LE VOYAGE IMAGINAIRE (Rolf de Maré, FR 1925)
Regia/dir., scen: René Clair; f./ph: Amédée Morrin, Jimmy Berliet; scg/des: Robert Gys; cast: Jean Borlin (Jean), Dolly Davis (Lucie), Albert Préjean (Albert), Jim Gérald (Auguste), Paul Ollivier (il direttore della banca/the bank manager), Maurice Schutz (la chiromante/the palmist), Marguerite Madys (la fata buona/the good fairy Urgel), Yvonne Leguay (la fata cattiva/the bad fairy Sylvaine); data uscita/released: 30.4.1926; 35mm, 1542 m., 75’ (18 fps); fonte copia/print source: Cinémathèque Française, Paris.
Didascalie in francese / French intertitles.
Le Voyage imaginaire began as a commission from Rolf de Maré, the Ballets Suédois impresario who had produced Entr’acte, and who now asked Clair to make a film to star his dancer-choreographer (and lover), Jean Borlin, the hunter-cum-magician in Entr’acte. Clair was very much in the limelight in the winter of 1924-1925. Due to the vagaries of distribution, his first three films were released within weeks of each other – Entr’acte in December 1924, and Paris qui dort and Le Fantôme du Moulin Rouge in February and March 1925. The capital of sympathy that he enjoyed (from critics at least) boded well for Clair’s nascent career. But Le Voyage imaginaire flopped, and Clair suddenly seemed back at the starting block.
Originally entitled A Midsummer Day’s Dream, and shot in the spring of 1925, the film was a comedy-fantasy that cast Borlin as a timid young bank clerk, Jean, who is in love with a pretty secretary, Dolly (Dolly Davis), but is persecuted by two of his rival co-workers. At one point, he falls asleep at his desk, and finds himself transported to a magic grotto peopled by old fairies whose youth and beauty he restores with a kiss. He is reunited with his beloved, but an evil fairy has them whisked off to Notre Dame cathedral, where Jean is turned into a bulldog. An ensuing chase leads all the characters to the Grévin wax museum, where the figures come menacingly to life. Jean is sentenced to be guillotined by the effigies of a French Revolutionary tribunal, but he is saved at the last minute by the wax figures of Chaplin’s the Tramp and Jackie Coogan’s the Kid. Jean is restored to his human form and happily reunited with Dolly.
The film is a farrago of scenes and settings that only fitfully work their charm – in the early bank sequence there is some amusing business with a bouquet of flowers that attests to Clair’s sense of gag construction, and the dark comedy of the wax museum scenes creates an effectively macabre mood (significantly, Paul Leni’s Waxworks had just opened in Paris when Clair was writing his screenplay). But the strained whimsy of the fairyland episode occupies too much screen time, and the sets by a future master of production design, Robert Gys, evoke the luxuriant fantasy of a Méliès féerie without working its magic. Nor did the film fulfil its initial raison d’être: Borlin was bland and boring, and the film’s failure put paid to any further hopes of a film career. Clair seemed to be thinking of Harold Lloyd in writing his role – which is not surprising: Grandma’s Boy had just opened in Paris (a central prop in Clair’s film is a supposed wishing ring with magical powers that turns out to be a banal curtain ring – an echo of the fake talisman in the Lloyd picture). In the end, Clair’s inspiration was overwhelmed by its cultural references and movieland clins d’oeil