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Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date: June 12, 1909
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

L'éventail animé © Émile CohlDespite its title ‘L’éventail animé’ is not an animated film, but the first of several films by Émile Cohl consisting of tableaux vivants. I’m including the film in this blog because it’s interesting to watch Émile Cohl’s very diverse oeuvre as a whole.

‘L’éventail animé’ shows ladies and their fans throughout the ages, e.g. Eve, Sappho, Cleopatra, empress Messalina, Aude (a character in ‘Chanson de Roland’), and a modern woman. The action is set in a fan-shaped frame, and the tableaux are remarkably beautiful and stylized. On the DVD the film is greatly enhanced by a lovely score using guitar and harp.

Watch ‘L’éventail animé’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘L’éventail animé’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

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Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date: April 24, 1909
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Clair de lune espagnol © Émile Cohl‘Clair de lune espagnol’ is a bizarre live action movie about a toreador who wants to commit suicide.

When he’s about to jump, the toreador gets caught by an airship and is taken to the moon, which he wounds with a rifle. The celestial creatures then punish him and throw him back to earth, where he’s reunited with his love.

The film has a strange, rather surreal atmosphere, but lacks real wit. Highlight is the scene with the man and the moon, which uses quite some animation on the moon, whose face changes repeatedly.

Watch ‘Clair de lune espagnol’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Clair de lune espagnol’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date: February 9, 1909
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Soyons donc sportifs © Émile CohlThis stop-motion film consists of a series of twelve ultra-short scenes in which we watch a puppet using various ways of transport and doing some sports.

All actions go wrong: the puppet’s horse throws him off, his car breaks down, he falls with his bicycle, his boat capsizes etc. The film is enriched with witty intertitles. The film is extremely simple: all scenes take place at the same small table setting, without any background art. Nevertheless, the puppet has a grain of a character, as he repeatedly looks at the audience for recognition.

Watch ‘Soyons donc sportifs’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Soyons donc sportifs’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date: October 8, 1908
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

L'Hôtel du silence © Émile Cohl‘L’hôtel du silence’ is Émile Cohl’s answer to J. Stuart Blackton’s influential ‘The Haunted Hotel’ from 1907. Unlike Blackton, Cohl doesn’t employ stop motion in his film, however, making ‘L’hôtel du silence’ an addition to the trick film tradition, not an entry in the animation canon.

The film features a man visiting a hotel without any personnel. The man’s stay at the hotel is far from pleasant, however: his dinner disappears into the floor, his bed throws him on the floor when the alarm clock rings, and a shower soaks him completely. In the end, he’s confronted by an enormous bill. The man tries to sneak away without paying, but he is held inside the lobby by the desk. Even the door refuses to let him go out before he has paid some tips. This last gag is arguably the best of the whole film.

The unknown actor who plays the hapless visitor clearly is a professional clown: he acts out his emotions to the audience with broad gestures, and he’s clearly used to slapstick comedy, making him a forerunner of the American slapstick tradition. The camera remains static, with all the actions taking place in two tableaux: the lobby and the bedroom. Cohl uses a lot of contraptions and quite some trick photography, but no animation to tell his story, which is quite static, but pretty amusing for a film of the 1900s.

Watch ‘L’hôtel du silence’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘L’hôtel du silence’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date: 1908
Rating:  ★★
Review:

Le petit soldat qui devient dieu © Émile Cohl‘Le petit soldat qui devient dieu’ is a short film about a little tin soldier.

We watch him and the other tin soldiers leave their box, and perform some antics in front of a childlike drawing of a house. At one point the little soldier is left behind, when the others return to their box. Suddenly we watch him floating on a paper boat down the sewer, and on the Seine.

Apparently the tin soldier floats to the ocean, because in the next scene he’s found by an African boy and taken to his negro tribe, who are about to kill another black man. The chief licks the tin soldier and dies instantly. Then the other tribesman crown the other black man. The end.

‘Le petit soldat qui devient dieu’ is another one of Cohl’s early experiments in stop-motion, blending it with live action. Unfortunately, the short is the weakest of Cohl’s 1908 films: the tin soldier sequences are very static, all taking place against the same backdrop, and consisting of little more than soldiers marching. Moreover, none of the action makes sense. But the end is the worst: not only is this scene totally incomprehensible, the cannibals are but white men in blackface, and their characters are the worst cliche cannibals imaginable.

Watch ‘Le petit soldat qui devient dieu’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

‘Le petit soldat qui devient dieu’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

 

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date: December 14, 1908
Rating:  ★★★★
Review:

Les frères Boutdebois © Émile Cohl‘Les frères Boutdebois’ are two wooden puppets who perform some acrobatic tricks against a theatrical backdrop.

The film contains no story and ends abruptly, but the stop-motion is quite good, and an enormous improvement on ‘Japon de faintasie‘. The two puppets seem to have some character, and the trick photography is pretty convincing.

Somehow this short little film seems the direct ancestor of Jan Švankmajer’s stop-motion films, both in animation style and in atmosphere, even though this film lacks Švankmajer’s surrealism (or that of Cohl’s own ‘Fantasmagorie’ for that matter).

Watch ‘Les frères Boutdebois’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Les frères Boutdebois’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date: November 23, 1908
Rating:  ★★★★★
Review:

Le cerceau magique © Émile Cohl‘Le cerceau magique’ starts with a live action sequence taking place in a park.

There a girl brings her broken hoop to her uncle, who conjures a new one, a bigger one, and an even bigger one. The last hoop is a magical hoop, able to change the man’s and girl’s outfits into 16th century costumes.

Happily the girl runs off with the hoop, which leads to a short string of images showing life in 1908 Paris. But at one point she hangs the hoop on a wall, and here the real film starts, because inside the hoop all kinds of images form and move, like origami animals, some dice forming a word, a paper man with a wheelbarrow circling the hoop from the inside, a compass drawing a flowery figure, a moon-face, a clown balancing on his nose, etc. The film ends when the girl takes the hoop from the wall again and bows to the audience, implying that she was the conjurer of these images.

‘Le cerceau magique’ is a unique film because it features both stop-motion and drawn animation. Rarely are these techniques used together. Cohl even adds live action to the mix, leading to a quite enjoyable film, if a rather directionless one. Unfortunately, the surviving print is very bad, and quite a bit of the middle section is indistinguishable through the wearing of the film.

Watch ‘Le cerceau magique’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Le cerceau magique’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

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Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date: November 12, 1908
Rating:  ★★★★½
Review:

Un drame chez les fantoches © Émile CohlAfter two drawn animation films of mind-blowing surrealism, Émile Cohl turned down his wild fantasy to tell a much more consistent tale.

‘Un drame chez les fantoches’ tells of a man, who, after being rejected by a woman, enters her house, chases her away and rips off her dress. The woman is rescued by a policeman, who gets awarded for this deed. The evil man gets arrested, but he escapes from jail to beat up another man. In the end the woman declares her love for the policeman, and all four protagonists take a bow to the audience.

‘Un drame chez les fantoches’ is told in the same simple stick man style as ‘Fantasmagorie‘ and ‘Le cauchemar de Fantoche‘, but metamorphosis now is used as a story device to go from one scene to another. At that point the scene devolves into abstract shapes, which then rearrange into another setting. This is a novel and totally unique way of cutting, and it’s a pity it has not been used more often. The cartoon’s clear plot makes ‘Un drame chez les fantoches’ the first drawn film ever to tell a story.

Watch ‘Un drame chez les fantoches’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Un drame chez les fantoches’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date: October 16, 1908
Rating:  ★★★★½
Review:

Le cauchemar de Fantoche © Émile Cohl‘Le cauchemar de Fantoche’ can be seen as the sequel to ‘Fantasmagorie‘.

Like Cohl’s groundbreaking film, the short consists of a stream-of-consciousness-like series of images, in which metamorphosis and free association run wild. The little clown from ‘Fantasmagorie’ is nowhere to be found, and the hero of this film, despite being called Fantoche as well, is a rather bland stick man, who has to endure quite some body deformations, for example changing into a pumpkin and into an umbrella. At one point he’s even hanged.

Nothing is certain in Cohl’s fantasy world, and ‘Le cauchemar de Fantoche’ is every bit as interesting as ‘Fantasmagorie’, and the only reason it is much, much less known, is because it suffers the fate of simply not being the first.

Watch ‘Le cauchemar de Fantoche’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Le cauchemar de Fantoche’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date: 1907-1909
Rating:  ★★½
Review:

Japon de fantasie © Émile CohlSomewhere before or after his groundbreaking ‘Fantasmagorie’ Cohl explored the older animation technique of stop motion. ‘Japon de faintasie’ is an ultrashort venture into this technique, and the only reason of its existence seems to be the exploration of its possibilities.

Despite its short length of a mere one minute, the film consists of three clear sections: two Japanese figurines moving, a bee moving, and a face changing into a mask that sprouts mice. The film feels like a study, and is not as sophisticated as Cohl’s stop motion films from 1908, like ‘Le cerceau magique‘ or ‘Les frères Boutdebois‘, which points to an early production date.

Watch ‘Japon de fantaisie’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Japon de fantaisie’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date: August 17, 1908
Stars: Fantoche
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Fantasmagorie © Émile Cohl‘Fantasmagorie’ is without doubt the very first real drawn animation film.

Like Blackton’s films the short starts with a hand drawing a figure. But where Stuart J. Blackton’s ‘Humorous Phases of Funny Faces‘ and ‘Lightning Sketches‘ were pretty static tricks, ‘Fantasmagorie’ is a dazzling series of tableaux, moving into each other through metamorphosis. There’s no plot, but a strong sense of stream-of-consciousness, making this one of the very first surreal films ever.

Apart from the mind blowing images, the film also features the world’s first animated cartoon hero, Fantoche, a clown that starts the film and ends it by riding a horse and waving goodbye. In between, Fantoche keeps appearing, disappearing and changing into things and other characters. At one point he falls and loses his head, and Cohl’s hands have to put him together again. Even though by that time we did know the clown for only a few seconds, this still comes as a rather unsettling event.

Apart from the clown’s death and resurrection, so much is happening on the screen that after a mere two minutes the film leaves the viewer almost exhausted. There’s only one elongated gag, in which a man in a cinema is hindered by the giant head of the lady in front of him. It’s interesting to note that this early experiment of cinema uses its own still fresh medium as a setting.

Cohl’s drawing style is extremely simple, almost naive, and his stick-man-like figures have a child-like charm, which adds to the surrealism of the images. The film is totally devoid of timing, and the fast but steady flow of images give the film its unique character.

By all means ‘Fantasmagorie’ is not only a milestone of animated cinema, it still is a strong film in its own right, perfectly able to mesmerize even after more than a century since its completion.

‘Fantasmagorie’ was most probably Émile Cohl’s first film. He made the short inspired by Blackton’s influential stop-motion film ‘The Haunted Hotel’. Cohl was already 51 when he made this film, yet he would become one of the most prolific animators of all time, completing more than 250 films (not all of them animated) over a span of 13 years. Unfortunately, by the 1930s he was largely forgotten, and in 1938 he died as a poor man, never enjoying a rediscovery like the one that happened to his compatriot and fellow film pioneer Georges Méliès.

Watch ‘Fantasmagorie’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Fantasmagorie’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’ and ‘Before Walt’

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