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A Mysterious Portrait (1899)
"Le portrait mystérieux" (original title)

 |  Short  |  30 June 1900 (USA)
6.0
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Ratings: 6.0/10 from 206 users  
Reviews: 3 user | 2 critic

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Self-Referential Trickery
12 September 2009 | by See all my reviews

This appears to be Geroges Méliès's earliest (surviving) film to feature a matte shot. George Albert Smith had already employed the trick in several films, including, the only one that survives today, "Santa Claus" (1898), where he used a matte shot to feature a scene-within-a-scene and, thus, show parallel action without crosscutting. In "The Mysterious Portrait", Méliès used multiple-exposure photography to duplicate himself—placing himself inside a portrait and outside of it. Méliès had already used multiple-exposure photography in prior films, including "The Four Troublesome Heads" (1898), but they weren't matte shots. For this film, he had to mask the camera, which, for one, allows the second exposure to appear clearly against a white or light background, as in this film. It's the same trick used in the early film-within-films, beginning with Robert W. Paul's "The Countryman and the Cinematograph" (1901) and which include Méliès's own "The Magic Lantern" (1903). For the out of blur appearance and blurry disappearance of Méliès's framed double, the focus of the camera lens was adjusted during the second filming.

As historian John Frazer ("Artificially Arranged Scenes") has said, "The Mysterious Portrait" is self-referential: "Méliès was reveling in the devices of film-making, making the appreciation of his cleverness the actual subject." The film begins with Méliès rolling up a backdrop to reveal another backdrop, thus exposing and calling attention to the film's own artificiality. Méliès's doppelgänger is a self-reflexive device mirroring the doubling, reproduced nature of cinema. As Frazer said, "Méliès was the first filmmaker who deliberately pushed himself into the illusion of the film. He was conscious of making films and informing his audience that it was watching a film…. Méliès let everyone know that he was watching artifice and fiction."

(Note: Print shows some bleeding and many scratches indicative of considerable deterioration, but is still viewable.)


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