Le Voyage dans la Lune

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(A Trip to the Moon)

France, 1902

Director: Georges Méliès

Production: Star Film Studios (Montreuil, France); black and white, 35mm, silent; running time: 14 minutes, but varying lengths exist; length: about 825 feet. Released 1902, at Méliès's Théâtre Robert Houdin in Paris. Filmed in 1902 in Méliès's Star Film Studios at Montreuil. Cost: 10,000 francs.

Scenario: Georges Méliès; photography: possibly by one or more of Méliès' regular cameramen who included Leclerc, Michaut, Lallemand, and Astaix.

Cast: Georges Méliès (Barbenfouillis, President of the Astronomer's Club); Bluette Bernon (Phoebe on the crescent moon); acrobats from the Folies-Bergère (Members of the Selenite Army).



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* * *

Partly inspired by Jules Verne's early work of science fiction De la terre à la lune (1865) and by H. G. Wells's prophetic novel The First Men in the Moon (1901), Georges Méliès's Le voyage dans la lune (1902) is remarkable for its imaginative, and continually diverting, narrative development. The serious, didactic purpose of the literary antecedents is ignored to provide an engaging entertainment. By the turn of the century lunar episodes featured regularly in fairground shows and theatrical spectacles, and as early as 1898 Méliès had followed the fashion with short fairy-tale sequences such as La lune à un métre. However, with Le voyage dans la lune—his account of the pioneering journey to the moon undertaken by the intrepid Professor Barbenfouillis and his companions, and of their adventures with the Selenites—he surpassed all previous lunar spectacles, creating new standards in film entertainment, and in so doing accelerated the trend towards more sophisticated studio-based productions. Comprising 30 tableaux using 18 decors, the film is about 14 minutes long, and for its period was both ambitious in conception and lavish in its production values. Méliès was director, producer, setdesigner, and leading actor.

In his exuberant narrative Méliès successfully mixes traditional stage-craft with his extensive repertory of special effects. The painted backdrops for the Astronomers Club, the industrial landscape with smoke rising from a host of chimneys, and the opulent Palace of the Moon King are magnificent examples of theatrical trompe l'oeil. Although fixed cameras are used throughout, Méliès films from different angles on the same set to create changes of perspective and viewpoint. Transitions between successive tableaux are achieved by overprinting frames, a technique borrowed from magic-lantern shows and already used extensively by the filmmaker in his version of Cendrillon in 1899. Several episodes, such as the launching of the spaceship and the hectic chase across the lunar landscape, have rightly become anthology pieces. Méliès's growing mastery of special effects is witnessed in the depiction of the spaceship drawing closer to the moon and landing in the moon's eye. The simulated forward travelling shot, in which a model of the moon is brought closer to a static camera, had already been exploited in L'homme à la tête de caoutchouc (1902). After this visual joke about the Man in the Moon, the spaceship is seen to land again in a more realistic mode, and in this double presentation Méliès extended traditional narrative conventions. Stop-camera techniques are used to change the passing stars and planets into pretty maidens, and the same trick is used to convert umbrellas into gigantic mushrooms, or to remove Selenites in a puff of smoke. For the return of the spaceship to Earth a series of different scale models was used in a rapid montage sequence, while the scenes of the craft dropping to the ocean floor and the subsequent rescue exploited the resources of an aquarium. As Pierre Jenn's analysis has shown, Georges Sadoul's long-acceptd direct equation between tableau and decor does not hold for Le voyage dans la lune. A given tableau may exploit more than one decor, and on occasions one decor may give rise to several tableaux.

Made in May 1902 and marketed in August of that year, the film was an immediate success. As with so many of Méliès's productions, counterfeit copies were soon circulating in America and this finally prompted Méliès to open up a transatlantic office to protect his rights. Capitalising on his success, Méliès extended the space travel genre with Voyage à travers l'impossible (1904), this time recounting a trip to the sun.

With its evocative sets Le voyage dans la lune has been frequently cited as seminal to the development of the German expressionist movement, while for its spontaneity and fantasy the film became a reference point for avant-garde filmmakers and surrealists. Buñuel, for one, acknowledged Le voyage dans la lune as a formative influence, while the films of René Clair and Jacques Prévert owe much to their pioneering compatriot. In Shoot the Moon (1962) the underground director Rudy Burckhardt paid explicit homage to Méliès, while in his film tribute Le grand Méliès (1952), Franju uses footage from Le voyage dans la lune to illustrate the director's innovative approach to filmmaking and his technical brilliance.

—R. F. Cousins