The Witch/La fée Carabosse ou le poignard fatal (1906)

A troubadour goes to a fairy to have his fortune told. He attempts to pay for it by passing off a bag of sand as one containing gold. Furious at the deception, the fairy casts a spell and pursues the man. A nightmarish world of bizarre creatures and ghostly spirits surround the man as he attempts to find the woman of his dreams…

A 12-minute epic springing from the imagination of French film pioneer Georges Méliès. Here, he renders his usual striking visuals in a range of gorgeous colours. As per usual, the film, unfortunately, has no intertitles and, as such, the plot and characters remain open to some interpretation.

A travelling minstrel (perhaps a Prince) visits the mysterious fairy Carabosse, who some see as a witch. The handsome young man wants to know the identity of his true love. The supernatural creature (likely played by Méliès himself) responds by conjuring some demons to assist in the necessary spell. They bring in a large, wooden frame, and the likeness of a beautiful woman appears within it at the fairy’s command. Before he leaves, the man pays for the prognostication, and a sizeable four-leaf clover, with a bag of gold. He’s on a quest to find the woman in question. Unfortunately, the bag of gold is nothing but sand, and our hero finds his footsteps dogged by supernatural forces.

Carabosse lights a fire in a small cauldron, which sends out yellow smoke, which turns several different colours before the spell is cast. After that, the pursuit begins. The troubadour is chased across a rocky landscape until he arrives in a graveyard beside some castle ruins. Underneath a full moon, the graves open, and three ghostly women emerge. Other spirit figures appear, and the man uses the clover to banish them. Then he’s menaced by a series of strange creatures; a giant hopping frog, a large owl and a dragon with flapping wings and a whipping tail. A figure in white appears and drives the monsters away, and a ghostly king rises from his tomb to give the man a sword. Climbing into the ruins, he sees a woman bound with rope and attempts to free her.

By 1906, the runaway success of Georges Méliès and his Star Films company was beginning to wane. The innovative filmmaker was a decade into a career that had evolved from his time as a successful stage illusionist, his screen work reflecting both theatrical presentation and content. The dozens of short ‘trick’ films he’d created were beginning to look a bit old hat, eclipsed by productions that employed better storytelling and filming techniques as well as using the ‘jump cuts’ and early SFX that Méliès had invented.

The Frenchman responded by extending the length of his films and adding colour by hand-tinting, likely done by the Paris laboratory owned by Elisabeth Thuillier. Her studio employed 200 artists who used brushes to paint the film stock, each of them assigned a different colour. A film would pass through the hands of as many of 20 of them as various tints were added one by one. The artists at the studio were undoubtedly responsible for the hand-colouring of Méliès classic ‘A Trip To The Moon’ (1902), the high point of the director’s career.

The main issue with this entry in Méliès’ extensive filmography is the usual one present in his work; the lack of an interesting narrative. By this point, all the technical skill, wonderfully-realised backdrops, and his unique, almost animated, style couldn’t disguise that this was simply more of the same. Many of Méliès’ longer subjects consisted of similar scenarios. His heroes and heroines would run from one scene to the next, pursued by various spectral figures, demons and monsters, and this one adheres pretty closely to that format. However, in this case, perhaps it’s understandable. The film was commissioned by Dufayel, a furnishing store, who required something they could show as a diversion for children while their parents browsed the inventory and the company salesmen delivered their patter.

Méliès was soon to fall on hard times due to some unwise business ventures and an evolving medium that was leaving him behind. By the outbreak of World War One, it was all over. He’d made his last films two years earlier, and the American branch of his company had been sold to Vitograph. Similarly, the Pathe Company now owned his Montreuil studio, even if they could not take official possession of it until 1923. Before that happened, it became a home for wounded soldiers, and Méliès and his wife performed theatrical reviews there. During the war, over 400 of his films were seized by the French Government and melted down for the silver and celluloid content which was used to manufacture heels for army shoes.

Méliès work is always of historical significance, but the primary point of interest in this example is the brilliant colouring of the images that it contains.

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