Making a film about Bernard Natan, who is mistakenly associated in film history with pornography, has thrust me, quite unwillingly, into the world of early erotic cinema.
No hardcore pornographic films survive from before World War I, but there are, what French film historians insist on calling “saucy films” made by perfectly respectable companies such as Pathe in the very earliest years of film. THE THERMOMETER OF LOVE is one such film, though it’s doubtful it will get temperatures rising today. A couple kiss on a bench, and a giant superimposed cardboard thermometer displays rising mercury. Then the couple take off, perhaps in search of the hardcore movie next door so they can take things to the next level, and now an elderly couple take their place. They too kiss, but the mercury shows little signs of animation. Ha ha! It’s funny because old people are rubbish.
Also rubbish is Georges Melies’ one attempt at real sauciness (that we know of) — APRES LE BAL, in which a lady undresses (partially) for her bath, and the maid accidentally pours the contents of the coal-scuttle over her instead of the jug of water. Several things work against this film becoming the EMMANUELLE of its day. The leading lady is perhaps on the heavy side by modern standards, but that’s arguably refreshing. But she does keep quite a lot of clothing on for a bather, and that renders the whole scenario nonsensical and unbelievably. The maid, I fear, was not a trained actress. She performs the actions required of her, but without any sense of inner motivation. The pouring of the soot does not seem accidental, and nobody reacts to it as if it were a mistake. I originally thought this was some kind of fetish activity I’d never heard of, but no — it’s just that, although APRES LE BAL has a kind of micro-plot, nobody appearing in it seems to understand the storyline. At the end, the lady simply exits, eager to get warm, and the maid hovers about uncertainly, looking past the camera with an uncomfortable smile. “Was that what you wanted?”
Well no, lady, it wasn’t. Is it too late for a retake?
This little one-minute wonder may be Melies’ worst film, of all the hundreds he made. So, naturally, I’m trying to work out a way to include it in the film I’m working on…