The opening minutes of this film are plagued by a strange, rapidly flickering eclipse, swallowing up the image from right to left — it feels like we’re watching a celluloid Moebius strip that keeps turning its back on us… this movie, ravaged by nitrate decomposition, was clearly lucky to survive at all…
After enjoying HUGO — about which more later — I suddenly wondered about Georges Melies’ last film. As far as I knew, I’d never seen it, and didn’t even know what it was. I wondered if it showed clues as to Melies’ artistic direction at that point in his career. I didn’t expect it to be nakedly autobiographical, because you don’t expect that of Melies, ever.
THE VOYAGE OF THE BOURRICHON FAMILY is one of two films by Melies from 1913 (the title on the actual film reads THE VOYAGE OF M. BOURRICHON), and it seems to be the only one that survives. Complicating its status as Melies last movie, it was co-directed with his brother Gaston (you never hear about him!) who died two years later. Melies’ fall starts to sound even more heartbreaking than HUGO makes out.
The film is at once archetypal G.M., with its indecipherable hordes of cavorting characters, theatrical sets, slapstick and trick effects, and also curiously muted. Although an opening title in English promises a haunted inn, the whole thing seems to be trickery of a Scooby Doo variety, possibly a first for the director — if he really felt his brand of fantasy was going out of style, this may have been a stab at a solution, magic with a boring rational explanation.
But the interesting thing about the film is its plot, which follows M. Boucherron and his clan as they attempt to flee their creditors. The bilked pursuers board the train with the fugitives and subject Mr. B to a variety of indignities and assaults, blasting him with trombones, dropping him down a well, exploding a piano, and causing his chair somehow to rise upon giraffe-like legs until he teeters atop it near the rafters. At the film’s conclusion, I *think* they put bags over their heads and transform into comedy darkies, bursting into his drawing room and berating the poor man and his family with batons, like some kind of nightmarish minstrel droogs. It’s all slightly confusing.
The reliance on a depressing insolvency as plot motor is interesting, since it’s exactly what poor Georges faced — his low productivity in 1913 suggests he was already in trouble, beaten by piracy, competition from the major studios, and changing audience tastes. In 1913, FANTOMAS hit the screens (check the poster visible in HUGO at the moment of Melies’ career’s end), bringing melodrama and surrealism onto real locations. The Italians had QUO VADIS?, one of the first feature-length films, the Germans had a more frightening and psychological fantasy in THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE, Sweden had the compelling drama of INGEBORG HOLM, and in a year’s time, Charlie Chaplin would wander onscreen. There was nothing wrong with what Melies was doing — it’s what he had always done. But it must have looked old-fashioned compared to the other cinematic goodies available.
To put things in even more perspective, even Edwin S. Porter, whose work had considerably more interest in dramatic values than Melies, would pack it in in 1915, disturbed by the alarming realism and intensity of modern cinema. And so Melies, father of film fantasy, retreated to his railway station, a fate prefigured here —
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