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Georges Méliès, magician of the cinema!

A Trip to the Moon (Le voyage dans la lune) is a film by French illusionist and director Georges Méliès. Created in 1902, it was one of the most influential early narrative films. It was not the first narrative film, because arguably “The Fairy of the Cabbages (La Fée aux Choux)” from 1896 was the first, directed by Alice Guy-Blaché. After that Georges Méliès directed dozens other narrative films among which “Cinderella” (1899) and “Joan of Arc” (1900). But “A Trip to the Moon” was his first film to have international success. At an extent that it was even pirated by other studios, most notably Edison Studios. Georges Méliès involvement in every aspect of film production, also makes him one of the first cinematic auteurs.

Inspired by the stories of Jules Verne’s 1865 novel “From the Earth to the Moon” and its 1870 sequel “Around the Moon”. A Trip to the Moon starts with a gathering of the Astronomy club. Professor Barbenfouillis, played by Georges Méliès himself, proposes to do an expedition to the moon. The five astronauts Nostradamus, Alcofrisbas, Omega, Micromegas and Parafaragaramus agree. They create a bullet formed spaceship that is to be shot at the moon with a huge cannon. They are helped by the marines, surprisingly (for the time) all played by woman.

The spaceship shoots into space and lands right in the left eye of the Man in the Moon, making one of the most iconic images in film history. Interesting to note is that it plays with temporal continuity by showing the landing twice. The first time in the eye of the Man in the Moon. The second time from the perspective of the moon’s surface, giving a more realistic image of a moon landing. Already experimenting with non-linear storytelling. This was before narrative editing was explored by directors like Edwin S. Porter and D. W. Griffith. Who created the cinematic language we know today. So the cinematic language did not really exist back then, the rest of the scenes are just static shots that changes for each scene. It looks more like a stage play. Something Georges Méliès was familiar with, because of his stage career as a illusionist.

After landing on the moon, the crew decides to sleep. They get visited by multiple stars with human faces, Saturn and Phoebe. Phoebe was the one of the titans in Greek mythology, grandmother of Apollo, the god of the Sun and Artemis, goddess of the moon. Phoebe is also one of the moons of Saturn, discovered in 1899. Phoebe makes it snow and the astronauts wake up. They run into a cave to seek shelter. Here they have the first encounter with a hostile Selenite, an inhabitant of the moon, luckily he is easily killed and goes up in smoke. But soon more Selenites rush from the right side of the screen after them, the astronauts get captured and taken to their king.

They manage to escape because one the astronauts picks up the king, who changes into a doll by the use of special effects, and throws him to the ground. The astronauts run back to the spaceship while being pursued by a horde of Selenites. They manage to get inside the space ship, expect for Barbenfouillis, who jumps on a rope attached to the spaceship causing it to tip over the edge of a cliff. One Selenite jumps on the back of the spaceship and holds on. The spaceship falls back to earth and lands in the ocean. There is a big parade upon their return home. All the astronauts are getting a medal for their expedition and the Selenite, who held on to the spaceship, is imprisoned. The last shot is of a statue that is build to honor the astronauts, it displays the Latin phrase “Labor omnia vincit” meaning “Work conquers all”.

Most films at the time were actuality films, these were film that captured real life scenes and events, the precursor of documentary film. Like the films of the lumière brothers. But Georges Méliès started to see the potential of narrative films, which he called scènes composées or “artificially arranged scenes himself”. To be in total control of everything in the scene, or the so called mise-en-scène, he had to create a new environment. He build a greenhouse-like studio. It was the first film studio, and he was able to stage every aspect of the mise-en-scène. The special effects, what Georges Méliès was known for, were also easier to create in a controlled environment. Like double-exposure and substitution splices for example. The film studio, owned by Star Film Company, was built in 1897. The walls and the roof were made of glass to let in as much sunlight as possible. Mornings were for planning, the afternoon was for filming and the late afternoon was for developing the film in a laboratory.

The films of Georges Méliès were not meant to be watched silent, because exhibitors often used a bonimenteur, or narrator, to explain the story. Sometimes accompanied by an orchestra. Some of the screenings were also in color. The filmstrips were hand-painted, frame by frame. They used a lot of different colors, making “A Trip to the Moon” for example a really colorful film.

The stylized mise-en-scène and story, of “A Trip to the Moon”, are inspired by popular French féerie stage traditions. Féerie theatre, sometimes translated as fairy play, was known for its fantasy visuals and stories. The style can be seen back in the decor or theatre-like acting for example. It can even be argued that it was the first successful film to use the Hero’s journey narrative, of a hero (in this case heroes) who travels to the unknown and back, to come home changed or transformed. It is also considered to be the first science fiction film. It made people hungry for more narrative films, that why this film paved the way for narrative film to come. Sadly, after 1905, Georges Méliès success slowly declined. His small production studio couldn’t compete with bigger companies. He did continue to make films, but as conventions slowly changed, he seemed old-fashioned. Georges Méliès stopped producing films in 1912, while being deep in debt. Of the 510 films he made only 40% survived. He died in 1938, leaving behind the foundation for other filmmakers to build on. Even till this day we can see the style of Georges Méliès in films, like the films of Wes Anderson for example.

  • Thompson, K., & Bordwell, D. (2018). Film History. McGraw-Hill Education.

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