At the Cannes film festival in May 2011, one of the world’s finest movies was reborn – for the first time in nearly 100 years, we were able to see Georges Méliès’ masterpiece A Trip to the Moon (1902) in vibrant, psychedelic colour. And yet, there were those who considered the new restoration of the film to be a travesty. The hand-coloured print had been rescued from nitrate decay, cleaned and mended frame by frame – so far, so uncontroversial – and then a soundtrack had been commissioned. And we all know how contentious modern silent film scores can be.
Groovy electronic duo Air had been lauded for their movie soundtracks in the past – their music for Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides in 1999 was a big hit –with a debut album called Moon Safari the French band seemed an apt choice. But the loudest reactions at Cannes – and at other festival screenings throughout the year – were those of horror. Air’s squelchy, organic electronica and mystifying animal noises were not, it seemed, music to the ears of the cinephile crowd. “It’s a disgrace!” commented one audience member at the Pordenone showing. “Oh no!” cried another at the London film festival.
Which is why, when I finally saw the restoration of A Trip to the Moon at the Ciné Lumière in London, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the music, which is presented here on the DVD release of the restored film. It’s often bizarre, and puzzling, but so is the film, and it powers through at a clattering pace that brings a real sense of blockbuster excitement back to this science-fiction landmark. Given the controversy, there’s an argument to be made for offering an alternative piano score on the disc – but there’s also a case to be made for sticking to one’s artistic guns. It’s ridiculous to speculate on what Méliès would have thought of the soundtrack. He may well have been more mystified that with his own narration missing, no alternative commentary was written. But given the film-maker’s love of cheeky humour and absurd theatricals I think he would have enjoyed it, just a little.
And the music remains a side issue with a film of this visual brilliance – enhanced by those deftly applied inks, which add both warm, natural skin-tones to the chorus line and lurid primary colours to the lunar landscapes and aliens on the attack. A Trip to the Moon follows the adventures of a group of bearded, chattering astronomers from their lab to the moon’s surface and back to earth again. It’s endearing dappy, from the first simple sketch of their flight, to the gory moment the rocket gouges the eye of the man in the moon, to the scientists’ battle with the selenites – umbrellas at the ready. This is live-action film, but transformed by Méliès’s ingenious in-camera editing and those gorgeous paints to be something more like a cartoon. It’s gorgeous, it’s ludicrous and it’s heaps of fun. The new restoration is a revelation, and here on DVD, it looks brilliant. I wanted to watch it again and again. So I did.
But for all its wonders, A Trip to the Moon is only a quarter of an hour long. It’s very rare to see such a short film as the sole attraction on a DVD, we’re more used to compilations of early cinema. Happily, however, there’s more to this disc than the headline act. Alongside image galleries, you’ll find a fantastic documentary by Lobster Films’ Serge Bromberg and Éric Lange called The Extraordinary Voyage. It’s an hour long, packed with talking heads from the French cinema – and well worth a watch, particularly if you are new to Méliès’ work. The documentary introduces the film-maker, his techniques and personal history, discusses the film and particularly its restoration in depth. There are also re-enactments of Méliès at work in his Paris studio, with Tom Hanks, yes, Tom Hanks playing the director. There’s also a slightly odd interlude when Hanks proposes Méliès as a pioneer not just in film-making but in space travel too.
That may be a stretch, but I remember that when I left the Ciné Lumière last year my mind was boggling that we had managed to put a man on the moon more than 40 years before we had managed to restored A Trip to the Moon back to its full-colour best.
A Trip to the Moon with accompanying documentary The Extraordinary Voyage is released on DVD in the UK from Monday 26 November 2012 by Park Circus. Buy on Amazon here.