Film History Essentials: Entre Calais et Douvres (1897)

(English: Between Calais and Dover)

What it’s about:

A group of passengers struggle to carry on as normal while traveling by ship across La Manche (the English Channel) from France to England. As the ship pitches back and forth, several passengers fail to remain upright, a seasick woman throws up repeatedly, and an Englishman who is determined to have his tea battles the very forces of nature to keep the refreshment on the table.

Why it’s essential:

Georges Méliès’s innovative cleverness as a filmmaker did not begin and end with camera tricks. In addition to a natural flair for showmanship before the camera, Méliès excelled at set design. In this case, the ship set was constructed atop a special platform in Méliès’s garden that rocked the entire thing back and forth to simulate an ocean voyage. Some viewers have wondered whether this platform rocked the ship itself, or the just camera. Close observation reveals a few points where the table rocks with the motion of the ship. (The performers definitely cause it to move in spots, but it unmistakably moves on its own at 0:38.) However, based on how little it moves, it is evident that the motion of the set is not so violent as to cause issues for the actors. Instead, they are able to react in unison, and exaggerate their reactions as necessary for comic effect.

Méliès had originally constructed the platform for an earlier film, Combat Naval en Grèce, depicting a fictional naval battle in the brief Greco-Turkish War, fought that spring. This appears to be functionally the exact same ship set, but with a different paint job, props, and backdrop. One notable addition is the sign designating the ship as part of the “Robert-Houdin Star Line,” in reference to the Théâtre Robert-Houdin (where Méliès still performed his magic act) and to the “Star Film Company” (under which Méliès produced his movies).

The girl seen disappearing through the doorway right at the start of the film is Méliès’s daughter, Georgette. She is more clearly visible in the production still at right, along with many other details from the set that are difficult to make out in the film. The round man in the checkered suit is Méliès himself, with his vest stuffed to make him appear larger. He seems to be parodying a particular sort of Englishman, insisting on continuing with his tea even as the ship tosses violently and waves splash over the sides.

Why you should see it:

For such a short film, on such a tiny set, there are a surprising twelve characters that appear, and ten of them are all on-screen at once as the film begins. The crowd of people on-deck, combined with the motion of the ship, gives an instant sense of jumbled confusion. Soon, though, half of the passengers go below and our attention is divided between the large Englishman, who is wrestling with the table, and the priest trying to minister to the seasick woman on the other side of the ship. The motion of the ship itself draws the audiences’ eyes back and forth between them. (This may make any viewers who are prone to motion-sickness, as I am, feel a little queasy.)

The remainder of the film is punctuated, at roughly equal intervals, by three big falls: The priest tips over and drops down the hatch, the Englishman goes face-first over his tea and onto the deck, and then the Englishman topples backwards into the hatch. They’re spaced just far enough apart to allow the audience a big laugh and recovery before the next one. Out of the seeming mayhem of the scene, it is possible to discern a well-rehearsed spectacle of comedic timing. Once again, without the use of camera movements or editing, we see a 19th-century filmmaker finding other ways to draw viewers’ eyes to each successive gag.


~ by Jared on March 3, 2023.

One Response to “Film History Essentials: Entre Calais et Douvres (1897)”

  1. […] and rolled back and forth to simulate the motion at sea. He used this same set not long after for another film, as well. That same year, he made two additional reconstructed actualities about revolts against […]


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