Homegrown Fantasy: Maurice Tourneur’s THE BLUE BIRD

An iris shot shows what appear to be two little children holding each other. They’re actually two lovers who have yet to be born. Time comes to bring one to the land of the living. She begs of her love, He regards her, for perhaps the last time. Anyone who has ever been in a long-distance relationship can recognize the pain of this moment. But Maurice Tourneur’s 1918 film The Blue Bird, in which it takes place, offers myriad moving scenes. It understands the painful melancholy at the heart of fantasy better than any movie I know, the need to create an alternate world to satisfy the deficiencies of the current one—material, and emotional. We offer ourselves fantasies in place of what we don’t have. Consider what the Spirit of Maternal Love… tells her children: Like with many fantasies, the heroes of this one are kids. They’re a brother and sister named Tyltyl and Mytyl, two deprived littluns. No matter what they eat, their food has nothing on the rich kids’ feast across the way. To give the game away, a little: The source play’s author, Maurice Maeterlinck, was a socialist sympathizer. A title card’s already warned us against “wealth, fame and position.” It seems this movie’s mission is to convince the kids, both onscreen and in the audience, that what they have is enough. The ordinary can unleash magic. Maybe bread has a soul, Tyltyl wonders, to which the oven pops out a fat man dressed as a pastry. Maybe the dog has a soul, they think, to which a pet morphs into a man in a suit. The special effects and costumes look crude to audiences now. They looked crude to audiences then, too. Méliès’s trick films had seemed passé for almost a decade, but Tourneur brazenly revived their techniques, having souls dissolve into view or fly on wires. The resulting spectacle seems blatantly fake, and that’s the point. If the movie is really going to celebrate the mundane, then magic should happen in everyday ways, with a gentle, disarming charm that CGI can’t buy. Air, Milk, Dog, Cat, Sugar, Bread, Fire, Water and a fairy organizer—an inordinate number of souls lumped together, Tourneur showcasing his gift for arranging tableaux. The fairy sends Mytyl and Tyltyl on a mission to find the blue bird of happiness, and it’s up to the souls to join them. They might, but they also might not, because (says the fairy)… If the children find happiness elsewhere, their old environment will literally die. But the group ultimately does go on the mission, for solidarity’s sake if for no other. The path to the bluebird takes them past horrors, of people entrapped, of false friends, and, most horribly, the over-privileged and over-indulgent: Drinking-When-You-Are-Not-Thirsty, Eating-When-You-Are-Not-Hungry… and the Luxury-of-Being-a-Landowner. But wealth can’t buy happiness, just more consumption: Amidst a cavalcade of spectacular scenes, the ones that remain glittering in memory show people simply loving each other: Mytyl and Tyltyl’s dead grandparents, whom they encounter living on their journey; the parade of lost little siblings, come back to life again, and marching cheerfully towards M and T; and the hall of soon-to-be-born toddlers, including the sweethearts, who will each cherish forever their lost ideal love. Home is where the heart is, the movie tells us, then goes a step further to say there’s no place like home. Its ending, appropriately, differs from Maeterlinck’s—while the play asks the audience to join in a class struggle, looking out to see if it’ll help the kids find the bird, the movie ends with M and T realizing that it was home the whole time. Then they gaze out and tell us we can find him in our own homes, too. A strange moment, confronting us urgently, yet with warm sincerity. For all of its visual ingenuity and playfulness, the film’s greatest special effect is human connection, which it offers the viewer like few films ever have. This film has a soul, and it loves us. Aaron Cutler is the co-author (with Rory O’Connor) of Shock Jocks: Hate Speech and Talk Radio. His film writings can be found

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