Les quatre cents farces du diable (1906)
Director: Georges Méliès
Cast: Georges Méliès
Synopsis: Two travellers are tormented by Satan from inn to inn and eventually experience a buggy ride through the heavens courtesy of the Devil…
By 1906, Georges Méliès was making increasingly elaborate and expensive movies in an attempt to retain his position as one of the world’s foremost filmmakers. Unfortunately, while he possessed an abundance of theatrical showmanship and was a wizard when it came to special effects, he lacked the skill to build a story around all that screen magic so that his films became nothing more than a succession of tricks, most of which had been seen before, with no narrative framework.
Les quatre cents farces du diable is a typical example, and it was his inability to deviate far enough from this formula that eventually saw his business fail in 1912. The story, such as it is, has a couple of travellers falling afoul of the devil in disguise after accepting some magic exploding balls from him. The balls, when thrown to the floor, yield footmen who are really the devil’s imps. These imps produce two more from a trunk, who then produce two more from a second trunk they remove from the first and so on. The footmen transform the trunks into the carriages of a train, and they force the travellers and their family to board the train. Unfortunately the train crashes when the bridge it is crossing collapses, presumably killing all the family members as only the two travellers emerge. The travellers encounter a number of strange adventures, culminating in a hair-raising ride across the skies in a carriage drawn by a skeletal horse and one of them being dragged to hell and roasted over a spit.
Because there is no apparent purpose to the travellers’ journey, there’s equally no purpose to Méliès’ film, and despite the screen being filled with action from the first frame to the last, Les quatre cents farces du diable never really manages to engage our interest. Some of the effects still impress — the carriage ride across the night sky is particularly well staged — but many of the tricks are familiar from earlier movies, and until it becomes apparent that Méliès isn’t too concerned about delivering a story to match his special effects the audience wastes a lot of mental energy trying to make sense of it all.
(Reviewed 24th September 2014)