Jules Verne and Georges Méliès flirted once again in 1907 with a very loose rendition of the classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The 1870 novel wouldn't receive a proper adaptation until Universal Studios took the Williamson Tube down to Bermuda in 1916, where Captain Nemo splashed across screens for the first time. It was also the first major use of genuine underwater photography. Méliès' version, on the other hand, is more of a surrealist impression of life in the briny depths.
Nemo is absent from this film, ("Nemo" the formal name, not "nemo" the Latin phrase) as are any of the plot elements and dramatic conventions of Verne's actual story. There is a submarine, but in this voyage is it is the dream-vessel of the fisherman Yves. Working himself to a state of exhaustion, Yves come in off the dock and slumps into his chair, which begins a fantastic nocturnal adventure. The Spirit of the Oceans lead Yves off to the submarine, which takes beneath the waves to the unfolding spectacle of the seas. After a brief tour, the Naiads, Sirens and Queen of the Starfish emerge to perform an intricate underwater ballet. But after the glory comes the tragedy: the submarine is wrecked and Yves is left haplessly fending off the denizens of the deep. After fighting crabs and anemones in underwater caverns, the fish swoop in for revenge on the fisherman. An octopus wraps his arms around Yves while the Sea Gods put their fishing hook into him. Deliverance finally comes to our hero when a fight with a giant sponge transitions back into the waking world, where Yves is fighting off his own tangled nets.
Unfortunately, while Méliès' 200,000 Leagues still exists, it has never been released to home video. However, from the photos that have escaped the clutches of jealous archives, one can easily see that this film afforded Méliès to take his typical paper moon style of celestial motifs and apply them to the seven seas. This appears to be most prevalent in the ballet, with a Queen of the Starfish that is more star than fish. The French love their women, whether clothed in ethereal gauze or seaweed and fishtails.
The change in scene appeals to the fin de siècle fascination in the grotesque. Today we know the grotesque as meaning something hideous and ugly, but originally the term referred to a specific artistic movement based on the natural and aquatic motif of the grotto... The "grotto-esque." Developed out of the archaeological rediscovery of naturalistic Roman architecture and frescoes during the Enlightenment, these natural and often maritime forms combined with the dirt and dust of 1500 years to give the impression of the damp, dark, moist, subterranean and submarine environment of the underwater grotto.
These grottoes were the playground of an array of those ancient Greco-Roman marine supernatural beings - naiads, Neptune/Poseidon, mermen and maids, sirens, etc. - just as surely as they were the habitat of the ocean's wildlife. This melding of fact and fancy came together wonderfully in the 1900 Paris Exhibition aquarium. In defiance of more "dignified" aquariums elsewhere in Europe, which displayed aquaria in art gallery-like settings, the Paris Exhibition built their enclosures into an elaborate underground room resembling a rock grotto. The centrepiece was a mock sunken ship, and projected against the glass of the aquaria were images of sirens, looking as though these ghostly figures were swimming along with the fish.
Georges Méliès' 200,000 Leagues Under the Sea appears to be just this sort of exercise in the grotesque. There is an aesthetic Vernian influence, wherein many of the creatures inhabiting Méliès' cinematic grotto resemble those found in the original engravings published along with the text. It's not difficult to see where these illustrations themselves develop from and develop out aesthetic ideas of the grotesque, but overall, Méliès' film is an underwater fantasy mirroring the celestial spheres of A Trip to the Moon and Eclipse: The Courtship of the Sun and the Moon in the underwater grottoes of terrestrial oceans.