“Distressing Dreams”


                        Georges Méliès

Among the “marvelous” troubles suffered by the hapless hero of Les Quatre cent farces du diable (The Merry Frolics of Satan, 1906) is the disappearance of his food from the table in front of him. Disappearing food was a common trick of devilish powers in the féerie, and it was also a favorite of Georges Méliès, who accomplished it, of course, through stop motion. “When a weary traveler puts up at an inn” in a Méliès film, reports one commentator,

he must expect to be tormented by a moving candle that grows, explodes, or goes out, by boots that walk by themselves, by a dancing bed or pyrotechnic furniture, a huge bedbug, mischievous goblin, or ghastly dummy animated by practical jokers. When a diner sits down to eat, he must expect the table legs to grow, the table and everything on it to disappear, run away, catch fire, or explode. A hotel dining room is demolished on more than one occasion by a rampaging automobile.[1]


                       Sigmund Freud

Clearly, Méliès’ paradigm for such narratives of frustration is the bad dream (see Figure R3.4). The great psychologist Sigmund Freud identified certain “distressing dreams” whose common theme is the frustration that results when we fail to recognize wishes that we would like to fulfill. He also warned that we should never forget “what a fruitful source of disappointment . . . and consequently what a stimulus to dream” is provided by our instinctual desires.[2] In adults, of course, the source of bad or “anxiety” dreams is almost always the libido—the energy generated by the sexual instinct: “Neurotic anxiety,” according to Freud, “is derived from sexual life and corresponds to libido which has been diverted from its purpose and has found no enjoyment. . . . Anxiety dreams are dreams with a sexual content, the libido belonging to which has been transformed into anxiety.”[3]

“Palpable Wish-Fulfillment”

   On the other hand, of course, sometimes even a Freudian dream is a good one—merely “a straightforward dream of satisfaction, a palpable ‘wish-fulfillment,’ about which there seems no more to be said.”[4] Such appears to be the case, for example, in La Sirène (The Mermaid, 1904), in which Méliès takes the stage in the guise of a well-dressed magician, top hat and all.[5] From an aquarium sitting on a table he pours cupfuls of water into his upturned hat, from which he takes several fish that he returns to the tank. Meanwhile, he quickly changes his wardrobe for something more appropriate to such irresponsible behavior (the costume of a shabby clown) and, finally, in order to demonstrate further his mastery of the magician’s usual bag of tricks, pulls a few rabbits out of his hat (Figure R3.5).

See the moving picture


                               La Sirène

Interestingly, the next occurrence seemingly does nothing to advance the subsequent sequence of events or to make them more comprehensible: when the magician retires to his hammock, it suddenly evaporates and drops him to the floor, now dressed again in his magician’s attire. This symbolic event, however, signals the passage of the magician-hero from the waking world in which he exercises certain mundane powers into a world of his own dreaming in which he has the greater power to fulfill his fantasies. Thus with a wave of his hand, he transforms the stage into an enchanted bower, where his aquarium grows larger until we see a lounging mermaid among the fishes and the bower becomes an undersea grotto. Eventually, the magician transforms himself into Neptune, god of the sea, and summons a bevy of nymphs to wait upon his queen, who reclines upon a seashell couch (Figure R3.5). From the féerie Méliès has borrowed for his image of the undersea sanctum the symbol of the enchanted hideaway as a special precinct where magical transformations occur and desires are fulfilled. We may recognize in Méliès’ sorcerer the modern man who dreams of a power over nature that will enable him to triumph not only over sexual frustration but over other human limitations as well: as interpreted by Méliès, this dream, which originates in the hero's own libido, is in reality nothing more than a nicely embellished Freudian fantasy of sexual wish-fulfillment (Figure R3.5).

The Faustian and Freudian Dimensions

Moreover, observes Freud, we are just as likely to have libido-induced bad dreams—dreams that reflect “well-justified worries, painful reflections, [and] distressing realizations.”[6] As such, they’re taken quite seriously by both philosophers and mental-health practitioners. In some circles, however, frustration is an inherently comic spectacle, and if we add Méliès’ penchant for impersonating a deputy of the devil to his fondness for heaping frustration on his protagonists, we might trace the inspiration for many of his filmed jests back to a two-part formula derived from folkloric tradition. For the sake of convenience, let’s label these the “Faustian” and “Freudian Dimensions”:

In the guise of a mischievous devilkin, then, Mephistopheles is the joker who frustrates. Sexual desire in Méliès’ films is sometimes expressed unambiguously (in the form, say, of mermaid lovers lounging on seashell couches). The treatment of frustration, however, though sometimes ironically appropriate—as when the old astronomer in L’Éclipse du soleil en pleine lune (The Eclipse: The Courtship of Sun and Moon, 1907) takes “an unexpected bath” in a barrel of cold rainwater (Figure R3.6)—is usually displaced in the interest of comic effect, as when a hungry man’s table and food suddenly disappear.[7]

[1] Paul Hammond, Marvellous Méliès (New York: St. Martin’s, 1975), p. 91.

[2] The Interpretation of Dreams, ed. and trans. James Strachey (New York: Discus, 1965), p. 163.

[3] The Interpretation of Dreams, p. 195.

[4] The Interpretation of Dreams, p. 595.

[5] On La Sirène, see Richard Abel, The Cine Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914, rev. ed. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1994), pp. 66-67.

[6] The Interpretation of Dreams, p. 595.

[7] On Méliès’ Mephistophelean incarnations, see Inez Hedges, Framing Faust: Twentieth-Century Cultural Struggles (Carbondale, IL: SIU Press, 2009), pp. 16-18, at (accessed June 9, 2016).

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