French Film at the Turn of the Century: Spectacles de curiosité

February 24, 2017
6p reception, Kemper Art Museum; 6:30p screening, Steinberg Auditorium

When cinema was invented in France in 1895, the new medium belonged to the motley world of the spectacle de curiosité, or amusement attraction, such as circus acts, magic shows, street performances, and live stage routines. Spectators were lured in with seductions of the instant—ephemeral attractions and illusions that elicited a sense of marvel. But by 1902, with its futuristic technology, distinctly modern representations of time and movement, and affinity for both celebrity and avant-garde performance, film had surpassed its competition and emerged as the leading spectacle de curiosité in French urban life.

In this special screening event in conjunction with the exhibition Spectacle and Leisure in Paris: Degas to Mucha, Colin Burnett, assistant professor in Film and Media Studies in Arts & Sciences, takes viewers on a journey through the earliest stages of French filmmaking. Drawing on the period’s dynamic phantom rides and exotic travelogues, eye-popping magic tricks, and elegant bodies of dance, this program of early spectacle films puts on display the vast repertoire of alluring attractions filmmakers developed as they transformed the technical wonder of moving images into what would become one of the defining art forms of the 20th and 21st centuries.


(run times are approximate)
Arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat (Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat) (Lumière Frères, 1897, 1 min.)
L’arroseur arrosé (The Sprinkler Sprinkled) (Lumière Frères, 1895, 40 sec.)
Démolition d’un mur (Demolition of a Wall) (Lumière Frères, 1896, 1 min.)
Danse serpentine (Serpentine Dance) (Lumière Frères, 1897, 42 sec.)
Laveuses sur la rivière (Washerwomen on the River) (Lumière Frères, 1896, 44 sec.)
Passage d’un tunnel en chemin de fer (Train Passing through a Tunnel) (Lumière Frères, 1898, 1:04 min.)
Histoire d’un crime (History of a Crime) (Ferdinand Zecca, 1901, 5 min.)
La sirène (The Mermaid) (Georges Méliès, 1904, 5 min.)
Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) (Georges Méliès, 1902, 15 min.)

Image credit

Still from Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) (Georges Méliès, 1902, 15 min.)