Monday, March 2, 2009

The Video Shelf: Louis Feuillade

This will be the first in an ongoing series, featuring inspirational films to be found on video and DVD...although sometimes with a little effort.

Louis Feuillade will be the featured filmmaker this time around. Born in 1873, to a family of wine brokers in Lunel, France, Feuillade worked in the family business but wrote on the side, eventually becoming a full-time journalist, but found the work unrewarding financially. In 1905 he became a screenwriter for the Gaumont film company. Two years later he became a director. In his lifetime he wrote 800 screenplays and directed 700 of them (most of them shorts), and up until 1913 he made about 80 a year. He then started making feature-length films, and then became a pioneer of the serial format.

One of his earliest serials was not really one big project, but a series of five shorter chapter plays, but put together they're known as FANTOMAS (1913-14). Based on the series of novels by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, they chronicle the adventures of supercriminal Fantomas (Rene Navarre) as he's pursued by the somewhat-obsessed Inspector Juve (Edmond Breon) and feisty journalist Jerome Fandor (Georges Melchior). Fantomas is no sympathetic Robin Hood, Arsene Lupin, Raffles, or Simon Templar...he's a fiend. Fantomas lashes out against everything that normal society values and holds sacred. (I've read that in the novels he does things like sneak into a department store to put razor blades in the shoes and acid in the perfume atomizers...eeek!) He has a mistress, Lady Beltham (he murdered Lord Beltham), who is simultaneously drawn and repulsed by him. Fantomas is a force of nature.

Feuillade's five Fantomas films (translated, they are Fantomas: In the Shadow of the Guillotine, Juve versus Fantomas, The Murderous Corpse, Fantomas versus Fantomas, and The False Magistrate) have Fantomas stealing jewels, murdering officials, blowing up houses in the midst of police raids, crashing trains to kill off a single witness, and doing other acts of flamboyant villainy that one usually associates with James Bond villains.

And it's stuffed with all sorts of great visuals. Feuillade loved tableaux that recalled artists ranging from Daumier to Vuillard, and he reined in the usual overdone histrionics of silent actors, with the acting ending up much more naturalistic than other films of the period.

Alas, FANTOMAS is not readily available in the US, unless you scrounge a copy from the "collector's" market, or at a convention. But it's worth finding. It's unbelievable fun.

In 1915, Feuillade brought out another serial....LES VAMPIRES!

LES VAMPIRES featured the struggles of crusading reporter Phillipe Guerande (Edouard Mathe) and his comical sidekick Mazamette (Marcel Levesque) to expose and end the activities of a criminal gang called The Vampires. They're not actual vampires, but they are ruthless and determined to not only line their own pockets but subvert society as a whole. They are forces of anarchy and disorder, corrupting even the highest levels of government. At first, the Vampires are just random thugs, but as time goes on, individuals, like the mysterious Father Silence, take center stage. But what really electrifies the serial is the introduction of vampirette Irma Vep (it's an anagram), personified by the slinky Musidora.

Musidora gave life to Irma Vep, bringing a unique combination of ferocity, sensuality, and vulnerability to the role. Irma could show up anywhere in disguise, and sometimes did. Her liberated eroticism simultaneously enticed and threatened. Musidora was a very physical actress who did all her own stunts, and her form, curvaceous yet athletic, encased in black tights, slinking down hallways, or in secret passages, or over a rooftop, became the film's top attraction.

LES VAMPIRES was filmed on the fly, with the director/screenwriter often seeming to make it up as they went along, tearing around the deserted streets of WWI Paris. This often lends a strange, surreal air to the goings-on, which helped make Feuillade's crime serials a big favorite of Surrealists like Bunuel and Andre Breton. And if one experiences a bit of deja vu while watching LES VAMPIRES, bear in mind that it was also an influence on Edward Gorey.

Available on an Image DVD, LES VAMPIRES starts off a bit slow (the first chapter, The Severed Head, is a bit of a clunker), but after seven fabulous hours, when reaching the climax in The Terrible Wedding, it's sheer Dust & Corruption bliss.

However, Feuillade's next project was a bit of a problem. LES VAMPIRES had encountered difficulties and was banned for a while because officials felt it glamorized crime. This was hard for a very moral man like Feuillade to take, and his next major serial was JUDEX (1916), which featured a mysterious crime-fighter.

Judex (Rene Creste) was a master of disguise, a brilliant inventor, and seemed to have hypnotic powers. He worked from his hi-tech lair inside a ruined castle. He went about in a signature cape. He was, in many ways, the great-grandpa of caped crusaders like Batman.

Judex, however, had a mission. Aided by his brother (Edouard Mathe again) and spurred on by his obsessed mother (Yvonne Dario), he was out to avenge his family's honor by capturing the unscrupulous banker whose machinations led to his father's suicide. But on the way he falls in love with the banker's beautiful daughter (Yvette Andreyor), deals with comically shifty private eye Cocantin (Marcel Levesque again), a mischievous orphan called the Licorice Kid (popular kid comic of the time Bout-de-Zan), and tangles with the banker's evil mistress Diana Monti (Musidora!), who's the real evil genius.

There's more plot and counterplot here, but it's less about protecting society from anarchistic criminals than it is about personal redemption. Judex and his mother learn along the way to lighten up, and some villains repent of their wicked ways.

The main weakness of JUDEX is the casting of the daughter's child; although we're told it's a boy, he's very obviously a little girl who's very taken with the Licorice Kid, and at every opportunity is throwing her arms around him and kissing him. Kinda weird, but you know those French.

All five hours of JUDEX are available in a set from Flicker Alley, beautifully restored and with a terrific musical score (including one motif I love, played during scenes of villainous plotting; it's simultaneously menacing and humorous). There's also a 60s remake by Georges Franju (LES YEUX SANS VISAGE) that I'm told is also quite good, but I haven't seen it yet.

Feuillade's work is great stuff; baroque crimes committed by bizarre criminals, who are often battled by crimefighters who are themselves fairly strange. There's no predicting what's going to happen next, and the visions of early 20th-Century Paris are seductive. The fourth wall is regularly broken; Fantomas will sometimes signal to viewers that he's aware the police are after him, and Mazamette sometimes winks to the camera as a joke comes off. These movie characters know they're in a movie, making the experience all the more wild. So run out and these flicks, dear readers. Lose yourself in Parisian delights, and dream of secret passages and daring criminals.

A video clip of LES VAMPIRES' famous ballet sequence...just before this, the dancer (who is the hero's fiancee) receives a gift of a poisonous ring from the head Vampire, who watches from the balcony.


William Patrick Maynard said...

Nice job, Mike! I greatly enjoyed your overview of Feuillade's genre work. While I much prefer literary FANTOMAS to cinematic, I came to Feuillade (and therefore, Fantomas) on David Kalat's recommendation in both his indispensable Mabuse book and his DVD commentary where Kalat correctly point to Feuillade as an influence on Fritz Lang. Incidentally, Feuillade's FANTOMAS films are available on DVD for those in Region 1 who have Region Free players. They can be obtained legally courtesy of - its a bit pricey for Americans (around US$40), but its a great set with a nice featurette on the series by Kim Newman on the second disc.

Vagrarian said...

Fritz Lang will be the next "Video Shelf" installment, when I get around to it....

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