Set to a waltz composed by Méliès, Georges Franju’s film about Georges Méliès is charming, nostalgic, imbued with a sense of the fleeting nature of life.
Drawn from documents at La Cinémathèque française and from Méliès’s ninety-year-old widow’s cherished memories, Le Grand Méliès is a silent film with voiceover written by Franju and recited by Marie-Georges Méliès.
This delicate, poignant film covers the career of Méliès from toystore and stage magician to pioneer filmmaker—the one to whom, D.W. Griffith said, he “owed everything.” Méliès is played by his son, André.
Through a curtain the shadowy form of one of the Lumière brothers tells a shadowy Méliès that motion pictures are a “scientific curiosity” without commercial potential. Lumière is right—not about the movies, but about Méliès. Prolific, Méliès made films that revel in theatrical artifice, moving sets, trick photography, magic. But the career of this incredibly influential artist was “squeezed out” by competitors who imitated him, and by the end of the First World War his career was finished. In despair, Méliès destroyed most of his “celluloid children.” He died in 1938. At one level, then, Le Grand Méliès is Franju’s lament over the ruthless nature of the movie business and its inhospitability to humanity and art.
It is the film’s sheer humanity and poetry, however, that take precedence. Madame Méliès visits the site of the toy shop where her husband first entertained. It is now a flower shop (out of Chaplin’s City Lights). From a young woman Marie-Georges buys flowers for her husband’s grave. (He hated cemeteries but loved flowers, we’re told.) The film ends, as the waltz plays, as Madame Méliès, the camera to her back, walks to Georges’s grave—the grave of two Georgeses, we cannot help but think now.
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