The Spider and the Butterfly and the Twilight of Georges Méliès’ Career
Note: This is the fifty-third in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my third favorite 1909 film, THE SPIDER AND THE BUTTERFLY, directed by Georges Méliès.
The list that has inspired this series of film essays (which turns one year old with this installment; I didn’t miss a week!) has been dominated by the work of Georges Méliès in the first decade of the art form. THE SPIDER AND THE BUTTERFLY (1909) is his penultimate film on the list, the second-to-last to receive the essay treatment. My slowing infatuation with the wizard is indicative not only of Méliès’ own creative stagnation, but the increasingly complex language of film at large. Méliès’ films were, at one time, the most expansive epics around, but as realism evolved the craft, they looked reductive and stage bound.
THE SPIDER AND THE BUTTERFLY, in a two minute long fragmentary form, represents that detriment, but it’s also such a tight visual feast. Méliès’ work never got that much worse, but when compared to new advancements, it started to look weak. In the relatively weak year of 1909, even one of his later, weaker films like THE SPIDER AND THE BUTTERFLY made its way onto my list.
THE SPIDER AND THE BUTTERFLY is a recently discovered Méliès film; in 2010, the fragment was discovered, hand-tinting and all. At a time when narrative movies were evolving nicely, THE SPIDER AND THE BUTTERFLY eschews any illusion of plot and presents a little show from a stage magician with some pretty incredible tricks. The color is immediately breathtaking; it’s among Méliès’ best.
The magician pulls a butterfly sidekick out of a cone, who stands prettily to the side as he demonstrates some sharpshooting techniques. He brings another woman to the stage out of nowhere, and she suddenly becomes a dark, evil, somewhat satanic creature exuding a strange darkness and sporting a wriggling set of arms. The magician saves his butterfly girl from the spider, then shoots the very creature he created, which creates a tremendous explosion that ends the film.
As I said, it’s incredibly short. There isn’t a whole lot of movie to enjoy, but what’s there is entertaining. As I said, the coloring is probably the standout facet of THE SPIDER AND THE BUTTERFLY; it makes the whole thing look like a strange paper craft creation. Otherwise, the film’s “climax” is the greatest visual moment. The darkness surrounding the spider is oppressive, and the wriggling arms certainly make the scene bizarre and somewhat threatening. It’s a counterpoint to the rest of the film, which is very light and colorful, and it’s a predecessor to a similar moment from BARON MUNCHAUSEN’S DREAM (1911).
Otherwise, my interest in THE SPIDER AND THE BUTTERFLY is its encapsulation of Méliès’ waning career. Short, small in scope, yet pretty, it feels so quaint among its 1909 peers. But it’s still fun, a colorful curiosity that belies a certain amount of sophistication creeping into the film industry. No matter what, Méliès went his own way, and as he went down with his ship, he made some pretty fine work. In a few years, that work would come to an end; improbably, impossibly, the wizard would never work his magic again.
Make sure to catch up on and keep up with all of my essays on my favorite filmshere.