Film History Essentials: La Lune à un Mètre (1898)

(English: The Astronomer’s Dream)

What it’s about:

An astronomer is alternately tormented by a devil and watched over by a benevolent fairy as he experiences a strange and incredible dream. The moon visits his astronomy tower, appearing in various different forms, but mostly as a ravenous, devouring face that threatens to consume him.

Why it’s essential:

It would be easy to overstate the contrast between the increasing sophistication of Georges Méliès’s fantastical films and almost anything else that was being made at the time. By the beginning of 1898, a few other filmmakers were experimenting with some of the same ideas and techniques, but Méliès had been developing his style and skills for nearly two years. Fundamentally though, no one else was yet attempting the kinds of movies that Méliès was starting to specialize in, and certainly not on the same scale. He had a recognizable artistic vision unlike that of any other 19th century filmmaker.

This may have had something to do with Méliès’s unique role (among other filmmakers of his day) as someone who was primarily an entertainer, rather than primarily an inventor, or an engineer, or a photographer, etc. What’s more he already owned a theater, and had connections with (and even employed) other performers. Presumably he also already had facilities for, and experience in, making sets and props. In addition, as one of the few filmmakers who was also exhibiting his own films (in his own theater), he would have had direct insight into what audiences were responding to.

Given all of that, it should come as no surprise that La Lune à un Mètre is reportedly based on a magic act that he had staged several years earlier, called “Les Farces de la Lune ou les Mésaventures de Nostradamus.” Of course Méliès himself plays the astronomer with his characteristic animation and energy, and Jeanne d’Alcy is “Phoebe,” the good fairy. This adaptation (which may only have been “loosely inspired by” the earlier show) seems short for a magic act, but it was still long for a motion picture. At over three minutes, it was among the longest of the hundreds of films released in 1898, and its stage magic origins are fully visible in the many and varied tricks that it employs.

Why you should see it:

Méliès continues to use the stop trick to great effect throughout this film. The trick is not really possible to disguise. It’s inherently obvious because the point of it is usually to make something visibly appear or disappear on the screen. However, Méliès’s execution of the trick is increasingly seamless. He has eliminated all but the smallest movements between edits, and often shoots the trick in such a way that any slight shifts are rendered invisible. For instance, there is a moment where the astronomer rushes forward to embrace the beautiful moon goddess, only to collide with a statue of a knight that suddenly appears in front of him. Any shifts that happened between one moment and the next are disguised, not only by the fact that the scene picks up with the completion of the astronomer’s motion after the stop, but by fact that an entire section of the set changes behind him as well.

When Méliès made Le Manoir du Diable in 1896, it was little more than a showcase for a whole series of stop tricks. Here, though, the real spectacle is provided by the elaborate sets and costumes, and particularly by the enormous moon puppet, with a mouth that opens and closes (and both consumes and disgorges!), and eyes and eyebrows that move independently. There is also the smaller, and slightly less elaborate, moon puppet that gives the illusion of the moon having moved back from the balcony. And there is what seems to be the smallest puppet of all, near the beginning, when the astronomer’s chalk drawing appears to animate. This is a particularly good illusion, as it does actually at first look like it is an animation effect of some kind.

Of all the tricks the film employs, though, the final one is certainly the most impressive. After the astronomer has been chewed up and spit back out in several pieces by the moon, the good fairy reappears to banish the devil and rescue him. As the fairy throws each piece of the astronomer’s body back into the moon’s mouth, they reappear in the chair on the right side of the frame, reassembling him piece by piece until she walks forward to reattach his right arm herself and return him fully to life. The effect works because the fake pieces of the astronomer’s body are very lifelike (particularly the head), and because each piece appears in the chair with virtually no detectable change to the rest of the scene. It is either an incredibly skillful use of the stop trick, or a double exposure, but either way it is incredibly effective.

~ by Jared on March 13, 2023.

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