Le cauchemar (1896)
Director: Georges Méliès
Synopsis: A man sleeps fitfully then dreams that a lovely woman is sitting at the foot of his bed. He reaches to embrace her and she becomes a minstrel, then Pierrot.
Georges Méliès once again takes the lead role as a man whose sleep is broken by nightmares in Le cauchemar (The Nightmare), a one-minute short from the very dawn of cinema. As with a lot of Méliès’ earlier movies, the pacing is a real problem, with everything happening so quickly that it’s almost impossible to keep up. There’s certainly no subtlety here, and what residual humour remains is drained by the breakneck pace.
Méliès plays a man settling down for a night’s sleep in what looks like the world’s most uncomfortable bed, which might account for why he starts dreaming the moment his head hits the pillow. His nocturnal fantasies start out invitingly enough, with a young woman appearing out of thin air to perch on the end of his bed. This lady seems happy enough to be there, and makes no attempt to shrink away from Méliès as he wastes no time moving in for a cuddle but, as quick as he is, she inexplicably changes into a black minstrel before he can get his hands on her. The minstrel then turns into a pierrot who capers about on Méliès bed before jumping out of the window. It’s a moonlit night outside, and suddenly that full moon shining down on Méliès has acquired a face and descended to his bedroom window. It starts chomping down on Méliès arm, stopping only when he punches it in the face with his free fist. The moon retreats only to be replaced by all three previous characters from the nightmare.
As nightmares go it’s not the worst I’ve ever experienced, but then this was 1896 and Méliès was still learning the tricks that would keep him busy for the next decade and a half. The jump cuts in Le cauchemar not only make characters appear and disappear with jarring abruptness, but the sets also change when a bedroom window appears out of nowhere so that Méliès can have his encounter with the hungry moon. It’s difficult to tell whether a film like this would have had contemporary audiences holding on to one another in fright or rolling in the aisles with laughter, but of course it looks too primitive and outdated to provoke much of a reaction either way from a modern audience. Judged on terms of comparison with the other movies Méliès was churning out in the latter years of the 19th Century, Le cauchemar is an adequate if unremarkable picture.
(Reviewed on 31st July 2014)