Sunday, September 04, 2022

A brahmin, a butterfly and a 121-year-old 'love story'

What you see here are a couple of blurry images from the 1901 film The Brahmin and the Butterfly, by the legendary magician-cum-pioneering director Georges Méliès. He plays a flute-wielding “brahmin” who summons a large caterpillar from the forest, affectionately kisses it (the caterpillar kisses him first in case you’re worrying about consent), then puts it in a cocoon whereupon it transforms into a beautiful butterfly and then a princess. Brahmin and princess frolic and gambol for a bit, but then there’s one final twist. All in a running time of under two minutes.

This is one of the works from cinema’s first decade that I have been watching as part-preparation for a film history/film appreciation course that I will soon be teaching at the Jindal School of Journalism and Communication. The little film is most enjoyable on its own terms, but I also thought it notable as possibly the first cinematic expression of the idea that love means trying to control/change another person into the image you have fixed in your head. That theme is central to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and the force of its execution in that film (as well as the subtextual commentary on a director/artist trying to dominate and transform his actors/raw material) has made Vertigo a critical favourite for decades now. But Méliès was there a full 57 years before (in a much more rudimentary form, of course) – and he was also an illusionist by profession, using people and objects as shape-shifting tools for his art.

Anyway, the critic Paolo Cherchi Usai called The Brahmin and the Butterfly “the most beautiful love story of early cinema", which is a more concise description. You can watch it here. (Many other
Méliès films are available online too.)

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