'The pleasures and punishments of Roman error: Emperor Elagabalus at the court of early cinema'
Keywordsearly French cinema, classical reception, cinema, Elagabalus, Heliogabale ou l'orgie romaine
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AbstractEarly cinema, Wyke argues, struggled to balance the competing claims of moral purpose and entertainment where the legacy of Roman error was concerned. At the same time, cinema also sought to redefine and outperform other modes of classical reception (such as theatre, opera, painting and the novel). Through a close examination of the French film Héliogabale, ou l’orgie romaine (Elagabolus, or the Roman Orgy), Wyke reveals how this dynamic plays out in the case of the boy-ruler viewed by tradition as the worst of Roman emperors. While the film’s concluding punishment of the emperor by a virile praetorian guard evokes contemporary French discourses of regeneration out of national decline, The Roman Orgy also displays an internal conflict in lingering pleasurably over Elegabolus’s transgressions. In this, its central character becomes device for cinematic mise en abyme, a technique that reflects the broader cultural debate over cinema in France.