Phantasmagorie Analysis Essay
Emile Cohl’s Phantasmagorie is considered one of the most important and influential films in early animation. Cohl, an artist in Paris in the early 1900’s, made over 250 short animations and films, many of which share a similar “morphing chalkboard” aesthetic. In discussing it’s artistic innovation, one must consider how and why it was made, as well as its messages about society in 1900’s Paris.
At first glance, Phantasmagorie appears to be a simple chalk and blackboard line drawing. The animation was actually created using over 700 drawings—black lines on white paper—with the image printed as a negative to achieve the “blackboard” effect, and also aided by a few frames that incorporate paper cutouts. These drawings were then shot with stop-motion photography to create a seamless transition from one frame to the next. The intentionality of this effect is a direct jab at the Vaudevillian caricature style which was popular in Paris at the time.
The main character, a clown figure, is “drawn” by Cohl, and then proceeds to weave in and out of different scenarios and the scene morphs from one scene to the next. This could be viewed as an early form of special effects. Cohl shows the viewer 1.5 minutes of seamless and impossible transformations—particularly impressive is the scene where the police officer dissolves into thin air. The artists hand can also be seen in the film as well, both as an intentional element—as seen in the beginning and end— and as a ghost image as scenes flicker past. This creates an interaction between a 2D environment and a 3D world — The drawings and the creator. In showing his hand, Cohl asserts his dominance as an omnipresent creator— in the beginning of the animation, he draws the character, bringing him to life, while at the end, he glues the broken character back together, bringing him back to life.
In the book Larry Cohen: The Radical Allegories of an Independent Filmmaker, “…caricature played a very important role both in animation and early cinema as a critical ideological weapon against conformist tendencies in bourgeois society.” Like most art of the early 20th century, the role of women in Phantasmagorie is passing or nonexistent. The only woman in the film is depicted in a theatre, and portrayed as more of an obstacle for the male viewer than a casual moviegoer. The man sitting behind her removes this female “obstacle” by first plucking the feathers from her hat, and then lighting her on fire with a cigar. This not only reinforces male dominance in society, but alludes to the popular belief that women should not be in the public sphere.
The only other scene that could include an (unseen) female figure is near the end of the animation where the elephant morphs into a building. There is speculation that the elephants eye turns into a sort of “red light district” sort of marker, that would signify the presence of a brothel. The main character quickly looks around before entering the building, as if making sure that he has not been seen. The police officer—a constant presence in the film—could be a not-so-subtle reference to the police presence in Paris at the time, specifically in the case of crackdown on “unsafe” brothels”. After being locked in the building by the officer, the main character jumps out of the building, presumably, rather than being locked inside a brothel with “unsafe” women.
Phantasmagorie, despite it’s attempts to poke fun at the bourgeoisie status quo, neglects to defy any societal gender norms. Women are portrayed as a hazard to the public world, while the main —male— character travels in and out of each scene without restrictions. It’s hard to deny the brilliance and imagination of Cohl, but it’s even harder not to view Phantasmagorie as a both a relic of early animation, as well as of an outdated societal ideal.
Popova, Maria. “Before Walt Disney: 5 Pioneers of Early Animation.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 5 July 2011, http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/07/before-walt-disney-5-pioneers-of-early-animation/241448/.
Pottecary, Christopher. “Émile Cohl: Fantasmagorie (1908).” The Artifice, 24 Sept. 2014, the-artifice.com/fantasmagorie-gender/.
Williams, Tony. Larry Cohen: the Radical Allegories of an Independent Filmmaker. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2014.