Film History Essentials: Le Rêveil de Chrysis (1899)

(English: Chrysis Waking)

What it’s about:

A nude woman reclines on an animal skin rug. Another woman, who is topless, kneels on a stack of cushions, fanning her. After a moment, the reclining woman rolls over and stands, stretching luxuriantly with her back towards the camera. The other woman retrieves a sarong and wraps it around her waist before the two walk out together.

Why it’s essential:

The first erotic films featured only implied or simulated nudity. The first genuine nudity on screen appeared later, under the guise of art and respectability. The first Jesus films claimed legitimacy by explicitly referencing (or even filming) established stage productions, and thus placed the responsibility for any potential sacrilege outside of the film and its producers. In much the same way, the first films to feature nudity did so in direct imitation of other established art forms. Although many films from this period were inspired by art, the catalog listings for these films were particularly careful to list their sources:

The catalog summaries make constant reference to art, literature, mythology, and famous iconic nude figures in a lyrical literary style, with sophisticated adjectives, elaborated grammar, and a touch of poetry quelling any suspicion of vulgarity. [… C]atalogs seldom cited the pictorial sources of the pictures they described—except for films displaying naked figures. In this risqué realm, reference goes hand in hand with prudence. Framing the film as a copy of a work of art shifts the responsibility for its undressed staging to the artist, and at the same time it justifies nudity as part of an artistic tradition, far from gratuitous and reprehensible exhibitionism.

Valentine Robert, “Nudity in Early Cinema; or, the Pictorial Transgression” from Corporeality in Early Cinema, pp. 158-159

However, the live re-enactment of sculpted or painted works of art was actually a stage tradition first. The popular tableaux vivants (or “living pictures”) of the 19th century were staged for decades before cinema first appeared. This, as Robert explains, was “the means by which, historically, the naked body got on stage. And the same story occurred on screen […] Motion pictures became the direct heir of living pictures.” Both on the stage and the screen, these living pictures benefited by offering a certain eroticism under the guise of more legitimate art.

Censorship standards allowed nude or semi-nude performers on stage as long as they didn’t move, granting a deferment to art that resulted in an obvious loophole for purveyors of sex. Nevertheless, the intended audience (at least in the case of films) was never in question, regardless of how genuine the artistic merits may have been. Pathé’s French catalog, for example, included a warning that these films were not suitable for children. In England, the series was specifically advertised as “Scenes for Smoking Concerts,” these being performances attended exclusively by a male audience. Many of Biograph’s “living picture” scenes were produced specifically for solitary viewing on the Mutoscope, and at least one business in Wales chose to locate its Mutoscopes in the men’s bathroom in 1899!

Many living pictures based on artistic works that included nudity depicted only simulated or partial nudity. Biograph, in particular, generally clothed their “nude” models entirely in a flesh-colored bodysuit. Some French productions did this as well, though the material was sometimes too sheer to really obscure the body anywhere except around the pelvic region, in the front (if it even covered anywhere else).

Examples of this include 1899’s La Naissance de Vénus (see above), based on the famous painting by Botticelli. Notice that the actress’s nudity is partially obscured by an oversaturation of light (possibly deliberate), as well as by a flesh-colored garment at her waist. Le Jugement de Phryné (1899), likely based on Jean-Léon Gérôme’s 1861 painting Phryne Before the Areopagus, is probably another example, though it is believed lost. There are only a few surviving 19th-century films where the performer appears fully nude.

One such film is Flagrant Délit d’Adultère (Flagrant Adultery), based on Jules Arsène Garnier’s 1876 painting Le Constat d’Adultère (The Exposure of Adultery). Another is Le Rêveil de Chrysis, believed to have been partially inspired by Ferdinand Roybet’s Odalisque (La Sultane) (see left). (“Odalisque,” a French term, from the Turkish odalık, refers to a harem slave or concubine. Among the many subjects common to the 19th-century Orientalism trend in Western art, harems and their occupants held a particular fascination for artists and art lovers alike.) Both of these films were produced by Pathé in 1899, and they seem to be the oldest extant examples of full nudity in cinema.

Le Rêveil de Chrysis stands out among these few examples because its main source seems to have been a popular and somewhat lascivious novel, rather than a painting. While there are obviously visual elements that could have been drawn from Roybet’s painting, the film’s title makes it clear that some of the inspiration comes from a different reference entirely: Aphrodite: Mœurs Antiques (Aphrodite: Ancient Morals) by Pierre Louÿs, first published in 1896. Louÿs was friends with Oscar Wilde, and like Wilde, he was a part of the late-19th-century Aesthetic movement. The style and ideas in this, his first novel, are typical of aestheticism.

Le Miroir by Joseph Carlier (1900), depicts Chrysis and Djala

The story follows Chrysis (after “Chryse,” a name associated with Aphrodite), a beautiful courtesan, and Démétrios, a handsome aesthete, pursuing and pursued by each other in Greek-controlled Alexandria during some vaguely-defined ancient period. Chrysis also has a “Hindu slave” named “Djalantachtchandratchapalâ,” a made-up mish-mash of syllables that Louÿs “translates” as “shimmers-like-the-image-of-the-moon-on-the-water.” (Chrysis, “too lazy” to say her full name, calls her merely “Djala.”) It’s particularly interesting that a book that was itself somewhat scandalous would have been adapted into a film featuring nude performers, seemingly abandoning the fig leaf of legitimacy that a more “respectable” work of art would have offered.

What to watch for:

Aphrodite: Mœurs Antiques opens with a scene that is at least suggestive of what we see in Le Rêveil de Chrysis:

Lying on her chest, elbows forward, legs apart and cheek in hand, she poked little symmetrical holes in a green linen pillow with a long gold pin.

Ever since she had woken up, two hours after midday, and tired of having overslept, she had remained alone on the messy bed, covered only on one side by a vast flood of hair.

This hair was radiant and deep, soft as fur, longer than a wing, supple, innumerable, lively, full of warmth. It covered half her back, extended below her bare stomach, still shone near her knees, in a thick, rounded curl. The young woman was wrapped in this precious fleece, whose bronze reflections were almost metallic and had caused her to be named Chrysis by the courtesans of Alexandria.

[…She lived] in a little white house with a terrace and small columns […] with her bronze mirror, carpets, new cushions, and a beautiful Hindu slave who knew how to do courtesans’ hair.
She rolled onto her back and twisted her fingers over each other. […] She dropped one leg to the mat and stretched until she stood up. Djala had gently left.

She walked very slowly through the room, her hands crossed around her neck, feeling the pleasure of her bare feet on the flagstones where the sweat was freezing. Then she went into her bath.

from Project Gutenberg, via Google Translate
Illustrations from the first chapter in a 1926 edition of Aphrodite

Between an extended account of her backstory and some dialogue with Djala, it takes about half of the first chapter for her to get up and walk away, corresponding with the end of the film. Incidentally, the first chapter alone references lesbian sex, interracial sex, oral sex, masturbation, and describes Chrysis as having been sexually-active from the age of 12. (She is 19 as the story begins.) It’s quite a range of topics to find in a 19th-century novel, and underlines how surprising it is that this film adaptation exists, and by one of the major French studios of the time, no less.

Essentially everything that happens in the film, and every element of the scenery, feels like it could have been drawn from either Aphrodite or Odalisque, except for one element. At the beginning of the scene, Djala picks up a cigarette from the table and lights it in the brazier. She hands it to Chrysis, who puffs on it a few times before handing it back. (Djala disposes of it just out of frame, while glancing hesitantly at the camera.) This is a notable anachronism, as there would have been no cigarettes prior to the 1800s, and no tobacco outside of the Americas prior to European colonization.

Note, too, that Chrysis walks out “very slowly” and with “her hands crossed around her neck,” precisely as described in the novel (though on the page, she is alone in the room by that point). By contrast, the film’s one nod to a certain restraint is to carefully cover her so that at no point is she fully facing the camera while bottomless. Similarly, in Flagrant Délit d’Adultère, the woman is never fully facing the camera while standing up, even though she is in the original painting. These two examples, plus the way the “Venus” is shot and covered in Pathé’s La Naissance de Vénus suggests exactly where the line of decency (or, at least, acceptability) was for a film that was being exhibited publicly, even for an exclusively adult, male audience.

~ by Jared on April 24, 2023.

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