Film History Essentials: Après le Bal (1897)

(English: After the Ball)

What it’s about:

A woman returns to her chambers from an evening out. With the help of her maid, she undresses, and then rinses off in a tub before wrapping herself in a towel to get ready for bed.

Why it’s essential:

Films like Carmencita and Fatima’s Coochee-Coochee Dance were certainly targeted primarily at an adult, male audience. Their subjects flirted with the edge of what was acceptable, titillating without entirely crossing the line into open indecency. 1896 saw the first productions (that we know of) that were openly erotic, adult films, though they were, not surprisingly, produced in Europe, not in the United States.

The first of these was A Victorian Lady in Her Boudoir, or simply A Woman Undressing. It was a British production by Esmé Collings, a member of the “Brighton school” of early cinema pioneers alongside men like G. A. Smith. Woman Undressing features a woman alone in a room, disrobing down to her shift before she settles into a chair and takes up a nearby mirror. This is one of the only films by Collings that still survives.

The second was Le Coucher de la Mariée, or Bedtime for the Bride. As the title suggests, this was a French production, produced by Eugène Pirou and directed and filmed by Albert Kirchner under the pseudonym “Léar.” The film was a recreation of a live striptease act of the same title, and featured the stage act’s star, Louise Willy, and her male co-star. The premise centers around a couple on their wedding night. The blushing bride coaxes her new husband to wait behind a screen while she undresses for bed, telling him not to peek. The audience, however, receives no such instructions.

As the woman slowly takes off her clothes, her husband pantomimes his nervous impatience, fanning himself, reading a newspaper upside down, and even occasionally sneaking a peek around the edge of the screen. The act once again ends with the woman down to her shift as she gathers her courage to summon her husband. The stage act, of course, would have been much longer, and it is believed that the film is also a fragment, though how much is missing and what it consisted of is unknown.

Reportedly, this film was quite successful in France, though its exhibition was shut down during an engagement in London. Naturally, success inspired imitation, and it spawned a genre of imitators, known in France as “scènes grivoises d’un caractère piquant” (“ribald scenes of a piquant character”). Neither Pirou nor Kirchner seems to have built a a career in pornographic film out of this success, though both are believed to have been involved in the business of either making or selling pornographic pictures. Strangely, Kirchner went on to make La Passion du Christ in 1897, a 12-scene film that was the first to adapt a Bible story for the cinema. It is now believed lost.

So, Après le Bal is not the first, or even the second, known erotic film. It is believed to be the third. But it has additional significance for a few reasons. After the success of Le Coucher de la Mariée, Georges Méliès himself got in on the trend with this film. The silhouette of a star, for Star Films, appears over the center of the image at the very beginning of the film. Méliès is, of course, best known for his success in the genres of fairy stories and science fiction, and for his pioneering work in special effects, but he truly did experiment with virtually every successful film formula of his day. What’s more, the star of his film (as she often was) is Jeanne d’Alcy (see right), his mistress and future second wife.

Après le Bal goes a step further than the previous known films, and is the earliest surviving film to feature simulated nudity. Unlike in the two earlier films, d’Alcy actually removes her shift, with her back to the camera. She is clearly wearing some sort of leotard covering most of her torso. Less obviously, she is also wearing a bodystocking that at least covers her legs.

Other similar films that are lost were made around the same time, and Méliès himself may even have made others that we do not have. The nature of the subject matter, and how it was viewed at the time, means that there will likely be a great deal that we never learn. As the BFI puts it: “Erotica being what it is, it’s possible that other (and perhaps more explicit) examples exist in private hands.” The films that have survived are quite tame by modern standards, though that would soon change. Still, from these mild beginnings, the erotic film was born. For much of its history, adult film has existed largely outside of the mainstream of film history, but this film shows that that was not always a foregone conclusion.

Why you should see it:

A modern viewer may be more fascinated by just how many layers d’Alcy has on, and how constricting they are, than by their removal. Her relief, in fact the relief of the women in all three of these films, when her corset is loosened is particularly visible. Other than that, this scene was apparently quite uncomfortable to film. As with all of Méliès’s films from this period, it was filmed outdoors in his garden against a painted backdrop. It was late in the year, and quite cold. It was much too cold, in fact, to use real water, so they filled the pitcher with dark sand instead. Overall, it’s quite a strange thing to watch, but the fact that it exists at all is not so strange.

~ by Jared on March 11, 2023.

One Response to “Film History Essentials: Après le Bal (1897)”

  1. […] as George Albert Smith’s wife, Laura Bayley, or Georges Méliès’s (second) wife, Jeanne d’Alcy. Ellen did, however, play a significant role in the running of the studio behind the scenes, and […]


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