The Talion Punishment (1906)

by popegrutch

This short fantasy film from Pathé shows the definite influence of Georges Méliès, but is especially interesting because of the innovative color process used. No doubt it was a thrill for audiences of the time.

The movie begins on a stage dressed as a forest, with colorful flowers and trees placed about the set. Two young women in shorts are holding butterfly nets and examining the trees for insects, and a male butterfly collector enters reading a book and carrying a net and other gear. He hands each of them some lunch from his basket, then goes on about chasing insects, exiting the stage. A couple of slightly-oversized butterflies swoop around, evidently on strings, settling on flowers, but when the girls try to catch them, they suddenly turn into fairy-women in costumes with wings and bare legs. The fairy women lead the girls off stage and two gigantic green crickets hop on stage, also apparently moved by invisible strings from over head. The girls return, but now the human women have been transformed into insect fairies as well – one is a bee, the other might be a dragonfly. They dance with the butterfly fairies, exiting when the male lepidopterist returns. He is holding a (normal-sized) butterfly in his hand triumphantly. He sets down his gear and takes out a magnifying glass, to examine his prize. The film cuts to a close-up, framed in a circle like that of the glass, on a fabric reproduction of a butterfly, beautifully colored. Several more of these follow, each one flapping its wings helplessly under the glass.

Now the two giant crickets return, and they turn into women in cricket costumes (bare legs again), and each seizes the man by an arm. The other insect women return and the dragonfly-girl accuses him, pointing at all of the gear strewn about the forest. They all form a conga line, with him in the front, and dance off stage. The scene now cuts to a stage dressed as a cave, a bust of Pan or Satan to one side, and a new insect fairy takes up a station behind a rock like a judge’s bench. The man is thrown to the floor and the fairy women all point to him in accusation. His gear is displayed and the judge fairy hands one of the cricket women a large pin. A large toadstool is brought out and the man is made to lie on his back on top of it. The cricket woman hammers the pin through his stomach and the camera angle changes to show him from above, penetrated by the pin and flapping his arms helplessly like the butterflies. The scene goes back to the stage view again and the judge fairy signals for mercy. The pin is removed, and the man is released, still holding his stomach from the pain. He snaps his butterfly net in two, signaling that he has learned his lesson. He and the two girls (now human again) are led away and the fairies cause the remaining gear to burst into flames, then create a colorful tableau for the camera.

The color process used here was stencil-color, which Pathé-Freres introduced a few years before. Instead of hand-coloring each frame (as Méliès did), they used a stencil for each frame to block out the colors and then effectively silk-screened the film strips at high speed. It still sounds like a lot of work, and isn’t perfect – I noticed that the giant pin changed color as it moved past the colored parts of the background, for example. Still, it does allow for better consistency than I’ve seen in most hand-painted films, and this example is quite lovely. The use of editing to show different camera angles is reasonably sophisticated for 1906. The real surprise of the film, however, is the graphic nature of the punishment the man endures. Although he survives, it struck me as pretty strong stuff for a movie no doubt targeting children, and it suggests that the filmmakers really did find butterfly collecting a bit sadistic and wanted to condemn it.

Director: Gaston Velle

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Fernand Rivers

Run Time: 4 Min, 13 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

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