Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Georges Méliès' Jeanne d'Arc

In the wake of the Industrial Revolution and the massive changes it brought to the communities and ways of life of Europe, there was a resurgence of interest in those traditions that were lost. It began with the Romantics of the 18th century and flowered with Gothic Revivalism in the 19th. Nor did this this movement escape the notice of France's pioneer of fantastic cinema, Georges Méliès. Indeed, he was fully and completely a part of it, articulating this ethos in the brand new medium of film.

Most famous for his films like Le Voyages dans la Lune (1902),  Le Voyage à travers l'Impossible (1904), and A la Conquête du Pôle (1912), Méliès was never a pure purveyor of Science Fiction. He consistently blurred the lines between the astronomer and the astrologer, the chemist and the alchemist, the scientific and the fantastic. Far more of his films had magic and fairy tales as their subject than futuristic inventions and mad scientists. Even his mad scientists, beneath Gothic arches, have more the character of wizards and sorcerers. Méliès' are the cinematic embodiment of the Scientific Romance and all that evocative term entails. 

As a patriotic Frenchman of the fin de siècle, Méliès would have been tapped into the fascination with Joan of Arc. Since her life, conquests, and tragic death, Joan of Arc became an amorphous symbol of French identity, ready to be used by anyone for any reason who have a stake in French society. A sign of strength and Divine Providence, she was appropriated by Republicans for her humble origins and by Monarchists for her support of the Crown. Just as she was a rallying point for France during the Lancasterian phase of Hundred Years' War (1415-1453), so too was she in the wake of the disastrous Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). Against growing Industrialization she was a symbol of the Mediaeval, and against growing secularization she was a symbol of Catholicism. Nine years after Méliès' 1900 release of Jeanne d'Arc (English: Joan of Arc), she was beatified on the steps of Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris. In 1920 the "Maid of Orleans" was officially canonized as Saint Joan of Arc, Patron Saint of France as well as martyrs, captives, people ridiculed for their piety, military personnel and the US Women's Army Corps. Even those with no particular ties to France venerate the saint, and many women look to her as an icon of feminine heroism.

The nature of Joan's story, replete with angelic visitations and heavenly voices, lends itself well to Méliès' heady trick photography and the air of a fairy tale. Méliès crafts sets of sumptuous Mediavealism in extreme forced perspective, from the exterior of assaulted castle to the interior of churches gleaming with golden hand tinting. Perhaps for this auteur, there was really no necessary distinction to be made between gilded fairy land and the forces of political history. That is much like Joan herself, who turned an otherwise obnoxious war between English and French monarchical heirs into a populist, nationalist uprising and herself into an enduring symbol.

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