Méliès, the magician of the fantastic

Exploding heads, skeletons which come back to life, bodies which duplicate themselves, characters who disappear in a cloud of smoke, etc. No doubt about it: the work of Georges Méliès, one of the founding fathers of cinema, includes a good dose of the fantastic. Dick Tomasovic analyses his filmography from the particular angle of ‘the ecstatic body,’ an important figure in this cinema genre. 

Georges-MeliesFrom his beginnings as a conjuror in a Paris cabaret up until the conclusion of his life as a seller of toys and confectionary in a boutique in the Montparnasse train station, everything (or nearly) has been written about him. His oeuvre has been the subject of dozens of books, and his films are still being released today. Seventy-four years after his death, he is rediscovering his sparkle on our contemporary big screens, embellished by the electronic music of the French group, Air, through a documentary retracing his career (Le voyage extraordinaire, Serge Bromberg and Éric Lange). The American director Martin Scorsese even paid homage to him with the feature film Hugo Cabret, which hit the cinema auditoriums in 2011.

In short, it’s not easy to take a new look at the work of Georges Méliès, one of the two founding fathers of the seventh art (or one of the three, if we do not consider the Lumière brothers as a duo). Dick Tomasovic, a lecturer at the University of Liège’s Department of Communication Arts and Sciences, has nevertheless thrown himself into the task, in authoring a chapter in the collective work Les cinéastes français à l’épreuve du genre fantastique(1). A book edited by Frédéric Gimello-Mesplomb which looks at the authors who have now and again tried their hand at this special style, one which the general public is generally not very fond of.

A perilous exercise. As, like any self-respecting professor of the performing arts, Dick Tomasovic indeed knows his classics. But, as he admits himself, he is neither a specialist of the director, nor even an expert of early cinema. ‘In addition, at the time I was solicited to write this text, nearly three years ago, I was not really interested in the genre of the fantastic!’ His preferred areas are contemporary cinema and animation. Nevertheless, against every expectation, he accepted Frédéric Gimello-Mesplomb’s proposition and himself offered to take on Méliès.

Finding his name alongside those of directors such as Louis Feuillade, Jean Cocteau, Luc Besson, Jean Rollin or François Ozon might be somewhat of a surprise. Méliès had already been described at length as the inventor of doctored images, the father of special effects and the pioneer of science fiction, but he had all the same rarely been presented as the precursor of ‘fantastic’ cinema. This is nevertheless the gamble Dick Tomasovic took on. ‘He initiated the figures of the fantastic. Themes which would subsequently form the foundations of the genre,’ he assures us. To demonstrate his thesis, he leans on one of the major themes of the fantastic: ecstatic figures.

(1) Gimello - Mesplomb F. (Dir), Les cinéastes française à l'épreuve du genre fantastique, L'Harmattan, 2012

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