Georges Méliès, magicien du cinéma

Why so much activity concerning Georges Méliès just now? First the (virtually) complete DVD box set of his work released by Flicker Alley, and now a major exhibition with lavish catalogue, screenings, DVDs etc from the Cinémathèque française. He’s neither one hundred years born nor one hundred years dead. In fact he’s seventy years dead, and that’s the point. Under European copyright law, 2008 is the year when the works of Georges Méliès, who died in 1938, come out of copyright, under the rule which says a creative work remains in copyright until seventy years after the death of the author.

So M. Méliès has become fair game – a fact which can be of no small amount of irritation to the Malthete-Méliès family which has so assiduously guarded his legacy until now. They had nothing to do with the acclaimed Flicker Alley set, but they have co-operated with the Cinémathèque française exhibition, which opens in Paris on 16 April and which is described in some detail (in French) on the Cinémathèque’s website.

Where to start? The exhibition itself is divided into three sections: Magie et cinématographe, Le Studio Méliès de Montreuil and L’univers fantastique de Méliès, covering his life, background, work and influence. Many artefacts not previously exhibited in public are promised, and Méliès is championed for the modern generation as the master of special effects and fantasy cinema, foreshadowing Georges Lucas and Steven Spielberg. A 360-page catalogue has been produced, edited by Jacques Malthete et Laurent Mannoni, with some 500 illustrations, which from reports I’ve had so far sounds like an outstanding production in itself.

There are two DVDs published to coincide with the exhibition. The first, Georges Méliès, produced by StudioCanal/Fechner Productions, is a two-disc set featuring thirty remastered Méliès films 1896-1912, with 32-page booklet but no indication of what film titles are included nor their source.

The second DVD is Méliès, le cinémagicien, another two-disc set, produced by Arte Vidéo. This features a documentary, La magie Méliès, by Jacques Mény (1997, 130 mins), a selection of fifteen of the films from 1898 to 1909 (55 mins in total) and the renowned Georges Franju film Le grand Méliès (1952, 37 mins) which is also available on the Flicker Alley set.

This documentary, which introduced many to his films for the first time, features Méliès’ son André, playing his father, and Méliès’ second wife and star of many of his films, Jehanne d’Alcy (then aged ninety).

And there’s more. There are screenings in April-May of Méliès films and in June-July of ‘L’héritage méliès’. A complete Méliès filmography is also promised, which will be a boon, particularly if it goes the whole hog and identifies the films by Star-Film catalogue number (his production company), length, English release title, which copies are extant and where. Meanwhile, Méliès, magicien du cinéma looks like a very good reason to visit Paris over the next few months (as though there weren’t reasons enough anyway, but you know what I mean).

Where to find out more about Georges Méliès? It’s a shame – indeed something of a mystery why there isn’t a single good site dedicated to him (interesting to see that,, and have all been bought up opportunistically by domain sellers). Cinémathèque Méliès (in French) is a so-so effort of ancient design which I’ve had trouble accessing, but you can trace it back through the Wayback Machine. The Magical World of Georges Méliès likewise isn’t going to win any design awards, but it has a biography, filmography, and links to his films on YouTube. There’s a useful one page biography (written by David Robinson) on the Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema website. The Flicker Alley DVD set Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913) has already been championed here, and serious questions will have to be asked of any silent film enthusiast who hasn’t purchased a copy before the year is out.

As for reading matter, apart from the new catalogue (which is in French, of course), a really good book in English doesn’t exist. The best, albeit slim and not easy to track down nowadays, is David Robinson’s Georges Méliès: Father of Film Fantasy (1993). Elizabeth Ezra’s Georges Méliès (2000) is one for the film studies courses. A standard, substantial, up-to-date biography in English (I don’t know of one in French, either) ought to be written – we repeat so much that has already been written in the film history/film studies field, and yet we leave a yawning gap like this. So you will have to make do with Brian Selznick’s haunting children’s book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007), already championed by The Bioscope, in which Georges Méliès features as a central character. And wait to see if Martin Scorsese really does decide to make a film out of it.