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The Voyage Across the Impossible (1904)

Le voyage à travers l'impossible (original title)
Using every known means of transportation, several savants from the Geographic Society undertake a journey through the Alps to the Sun which finishes under the sea.

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Using every known means of transportation, several savants from the Geographic Society undertake a journey through the Alps to the Sun which finishes under the sea. Written by Erik Gregersen <erik@astro.as.utexas.edu>

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October 1904 (USA)  »

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An Impossible Voyage  »

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For a few seconds, a pole can clearly be seen holding the anthropomorphic sun up. See more »

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Possibly Méliès' greatest surviving masterpiece
16 November 2015 | by (United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

While other film makers were out on location filming locomotives and fire engines or exotic climes, Georges Méliès stayed in his studio in suburban Montreuil, creating ever more elaborate fantasy worlds, more like paintings come to life than moving photographs. In Le voyage à travers l'impossible, trains, submarines and factories are represented by life sized cardboard cutouts. By 1904, audiences must have been aware of the artifice, but it didn't matter, as the events depicted were sheer comic fantasy with little reason to appeal to 'realism'.

Mainstream cinema today aspires to making even obvious fantasy, even the anthropomorphised cute animals of animated features, as realistically textured as 'real life', with vast amounts of computer power dedicated to that end. The obviously confected world that glories in its own artifice is a marked, if refreshing, rarity, especially in the commercial cinema – some of Terry Gilliam's films, or Moulin Rouge!, for example.

As I checked details of Le voyage à travers l'impossible on IMDb, a CGI dragon flew around the banner advertisement above, not even promoting a film but a smartphone. Terrabytes of memory were no doubt engaged in ensuring that every scale looked authentically reptilian, and each was correctly rendered frame by frame to give a convincing three dimensional effect within the background 'plate'. I doubt audiences are any more convinced by the results than they were by Méliès' painted backdrops and cardboard cutout models. What matters is how good these things look, and how appropriate they are to the storytelling and emotional engagement, not their success at achieving photorealism.

As you might guess from the title, this film is in many ways an attempt to repeat the success of Le voyage dans la lune and retreads numerous elements of the earlier film. This time the destination is the sun, and the squabbling explorers are geographers, including a highly strung fat lady who has to be squeezed into confined spaces, not an especially flattering reflection of the small but growing presence of women in academia and the sciences.

The geographers' attempt to drive to the sun in a wacky motor coach ends in disaster, so they use a train supported by giant balloons that runs right up the side of (a cardboard cutout of) the Jungfrau and on at the same angle into the sky, an even less likely method of space travel than the ballistic capsule Méliès sent to the moon. The sun turns out to be personified by the gurning face of the director himself, of course; its mouth opens to swallow the train and then it belches solar flares. After some business involving boiling and freezing the party returns in a submarine with a little undersea exploration for good measure before an explosion catapults them ashore.

The film persists with the use of long shot tableaux, comprising 26 shots running about 20 minutes, with an additional refinement: the interiors of the train and the sub are revealed by literally removing the fourth wall, using cutaway sets as might be seen on stage. Again there's a lot to take in: in the sub sequence we're expected to keep our eyes on the action in both the engine room and the cabin simultaneously.

In terms of the creative control he exercised, Méliès was a true auteur to an extent that has rarely been repeated since. He not only wrote, produced, directed and acted in the films but also took direct responsibility for set and costume design, special effects, lighting and camera. This film finds him at the peak of his powers. Of his own films, Méliès himself was most proud of his historical epic La civilisation à travers les âges (1908) but that film is sadly lost, so Le voyage à travers l'impossible arguably stands as his greatest surviving masterpiece.


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