Le Grand Méliès (Georges Franju / France, 1952):

It's a sad story, says the narrator, so "let's get the sad part out of the way": A fondly archaic iris-in introduces a bit of Pirandello, with clichés about Georges Méliès (the medium he helped form had outgrown him by the time of his death, etc.) redeemed by the sheer strangeness Georges Franju rings out of the 90-year-old Madame Méliès listening to a waltz tinkled on the piano by her son André, who, decked out in the great man's beard and boulevardier's vest, "plays" his father. The visionary in his twilight years is stranded in a Montparnasse toy-store, André mimics the grouchiness of forgotten genius until two kids run up to the stand -- the old conjurer suddenly peps up, he can't resist a bit of magic yet the Magritte gag he pulls (a bouquet of flowers where his head should be) spooks the boys, who scamper off in dreamy slow-motion. Méliès onstage with his bag of tricks is La Belle Époque's "ilusion phantasmagorique" in the flesh, a matron in the audience glances through her binoculars for a better view and sees the artist's smoldering skull; the dove he pulls out of the top hat is a Franju dove, naturally, the famous brush with the Lumières ("The motion picture is an invention without a future") is shadow theatre, pantomimed behind a screen. Méliès's cinema is presented as artifice at its most uncorrupted, so much so that Franju can give away the secrets behind the illusionism of Homme à la Tête en Caoutchouc, say, and still have an enthralling show. Le Voyage dans la Lune gets the centerpiece treatment, correctly, and there are glimpses of Le Mélomane and Les Quatre Cents Farces du Diable to elucidate Franju's debt to Méliès's pioneering mix of fantasy and documentary. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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