(7/10) Pioneering film maker Georges Méliès’ 1904 follow-up to the groundbreaking A Trip to the Moon is perhaps his most beautiful film, but the master is starting to repeat himself.
The Impossible Voyage (Le voyage à traverse l’impossible), 1904, France. Directed, produced by Georges Méliès. Written by Méliès. Based on the play Journey Through the Impossible by Jules Verne and Victor de Cottens. Starring: Georges Méliès, Fernande Albany, Jehanne D’Alcy. IMDb Score: 7.7. Tomatometer: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
In 1904 French movie pioneer Georges Méliès was at the pinnacle of his career. His 1902 film A Trip to the Moon (review) had made him an international superstar, and he followed it up with the equally successful fantasy film The Kingdom of the Fairies in 1903, by some film critics regarded as his best work. His company Star-Film had established itself in New York, and along with companies such as Pathé and Gaumont, it was leading the charge in the French cinematic world domination. In the summer of 1904 Méliès and his team set out to make a film that would eclipse all his prior successes, a follow-up to A Trip to the Moon, based loosely on Jules Verne’s and Adolphe d’Ennery’s stage play Journey Through the Impossible (1882). The film’s title was the same as the play in French: La voyage à traverse l’impossible, but the English title differed slightly: The Impossible Journey. It cost 37 000 francs to make – almost four times as much as A Trip to the Moon, which was at the time of its making considered an incredibly expensive movie. This is about the same amount as 37 000 dollars today, but because of differences in wages, living costs, standard of living, etc, it would cost around 400 000 dollars to shoot a film like this today, and that’s of course if everyone involved received normal living wages and not Hollywood millions.
In A Trip to the Moon the main attraction, apart from Méliès’ brilliant special effects, had been the lavish moving set pieces. Since then he had had the time to hone this craft on films like the aforementioned féerie, as well as adaptations of Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe and The Oracle of Delfi. If going to the moon had seemed ambitious, this time Méliès’ party goes through the mountains by train, over the Alps by car, up in the sky by air ships, landing on the sun, and ultimately plunge into the depths in a submarine. Once again the film was made in Méliès’ studio in Montreuil, and the director created astonishingly vast landscapes that are constantly flying by the camera by means of movable set pieces, in this cramped studio space. The plot follows a professor telling a group of colleagues that they are about to take on an impossible journey using every means of transportation known to man, that it will be a feat to eclipse all feats.
The film starts off with the presentation of the journey, just as in A Trip to the Moon a professor lectures in front of a large crowd of people. We then move on to a factory, where all the means of transportation are being made. Here we see some of the beauty of Méliès’ articulated sets, with two-dimensional wood and cardboard machines pumping and stomping away.
The bus journey takes the group right through an inn, naturally upsetting the dinner guests, before the car crashes down a ravine. The expedition is taken to recuperate at a local hospital, before they’re back on the dirigible train, and off to the sun. The train crashes on the sun, where all but the professor himself enter an ice box. Méliès clearly thinks of his American audience as the sign on the box reads: “Glaciere – Ice Tank”. But the temperature inside is too low, and all the explorers are frozen in a block of ice, so the professor lights up some straw he finds among the wreckage and thaws his grateful companions before they enter a submarine. The submarine traverses off a cliff on the sun, and plunges back to Earth, and into the sea, where our heroes enthusiastically view the marine life. There’s a brief, but nonthreatening encounter with a squid. Greater danger is poised by the team’s engineering skills, as the engine overheats and blows the front end of the vehicle straight out of the water and into a fishing village. Their impossible journey over, the explorers are received with a parade in the city.
The film was 24 minutes long – the longest of Méliès films at that time, and it was technically superior to anything he had then made, in part thanks to the huge budget and a seasoned crew. There are sets moving, machines pumping, steam billowing, smoke puffing, fire crackling in almost every scene of the film. This makes for a dynamic and fast-paced film, but because Méliès also insists on often cramming the sets full of people, it also becomes highly erratic a bit hard to follow at places. This is nowhere near as big a problem in this film, though, as in his later effort Conquest of the Pole.
The number of sets that the team has had to make and paint for this film boggles the mind. And if the sets were impressive in A Trip to the Moon, they are outright sublime in The Impossible Voyage. Beautifully painted by hand, they give a much roomier and wider feel than A Trip to the Moon, that always felt a bit boxed-in. The shot of the sun with its spinning rays is stunning, and for some reason I’m particularly fond of a shot of the explorers sitting on the train, with one of the walls taken out, like in a stage production.
While Méliès is primarily known for his pioneering use of visual tricks like jump cuts, multiple exposures, matte photography and black screen technique, there are very few obvious trick shots in The Impossible Voyage. Where they exist, they are subtle and made to serve the story rather than stand out as wow-shots. In this sense, Méliès has already passed the stage of showman and started using visual effects as a modern filmmaker, as an integrated and normal part of his storytelling.
Although technically superior and with more slick production values, the film nonetheless lacks some of the sense of wonder and imagination that made A Trip to the Moon such an enjoyable film. This is partly due to the fact that the film has no real sense of purpose or goal, and the dramatic arc has no clear climax. The perils of the alps, the sun and the bottom of the ocean all seem equal in status, and there’s no real interaction with anyone or anything on the journey. As usual in Méliès voyages, the characters themselves are interchangeable, simply a group of people milling from one scene to the next.
Furthermore, one gets the feeling that the writer-producer-director-actor Méliès is starting to run out of ideas, as The Impossible Voyage follows the same basic blueprint as A Trip to the Moon. Both films start with an assembly where the main characters are introduced and the trip outlined, both then take us to see the manufacturing of the means of transportation. Then there’s sendoff, and the eventual flight into some orifice of a celestial body. A few adventures later, the explorers land in the sea, and the film ends with a celebration in their hometown. Other than a little more travel time, The Impossible Voyage doesn’t really add anything new to the narrative.
While Méliès has often been lauded as a master storyteller, the fact is that this is a bit off the mark – more than anything Méliès was a master entertainer. And while he pioneered the use of multiple scenes in movies, there’s a feeling that he often didn’t quite know what to do with the scenes, or how to set them up into a satisfying dramatic arc. Méliès background wasn’t in theatre, it was in showmanship; he was a stage magician who also put on revues, but not so much dramatic theatre. This weakness is obvious in The Impossible Voyage, and would be even more so in his later career.
But despite its flaws, the film was massively successful, and it was probably his most beautiful film, perhaps with the exception of Under the Seas (1907, review). It’s also very funny, in an early-20th-century-funny sort of way.
Unfortunately it also signals the beginnings of Méliès descent into the darkness of forgotten film pioneers. While he may have been enraged over the fact that rivaling film companies, most notably Pathé, imitated or sometimes right out plagiarised his films, he soon became his own greatest imitator. One Méliés film increasingly looked like a dozen other Méliès films, and he refused to change his vision of how to make film, although the world of film was rapidly changing around him. Cameras were becoming ever more mobile, editing techniques were changing, and soon the shot, rather than the scene, was established as the primary building block of film. Audiences wanted longer films, and as the movie industry and the film camera spread over the world, they were treated to ever more actual, real pictures of exotic lands. Painted plywood sets just didn’t do anymore. The western provided action, more and more historical dramas were replacing fairy-tales, and rapid changes happened in the world of editing and story-telling.
Méliès would release one more highly successful Voyage, Under the Seas, in 1907, the same year that Edison finally clamped down on the French take-over of the American film market. By that time French movies accounted for 60 percent of all films showed in US cinemas. This was partly Edison’s and other American companies’ own fault, as they had soon realised that there was greater profit in selling positive film copies to distributors, than in actually producing films themselves. Much of the resources of the films companies at the time were also held up in the construction of new studios. Edison made a pact with many of his rivals and distributors, practically creating a monopoly in American film, effectively barring foreign movies from the US. In France, Charles Pathé was doing the same, by trying to control as much as possible of the chain of production and distribution, hoping to kill off his competition. In 1909 international film producers met in Paris and struck a deal by which more film had to be produced than before. To encourage this, the deal stipulated that distributors would pay the producers according to the length of film. This meant that filmmakers were pushed to create longer films in less amount of time, leading to sloppy, slow-paced film that didn’t have enough production value.
Méliès was forced to sell his company to Pathé in 1910, while still trying to make ever longer and more elaborate pictures with less time to do them in, in a film company already heading into a new era of films. But this was still all to come, and in 1904 Méliès was still at the top of his game, the greatest director in the world, free to make the pictures he wanted, the way he wanted to make them. And this is obvious in The Impossible Voyage, filled to the brim with playful humour and the joy of creativity, despite its somewhat derivative nature.
Méliès himself played the doctor at the center of the movie, and another center for attention is on the superb comedienne playing one of the expedition members. She would also make a superb turn in The Conquest of the Pole, as the robust head suffragette. Unfortunately she has remained anonymous. In a dynamic performance we see a small lady in men’s clothing, which should be Fernande Albany, one of Méliès’ new finds after his long-time leading lady, muse, magic assistant and later wife Jehanne d’Alcy had gotten too old for leading lady roles. Albany became part of Star-Film’s loosely knit stock company. Because of her small stature and her physical performance one can perhaps venture a guess that she might also have taken over d’Alcy’s role as Méliès’ magic show assistant on stage. d’Alcy is also on board in this film, in a small role, one of her last.
The Impossible Voyage (Le Voyage à travers l’Impossible), 1904, France. Directed, produced, designed and edited by Georges Méliès. Written by Méliès. Based on the play Journey Through the Impossible by Jules Verne and Victor de Cottens. Starring: Georges Méliès, Jehanne d’Alcy, Fernande Albany, May de Lavergne. Produced by Star Film Company.
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