THE BLACK DEVIL (Georges Méliès, 1905)

We must take pioneering French filmmaker Georges Méliès at his word that he had no interest in turning film into art but, rather, wished to create theatrical scenes—but scenes containing camera tricks to conjure illusions that could not occur on stage. Le diable noir, called in the U.S. The Black Imp, is typical of his wee intentions. It is a kind of nonsense that has some affinity, perhaps, to the verbal kind that we associate with Edward Lear’s verse.
     In Le diable noir, a human-sized, black cat-like figure with a beard plainly considers a bedroom at an inn, especially the bed, as its domain. This “imp” disappears. Enter a guest (Méliès) for a night’s lodging. Increasingly taxing the man’s sanity, the invisible imp makes furniture suddenly appear or disappear, including a chair right out from under the guest; at another turn, the chair multiplies succesively. The series of quick cuts that creates these illusions—despite what some people seem to think, there isn’t a single jump-cut in the four-minute film—is exquisitely timed to convey some sense of its own reality, which wars with the guest’s rationality. When the mischief-maker turns visible and chases him, the guest has perhaps passed into a condition that represents the total opposite of the night’s sweet rest which he had sought. Eventually, like a madman in a straight-jacket, he is escorted out of the room by the innkeeper and others, and the imp merrily reclaims its bed.
     There is no serious consideration here of the guest’s interiority, for instance, of the paranoid insecurity that might afflict someone away from home. The film aims only to delight with cinematic tricks.
     Méliès made more than 550 films, in which he almost always appeared, between 1896 and the First World War.

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