Le Décapité récalcitrant at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin

Between 1888 and 1907, Méliès specialized in the invention and staging of “theatrical compositions”—spectacular stage shows featuring elaborate illusions anchored in a loose narrative framework. In The Recalcitrant Decapitated Man, Professor Barbenfouillis (played by Méliès) suffers the titular punishment because he won’t stop babbling on about supernatural phenomena. Even when the head is stuffed in a box, it won’t shut up. During the course of subsequent fast-paced, live-action events, it is recovered by its own (headless) body, stolen by a speedy skeleton, and supplanted on the Professor’s body by the skeleton’s head. Returned to its proper place, it immediately starts going on again about spiritualism, whereupon the Professor is strung up from the ceiling. As the curtain descends, he is still prattling on. The name “Barbenfouillis” (“Messybeard”) had a certain attraction for Méliès, who played a character with the same name in his most famous film, Le Voyage dans la lune (1902). In the film, too, the character is a loony scholar whose obsessions come to life as nightmares of frustration.

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