Fantasmagorie: Sex, Gender and the Elephant in the Room
The title of “The Father of the Animated Cartoon” is a hotly contested claim, but for many film historians the crown goes to an obscure and unusual Frenchman: Émile Cohl. Born in 1857 as Émile Eugène Jean Louis Courtet, Cohl was a Parisian caricaturist of the Incoherent Movement, a prominent cartoonist in humorous magazines and an avid philatelist. Generally, the focus of the Incoherents was absurdism, dream imagery and the drawing style of children. In fact, they prided themselves for their amateurism and lack of seriousness. However, far from being the often sentimental and childish genre that animation would later become characterised as, early animators like Cohl created a nightmarish, chaotic and often violent world that was as funny as it was disturbing. Indeed, themes of violence and sexuality are littered in Cohl’s brief movies, and Fantasmagorie is no exception.
Ladies Will Please Remove Their Hats
While there were a considerable number of films released before 1908 with stop-motion or drawn animation in them, Fantasmagorie is considered the first fully animated film ever made. By shooting each frame onto negative film, Cohl reproduces the likeness of a blackboard with chalk drawings. The two-minute film has no standard plot or structure, and largely consists of a stick figures rapidly morphing, deconstructing and reassembling in a seemingly random order. In fact, many have argued that the film is in a stream of consciousness style, depicting all the passionate or contradicting thoughts, feelings and associative leaps that characterise the human thought processes.
However, there are certain recognisable characters and relatable moments in the film. For example, we witness a woman donning a large hat enter a sketchy theatre and sit in front of a male viewer. This blocks his view of the screen and was a pervasive problem among turn-of-the-century moviegoers. So, the man gradually rips up her feathered hat and even sets the woman alight. Amazingly, a clown-figure bursts out of the woman’s head, causing it to inflate into a giant circle. In moments like these, issues of class, gender and sex seep through. When discussing the representation of women in wider motion picture culture, including magazines and advertisements, Shelly Stamp argues that “the mammoth hat figured the female viewer precisely as a visual blockage […] less a distraction to the eye than an obstruction to view, an absence – literally a blank spot where vision becomes impossible” (Stamp, 34). Consequently, this evokes the androcentric notion of women as ciphers or zeros. They are seen as nothings: excluded from the world of work, politics and legal rights, they are to be passive and silent. They are empty or castrated spaces: there to be physically or symbolically filled by men. This is evident in Fantasmagorie by how the clown miraculously appears in the woman’s head, her skull expanding and emptying to accommodate his presence. In addition, the man actually creates a hole in the screen itself in order to discard one of her large feathers, which further associates the woman with absence.
Developing this analysis of Fantasmagorie, Donald Crafton evokes Freud’s notion of the castration complex, which draws upon the symbolism of burning logs and a man’s ability to extinguish a fire by urination. He argues that the action is cruelly misogynistic because “her symbolically castrating punishment, being set afire, is excessive in comparison to her “crime,” which was only that of wearing a hat that blocked the view of the male” (Crafton, 266). In fact, she is set ablaze by the obviously phallic symbol of the cigar, further undermining any suggestion of female authority and instead associating them with sexual subservience or lack. So, we can see Cohl promote and uphold a male orientated perception of the world, where women are seen in negative terms.
Continuing the exploration of this scene, one could argue that Cohl is self-referentially drawing attention to the artifice of this film and alienating his audience from simply immersing themselves in the enjoyable spectacle. He achieves this by setting this cartoon-within-a-cartoon in a cinema. Moreover, he positions the short meta-films at the edge of the screen and the woman at the centre so that our ability to view and understand what is happening on the miniature screen is thwarted. This reflects a wider preconception of female patrons in the lampoons of newspapers and magazines, where “caricatures of hat-wearing filmgoers suggest that a delight in self-adornment which […] was actually at odds with evolving viewing practices that de-emphasized theatre space, the viewer’s body, and interaction among patrons” (Stamp, 33). Hence, Cohl creates a self-awareness and disorientation that recreates the cinemagoing man’s own frustrations with the woman and highlights an apparently feminine focus on bodily spectacle and frivolity. Yet again, Cohl reveals a rather misogynistic view of women as a disruptive and superficial spectacle.
Seeing the Elephant
In this scene, the clown comes across an elephant. This animal becomes a house. Our intrepid hero goes inside, only to have the door locked behind him. He subsequently dives from the building’s upper window, only to injure himself upon landing. Now, you might ask what this random and rather brief chain of events has to do with sexuality? Historically, the French had constructed a gigantic stucco elephant for the Universal Exhibition of 1889, but afterwards it was transported “to the Jardin de Paris, right next to the Moulin Rouge. Inside its enormous paws were spiral staircases leading into the belly of the beast. Suddenly, attractive ballerinas would appear, ready to entertain the most enterprising clients” (Adinolfi, 77). Arguably, this elephantine building may include a sense of sexual adventure and sensual excitement. Anybody who has seen Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! should understand this symbolic association.
This atmosphere of fin de siècle sexuality is amplified by how the elephant’s former eye unexplainably becomes a large, round lamp positioned above the door on the outside of the building. In combination with the Moulin Rouge reference, the position and prominence of this beacon suggests that our hero is in the presence of a brothel or a red-light district. Although the phrase emerged around 1900, the common symbol “of the red light perhaps either originated or became best known for its use in Paris and […] licensed brothels in France once had a red lantern with the number of the house over the door of each establishment” (Allen, 178). Moreover, the lack of frames used to manifest the turning of the character’s head creates jagged and quick movements. This exaggerates the intensity of the clown looking over his shoulder, emphasising that entering the building produces a sense of suspicion, panic and moral violation.
Additionally, these images of hybridity highlight a latent sexuality that permeates the film. Here, the protagonist’s eager smile appears to temporarily fuse with the elephant’s tusk and then the elephant merges into the building. This intermingling is representative of how “the film tends to incorporate hybrid monsters […] demonstrating the Freudian concept of condensation” (Crafton, 266). In Freudian psychology, one’s instinctual feelings and images are unconsciously displaced and transformed because they are considered dangerous by social conventions. According to him, this is often what happens in dreams. Thus, this oneiric merging of animal and man or animal and property (and therefore instinct and civilisation) suggests a feeling of sensuality that is made liminal by societal condemnation.
Developing this argument, the apparent presence of a patrolling policeman, who seemingly locks the doors of the premises, may refer to the policing of registered and unregistered low-class prostitutes by the French government and law enforcement. Contextually, during the nineteenth century “France introduced systems of medically regulated prostitution, seeking […] prostitutes to register with the police and receive medical examinations from police physicians” (Roades qtd in Ditmore, 548). If this brothel was shutdown by an officer, it was likely because the workers were revealed to be diseased and risked the health of their clients. Therefore, this may add a darkly comic motivation behind the clown’s sudden and desperate leap out of the window, as the activities he was currently engaged in were suddenly shown to be dangerous to his physical health.
Next, the stick figure is decapitated after defenestrating himself from the apparent brothel. Suddenly, the artist’s hands enter the scene and, with assistance from a pot of glue and a brush, manage to repair the newly revived clown. Initially, this may seem to be a benevolent act by a god-like creator. However, in early animation, the cartoon characters that interact with the real-life artist often “seek to deprive him of his pen (phallus) or creative inspiration so that they can take control of the narratives and their own lives” (Zipes, 50). Consequently, Cohl uses his phallic brush to reassert his masculine dominance over this animated creation that has been involved in failed or fleeting sexual activities. Moreover, “Cohl” is homophonic to the French word “colle,” meaning glue. Hence, the phallic action of pasting the bisected clown together signifies and amplifies Cohl’s individual identity and influence. Thus, Cohl sees identity, power and agency as inexorably linked with male sexual prowess, something that the clown has lost in his disastrous interaction with the brothel.
Overall, this combination of an elephant, a policeman and a prominent light suggestively alludes to the controversial, dangerous and morally damned practices of commercial sex in Cohl’s France. While making the clown humorously suffer as a consequence of his actions may satirise the industry, Cohl’s phallic imagery nevertheless maintains an overtly masculine conception of the world.
Cohl’s Fantasmagorie, with all its unexpected transformations, violence and sexual references, perhaps has more in common with today’s anarchic cartoons: it is more like Family Guy than any Walt Disney production. Yet, it would appear that for all his innovations, Cohl nevertheless maintains a rather traditional attitude to women in this important film. In conclusion, he seems to produce images of sexuality that maintain a patriarchal order and even dismiss women as absent spaces. While we may indeed “see the elephant,” we never see who is inside it or what takes place there.
Adinolfi, Francesco. Mondo Exotica: Sounds, Visions, Obsessions of the Cocktail Generation. Ed. and Trans. Karen Pinkus and Jason Vivrette. Torino; Duke University Press, 2008. Print.
Allen, Irving L. The City in Slang. New York; Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.
Crafton, Donald Clayton. Émile Cohl, Caricature, and Film. Oxford; Princeton University Press, 1990. Print.
Fantasmagorie. Dir. Émile Cohl. Gaumont Film Company, 1908. Film.
Rhoades, Michelle K. ‘World War One Regulation.’ Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work: Volume 2. Ed. Melissa Hope Ditmore. Westport; Greenwood Publishing, 2006. 548-549. Print.
Stamp, Shelley. Movie-struck Girls: Women and Motion Picture Culture After the Nickelodeon. Princeton; Princeton University Press, 2000. Print.
Zipes, Jack. The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films.
New York; Routledge, 2011. Print.
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