balcony. He wakes up to find himself tangled up in the bedclothes. He puts his bed back together, looking nervously around all the while, before getting back under the covers.
A more elaborate essay in the art of the jump-cut than The Vanishing Lady (Escamotage d’une dame chez Robert-Houdin, 1896), this opens on the same drawing-room set of that film, and also resurrects the nightgown-clad would-be sleeper of A Terrible Night (Une nuit terrible, 1896), although here he is beset by altogether more sophisticated and alarming terrors than a single insect.
Whereas in The Vanishing Lady, Méliès merely changed foreground items while the background remained constant, in A Nightmare he mixes and matches both. The scene with both the woman and the blackface minstrel appears to be set in some kind of medieval castle (a suit of armour is on the left-hand side of the frame), the middle part of the frame being removed when Pierrot appears and the centre of the backdrop, framed by an arch, opens out to reveal a moonlit balcony.
It’s at this point that the film makes its historical mark, because this is the first - or at least the oldest surviving - example of one of Méliès’ lunar fantasies, which would culminate in the seminal A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune, 1902) six years later. Had A Nightmare been made later on, when he was more technically adept, Méliès would undoubtedly have attempted some kind of zooming effect so that the man in the moon would gradually bear down on the man in the bed, but he has to make do with another jump-cut. On the other hand, the abruptness also works well, since the sudden cut to a close-up man in the moon about to take a bite out of the would-be sleeper’s hand is genuinely startling.
After this coup de cinéma, the film reprises its previous elements, with Pierrot, the minstrel and the woman all reappearing at the same time to make the sleeper’s life hell. Small wonder that, after he wakes up, he looks around so trepidatiously before reassembling his bed and attempting fresh slumber.
Aside from some prominent tramlines, the print on Flicker Alley’s DVD is up to the usual high standards, with sharpness and fine detail being particularly impressive. Frederick Hodges’ piano accompaniment draws on Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’ and Golliwog’s ‘Cake-Walk’, together with a calculatedly off-key rendition of the traditional ‘Au clair de la lune’, with wittily-judged musical jump-cuts matching the visual ones before climaxing in an unholy mélange of all three. It’s quite startling to realise that Debussy’s now extremely familiar music hadn’t yet been composed when this film was made - the pieces date from 1903 and 1909 respectively.