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L'affaire Dreyfus (1899)

5.8
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Title: L'affaire Dreyfus (1899)

L'affaire Dreyfus (1899) on IMDb 5.8/10

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4 November 1899 (USA)  »

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L'affaire Dreyfus  »

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A somewhat different version of this film figures prominently in Howard Waldrop's alternate-history story "Fin de Cycle," in which the film's creative team includes some of the most noted artists and writers of the day: composer Erik Satie, painter 'Jean-Jacques Rousseau', novelist Marcel Proust, and playwright Alfred Jarry, as well as the young Pablo Picasso. See more »

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Version of L'affaire Dreyfus (1995) See more »

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User Reviews

Méliès Takes a Stand
12 September 2009 | by See all my reviews

"The Dreyfus Affair" was an 11-part serial by Georges Méliès. As John Frazer ("Artificially Arranged Scenes") described it, they were sold for $9.75 by part to exhibitors, and, by the eleventh film, the series was essentially banned in France. From looking at Frazer's account, it appears that the second and eleventh films are not included in the Flicker Alley set, although, apparently, they aren't lost. Selling scenes individually was a common practice in the early days of cinema, when exhibitors, rather than producers, were in control of the assembling and final appearance of films. Most subjects, regardless of their connectedness, were sold as individual shot-scenes (by 20 meters of film or whatever established length). This is how the Lumiére Company sold their 13-tableaux 1897 passion play. It's how Mutoscope offered their 8-part "Rip Van Winkle" in 1896 (re-released as one whole in 1903). Méliès would actually lead the way in seizing editorial control for producers the same year with "Cinderella".

To understand this film, it helps to have some knowledge of the events surrounding the Dreyfus scandal. In 1899, this was a contemporary controversy, so Méliès reasonably assumed audience familiarity. Furthermore, in early cinema, lecturers would describe films at screenings. "The Dreyfus Affair" serial is not a self-contained narrative, which is rather common of early films and is why many of them may be confusing to modern viewers. Suffice to say here that, Dreyfus was a Jew and artillery officer in the French military and was fraudulently convicted of treason by anti-Semites. That this even happened and was controversial demonstrates the widespread bigotry and institutional corruption back then. With these films, Méliès took the side of Dreyfus.

Aside from the politics, this serial is interesting because it's such a significant departure for Méliès from his usual style of film-making and preferred subject matter of wacky magic, fairy tales and amusing fantasies. There's nothing else in his oeuvre like it. It's a dramatic and starkly realist reenactment of the affair's events. Even the decors, although naturally primitive by today's standards, are realist. Moreover, there is some very unusual (for Méliès) staging, including characters entering and exiting the frame beside the camera—in depth, foreground to background and vise versa, as opposed to the traditional and theatrical lateral, left/right long shot staging Méliès adopted for every other film. He uses this atypical staging in two of the available scenes.

Additionally, the film contains a letter motif. I wouldn't think it intentional or think much of it given this is an early film if it weren't so prevalent and a salient underscoring of the narrative. In almost every brief, some one-minute scene, there are either letters or legal papers involved. In some of them, someone is either writing or reading a letter. This underscores the fraudulent case that was made against Dreyfus, whose trial was based on the supposed similarity between his handwriting and the handwriting on discovered treasonous papers. This film demonstrates the versatility Méliès had as a filmmaker and suggests the cinematic possibilities he didn't develop further.


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