George Méliès

film 62 of 70

The Impossible Voyage

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 19, 2015

Paying tribute again to all this enormous ambition, so often executed to such genial perfection. I’ll stand by that word, I think. The Impossible Voyage is about perfect in its framing and pacing. Again and as usual, that framing is basically proscenium in nature, but Méliès has got the foreground/mid/background relations going very fluidly. Also, though there are no close ups or anything, the film is made up of sequence shots of varying lengths. They’re not just sitting there gesticulating; it’s anything but theatrical. This production is built on a nice, optimistic, progressive idea. They will use “every known means of locomotion.” In the midst of the bellowing Luddites and the howling expressionists of the time, this too is part of the technological conversation.

Look at those factory works! In this sequence a bit of compressing or sectioning (shots, selecting), could actually help. The casting! Hurray for the big fat lady and her fainting spell. The scene in the train station. Did you see the guy sprinkling the floor? This is absolutely social documentation. The servant/luggage knockabout is very good. Laggards! It’s obvious that people are having fun making these. They’ve got just the right balance: made for the participants and the spectators in equal measure. They exploit this set unto exhaustion: dramatic and spatial utilization is exemplary. Look at the train leave in the background! More perfect composition, blocking, timing.

Switzerland! Every single thing here is fashioned with skill and love, for our delight if not for our instruction. The train car cross-section is really cool. The Geographical Society is of course an object of satire, and of a most friendly nature. “Little time is lost in their journey to the inn.” Crash! Very funny. Plus, despite that earlier observation, he’s not just being flat, or too leisurely paced. In fact, bang bang!

The exemplary frames and velocities continue. Look at those Edwin Porter overlaps: we see impact from the outside, and then the action repeated from the inside. “We are only passing through,” they say as they destroy the complete dining hall. Is this a bit of colonial discourse, a bit by accident? Now a cool contrary motion diorama, ending with a superb crash. If you look closely at that fine, witty weeks-in-the-hospital shot, you’ll see one of the geographers over there getting trepanned.

The flying train effect is lovely. Stars are stenciled; the cloud/scatter/sunrise sequence is prettily poetic. There’s that characteristic Méliès tracking shot, which is a little bit more complicated than the more celebrated one in A Trip to the Moon, but works equally. Look at that orb! Now he manages a very difficult, very wonderful thing that hardly any filmmaker has managed. Here are divinity and knockabout comedy (in this case the train flies into the sun’s yawning mouth), contradictions contained and reconciled. Now he’s channeling Chaplin! In this connection I’m thinking of G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, which discourses so sweetly on God’s loving laughter.

Now we have another resounding crash. At this point the adventurers start feeling really hot! Jules Verne is the inspiration, but science clearly isn’t their first priority here. Thank goodness they had that ice box. Good gag. It is also fortunate that there’s a submarine among the wreckage. Here’s the same ending as in A Trip to the Moon. There’s a lovely sea view through the portal, kind of a Steve Sissou effect. Great monster! As in Hal Roach, but moreso, this production ends in an explosion, which is to say in sweetness and joy. The geographers are able to report that their excursion was a resounding success. I’ll say!