Early Film Says a Lot about Victorian Era Sexuality
Note: This is the fifth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. This premise begins with consideration of the oldest surviving film, ROUNDHAY GARDEN SCENE (1888); however, films made from 1888–1899 are considered as one entry/year. Therefore, I have selected only five films from those 12 years. From 1900 on, each year features five films independently. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fifth favorite pre-1900 film, AUTOUR D’UNE CABINE (1894), directed by Charles-Émile Reynaud.
Honestly, when I revisited AUTOUR D’UNE CABINE in order to write this last essay covering my favorite pre-1900 films, I was hard-pressed to come up with a (relatively) interesting angle. It made its way into my top five because of my sheer love for animation, and its relative complexity for films from its era. But I had already written about the film “industry” into which the oldest surviving animated film, PAUVRE PIERROT (1892), had been born. And I’d already related the story of its creator, the oft-forgotten Charles-Émile Reynaud, and why the otherworldly feeling it imparted in me was so powerful.
I felt a lot of the same feelings about AUTOUR D’UNE CABINE, but found its slightly shorter surviving length (in its reconstructed form) an indication of the film’s greater significance: it’s a continuation of the Reynaud style and a simpler story, but it’s not the landmark that was PAUVRE PIERROT. It sounds like an overestimation of its predecessor, but AUTOUR D’UNE CABINE lacks that film’s arc. The action in CABINE is made up of non sequiturs, spread across sets of characters and only two minutes of runtime. PAUVRE PIERROT benefited from the context of a pre-existing story, but nevertheless, its characters’ actions and humor told a cohesive story. It doesn’t hurt that more of it has survived.
This relative indifference was probably mirrored in the audiences that showed up to Reynaud’s Théâtre Optique show at the Musée Grévin, where he showed his animated films through his praxinoscope projecting invention. He started showing his initial batch of animated films, the only surviving member of which is PAUVRE PIERROT, in 1892, and by 1894, had introduced some more. AUTOUR D’UNE CABINE was the start of the next series he brought to the stage that year; however, the show ended in 1900. Unfortunately, the novelty of Reynaud’s little animated follies had worn thin by then.
To be honest, I had to watch the reconstructed AUTOUR D’UNE CABINE a number of times to get what was going on. The nearest I could tell, a man and woman go diving, a separate, clothed man and woman have a little awkward run-in and a dog gets a little rowdy, that woman goes and gets changed, the man peeks in to watch, her friend comes out to discover the lecherous old man, promptly kicks him in response, the two go for a swim, and the man (I think it’s the same man) rows out in a bit, signifying the end of the show. It’s a simple little series of moments that feel oddly spontaneous, stiff, and unrelated, making the film its own little surreal experience. But I didn’t have much to go on there, really. Then I watched the film again. And again. And again. Then I really noticed the part where the man is peeking in at the woman changing. And I thought the same thing I’ve been thinking a lot during my research into the Victorian era of film: “Isn’t it crazy how sexually repressed people were in the Victorian era?”
I said as much (word-for-word) in my last essay, my examination of ANNABELLE SERPENTINE DANCE (1895) called “Meet Annabelle Moore, the Earliest of Film Stars.” In it, I wrote about how a rumored scandal surrounding Moore, then known as Whitford, boosted the popularity and sales of her films. She had been approached to appear nude at a private dinner party, which she rejected, but just the thought of this young woman that dances in these early novelty films being naked in a totally different, unseen context piqued the sex-driven interests of Victorian men and women. With the very brief and cursory knowledge and research I have on the subject of Victorian sexuality, I was under the impression that everyone was very much repressed and took any and all opportunity to engage in socially accepted activities that had fringes of sexuality. And, I mean, I was half right.
People were definitely sexually repressed in the Victorian era, just as they are now. The interesting facet of sexual life then, however, is the element of public denial. It was so pervasive that even talking about sex was a crime; probably literally. We like to think of older generations being much more stuffy and conservative (which they were), and by extension, somehow more moral or principled (they weren’t.) People still had sex, and they had “weird,” “blasphemous,” and “adulterated” sex. It was just denied and covered up to no end.
I didn’t really even consider that the biggest part of the Annabelle Moore story wasn’t that she was approached to appear nude at a private dinner party; it was that anyone was approached to appear nude at a private dinner party at all. It just hadn’t occurred to me that freaky sexy stuff was happening in the Victorian era, whether it be in America, England, or anywhere on Earth. But it’s clear to see where the playful, sexy content in films was centered, just as with any kind of attractive, sex-related events: the forbidden. The taboo has instilled sex drive in humans since we had concepts of right and wrong, and in the Victorian era, part of that exciting line was drawn at just watching women undress. And make no mistake, this was almost certainly an entirely misogynist, non-consensual, violating, male gaze-driven pursuit both in real life and in its representation in film.
Also in my Annabelle Moore piece, I wrote about William K.L. Dickson, how he left Edison to go back to Europe, and how he ended up making “what the butler saw” movies, hugely popular, early erotic films that our sex-saturated culture wouldn’t even bat an eyelash at. As you might imagine, they got that name by being photographed as if from the provocative, forbidden position of a butler peeking through the keyhole at his mistress. PAUVRE PIERROT ended with Pierrot being turned away and Harlequin going into Columbine’s home to do who knows what at that late hour.
While I was researching Méliès for my CINDERELLA (1899) piece, I was reminded of his AFTER THE BALL (1897). It’s considered one of, if not the, first “adult film” (at least the earliest of Méliès’ to survive) because of its use of simulated nudity. It, like the what the butler saw movies, was primarily concerned with the act of undressing. These “stag” films were really popular; the Lumière brothers, among others, also made them. Even Méliès’ THE ASTRONOMER’S DREAM (1898) utilizes the feminine figure of the crescent moon to seduce the titular character. And I realized all this after watching the ten-second sequence in AUTOUR D’UNE CABINE in which the man peeks into a beach hut occupied by a changing woman.
You could say it’s a bit of a stretch, but these are the kinds of things these over 120-year-old films can offer, if you’re willing to look for them. And if not, they still serve as generally amusing, historically interesting pieces of entertainment. AUTOUR D’UNE CABINE is the last of my favorites before the 20th century (and film in earnest) began, and the strange insight it has into the sexuality of Victorian era films, even each and every one of the five I’ve written about for this project so far, is part of the reason why.
Make sure to catch up on and keep up with all of my essays on my favorite films here.