By André Crous
Méliès was the magician of early cinema. He didn’t only lift the seventh art form to new heights by using it to depict fantastical stories, but in the process he evoked a sense of wonder in his audience that would colour and enrich many different kinds of films and inspire most of the filmmakers that came after him. He was the first who dared detach the medium of film from its realistic basis – the Lumière brothers had filmed real trains arriving, real human beings leaving a real factory, and real water spewing from a real garden hose to water real flowers. But Méliès had other plans. He had stars in his eyes and his desire to make the impossible visible, even with very rudimentary means, led to this masterpiece called A Trip to the Moon.
Jules Verne, if not an inspiration for the film, was certainly an influence, or at least a kindred spirit. The film opens in a grand hall where astronomers with big pointy hats have gathered to listen to their astronomer-in-chief, Barbenfouillis, who gesticulates very animatedly and makes a drawing on the blackboard indicating his intention to send a spaceship (though it rather resembles a missile) to the moon. Five astronomers are chosen to accompany him on this mission: Nostradamus, Alcofribas, Omega, Micromégas and Parafaragaramus (yes, the spelling is correct).
The names of theses characters have both real and fictional origins, and the combination is quite appropriate to the kind of film that Méliès was producing. Nostradamus, of course, is the renowned sixteenth-century clairvoyant. Alcofribas is the name used by the novelist Rabelais, whose works incorporated the grotesque and is best known for his novel about two giants, Gargantua and Pantagruel. Micromégas was the title of, and the name of the main character in, a short story by Voltaire. Said Micromégas was an alien visitor who lands on the earth and observes the strange customs of humans. Besides the Greek root of Omega (the word refers to the last letter of the Greek alphabet), I know nothing about it, nor does Parafaragaramus mean anything to me, though it conjures up images of characters in the world of Goscinny & Uderzo’s “Asterix & Obelix”.
After surviving a fall into a bucket of nitric acid, Micromégas joins the other astronomers aboard the spaceship, which is shot from a cannon into space. The décor throughout is theatrical but never expressionist, and though many of the sets are clearly painted pieces of cardboard, the effect of having these characters move over the painted roofs into a spaceship gains a lot of its energy from the adventure inherent in the imminent exploration of outer space.
Exactly halfway through the film, the spaceship hits the moon, in one of the most famous shots of silent cinema. It is a moving human face, and this man-moon fits perfectly with the slightly strange atmosphere of the film that is about to become even more peculiar. Once the astronomers land on the moon, and their presence is seen as an intrusion, they are punished by Phoebus, who covers them with snow. They hide in a crater, filled with lunar flora, where a planted umbrella takes root and grows to become a giant mushroom. The surreal image is wonderful to behold because of the continuous growth of the “plant”, its movement, inside the frame without any cuts.
With this film, Méliès, the first master of cinematic magic, showed how to dazzle an audience, and he deserves all the recognition of being the first dreamer of the cinema and for engaging our fantasies in a way that demonstrated the far-reaching possibilities of filmmaking.
Director(s) Georges Méliès
Screenwriter(s) Georges Méliès, Gaston Méliès
Directors of Photography Michaut, Lucien Tainguy
Running Time 11 minutes (20 fps)
Original title Le Voyage dans la lune
André Crous is a professional film critic and a member of FIPRESCI. He holds a French honour’s degree, two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. His research examined the works of Francois Truffaut, Mikhail Kalatazov, Martin Scorcese, Paul Thomas Anderson and Michael Winterbottom. He writes about movies in his blog, Celluloid Paradiso and lives in Prague, Czech Republic. | Read More ⟩