Pin It

Birth of a Notion 

LES VAMPIRES

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Louis Feuillade

With Musidora, Edouard Mathe, Marcel Levesque, Jean Ayme, Delphine Renot, Stacia Napierkowska, Fernand Hermann, Renee Carl, Louis Leubas, Louise Lagrange, Moriss, and Bout de Zan.

I am convinced that surrealism preexisted in cinema. Feuillade's Les Vampires was already an expression of the 20th century and of the universal subconscious. --Henri Langlois, 1965

One of the supreme pleasures in all of cinema, Les Vampires, a thrilling ten-part serial released in France in 1915 and 1916, came out during the same period as The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. Yet the odd thing about this conjunction is that, far from being contemporaries, D.W. Griffith (1875-1948) and Louis Feuillade (1873-1925) seem to belong to different centuries. While Griffith's work reeks of Victorian morality and nostalgia for the mid-19th century, Feuillade looks ahead to the global paranoia, conspiratorial intrigues, and SF technological fantasies of the current century, right up to today.

The filmmakers' styles are as disparate as their outlooks. From the vantage point of the present, Feuillade is as cool and hip as Griffith is overheated and square. While both filmmakers specialized in melodrama, the style of acting that we associate with Griffith is so theatrical that we can practically hear the floorboards creaking; Feuillade liked to use actors without much stage experience, and trained them in a less grandiloquent, more naturalistic style. While Griffith depended a great deal on montage, Feuillade was a master of long takes and deep focus, usually developing a complex mise en scene in relation to a stationary camera.

But because Feuillade's films are unusually scarce in this country, and have remained so since the 20s, we've never had much opportunity to assess him. A filmmaker for the last 20 years of his life--after serving in a cavalry regiment, working in his family's wine trade, and writing for conservative Catholic newspapers--Feuillade estimated near the end of his career that he had written at least 800 scripts and directed about 700 of them. The original negatives of 500 or so of these films, ranging from one-reelers to full features, still survive at Gaumont, the production company where Feuillade served as artistic director for most of his career. But it seems likely that no one alive has seen much more than a fraction of them.

Only one book has ever been written on Feuillade--an excellent one by Francis Lacassin, published in 1964--and it has never been translated from the French. In the U.S., only one of his films, the 45-minute Juve vs. Fantomas, has been in distribution since the silent era; otherwise, one has to depend on those rare occasions when prints are lent out by European archives. As a consequence of this massive neglect, Feuillade's work is routinely omitted or skirted over in most film history surveys, and many knowledgeable film buffs have never encountered his work at all.

Les Vampires, the best known and most celebrated of Feuillade's masterpieces, has recently been restored to its original form at the Cinematheque Francaise by Jacques Champreux, the filmmaker's grandson, and this version will be screened in two parts at the Film Center this weekend. The film runs for about eight hours, but these are conceivably the least boring eight hours that one could spend at the movies anywhere. The film's ten episodes are of unequal lengths, and they usually don't end with the sort of cliff-hangers that we associate with American serials; but seen together, they take on an undeniable power.

Prior to this restoration, the film was missing all of its intertitles, and although one could still figure out many of the plot's essentials without them, one of the revelations of the complete version is that some of the same ambiguities remain. The plot concerns the exploits of an infamous gang of criminals, customarily clad and masked in black, known as the Vampires--not a clan of bloodsuckers, but a band of evildoers who hold most of Paris in their sway. As full of disguises as a masquerade ball, the serial features so many characters with multiple false identities that part of the fun of each episode consists of trying to guess in advance who will turn out to be whom. The voluptuous Irma Vep (Musidora), for instance, whom we recognize in her black tights and mask as the leader of the Vampire Gang (her name, in fact, is an anagram of "Vampire"), characteristically creeping over rooftops, also assumes one or more supplementary disguises in each installment--as family maid, male secretary, lab assistant, wealthy widow, street tough, switchboard operator, and spiritualist, among others--and when the hero, journalist Philippe Guerande (Edouard Mathe), impersonates someone else as well, the spectator may feel temporarily lost in a sea of characters.

Such confusion is always purposeful in Les Vampires, where nothing is ever quite what it seems. Shot largely in the streets of Paris and its suburbs, in dingy shacks and basements, and in ornate Belle Epoque interiors, the film revels in the familiar and the everyday, only to explode with unexpected eruptions that transform this peaceful world into a charged universe of unlimited evil and corruption. As critic Annette Michelson has suggestively described this process, "Haussmann's pre-1914 Paris, the city of massive stone structures, of quiet avenues and squares, is suddenly revealed as everywhere dangerous, the scene and subject of secret designs. The trap-door, secret compartment, false tunnel, false bottom, false ceiling, form an architectural complex with the architectural structure of a middle-class culture. The perpetually recurring ritual of identification and self-justification is the presentation of the visiting card; it is, as well, the signal, the formal prelude to the fateful encounter, the swindle, hold-up, abduction or murder."

Some writers have suggested that the Vampires' criminal exploits were influenced by the real-life escapades of the anarchist Bonnot gang, which were followed avidly in the press in 1911 and 1912. Others have theorized that the French experience of World War I, which is never alluded to in the serial, may be reflected in some of its violent dislocations and ruptures in tone, and it is worth noting that Feuillade started the film only a few weeks after he returned from the front.

The dreamlike transitions of Les Vampires from normalcy to fantasy are always poetic as well as unpredictable. After shooting a Vampire burglar who falls from a second-story window, a woman looks out the same window, only to find herself lassoed and pulled down into a getaway car that speeds away in a matter of seconds. At a fancy party given for the Paris aristocracy, knockout gas smelling like perfume pours in through a vent, and dozens of guests rush madly for the doors before collapsing where they stand, fluttering to the floor like so many handkerchiefs; doors in the back of the hall open, and black-clad Vampires emerge in silhouette to gather up the guests' jewels. Moreno (Fernand Hermann)--the head of a rival gang, who briefly holds Irma Vep in his power through hypnosis--is rushing out of a house with her; a trapdoor at the foot of the stairs suddenly opens, and they both fall into an enormous sack held by the police. In a plush hotel room, a bishop presses a button, and a giant cannon emerges from the fireplace, ready to fire a missile into an adjacent nightclub.

These surprises, and countless others like them, caused Surrealists like Andre Breton and Luis Bunuel to celebrate Feuillade's serials, even when they ignored the name of the man who made them. (Other French avant-gardists of the period, on the other hand, who resented these films' wide popularity, were more prone to attack Feuillade, and by name.) Partially because the villains exert a lot more fascination--and usually display much more ingenuity--than the forces representing law and order, one suspects that the Surrealists discovered in Les Vampires a form of subversion that was wholly compatible with their own aesthetic designs.

Significantly, the Vampires prey only on the rich, and the putative hero, Philippe Guerande, comes across as a pampered nincompoop who, until he belatedly collects his wits and defeats the gang in the last episode, has to depend on his mother, family friends, and a team of other helpers to work out most of the clues and effect most of the rescues. (Even when he triumphs at the end, it is his new bride who polishes off the sexy Irma Vep.) For most of the serial, the police are fairly ineffectual as well--a point that wasn't lost on the Paris chief of police, who banned the serial for two months in 1916, until Musidora paid him a visit and charmed him into letting the series resume. Significantly, the efficiency of the police takes a quantum leap over the last four episodes, and the following year, Feuillade released another serial, Judex, in which the forces of good are much more prominent.

The most fascinating of Guerande's ingenious helpers is a comic character of indeterminate class named Mazamette, played by Feuillade regular Marcel Levesque, a balding actor with a mustache who bore a striking resemblance to the director himself. A former member of the Vampires who is also identified at separate points as an undertaker and an employee of Guerande's newspaper, Mazamette differs from the other major characters by virtue of his shameless mugging, some of which is addressed directly to the camera. Francis Lacassin suggests that Feuillade's use of this clown was his own way of winking at the audience--sort of a Hitchcock appearance by proxy--and it must be admitted that Mazamette lends a certain note of self-reflexivity to the proceedings that is part of the serial's striking modernity. In the eighth episode, Mazamette's son Eustache also makes an extended appearance; played by Bout de Zan, a popular street urchin who was the star of no less than 52 of Feuillade's comic shorts between 1913 and 1916, this amiable brat displays the same complicity with the camera and audience--making him, like Mazamette, a detached commentator on the action as well as a participant.

In point of fact, Mazamette and Eustache are merely two examples of a personal, premodernist attitude that informs the movie throughout--a tendency to superimpose the euphoria of the filmmaking process itself over the fictional action, which we more commonly associate with later directors such as Jean Renoir, Jacques Rivette, John Cassavetes, and Robert Altman. Reportedly all but the last two or three episodes of the serial were improvised by Feuillade on a day-to-day basis, without a script--a form of "automatic writing" that surely taps on what Henri Langlois called "the universal subconscious"--and certain plot twists were determined by vicissitudes in the shooting.

After Jean Ayme, the Swiss actor who played the Grand Vampire in the early episodes, repeatedly turned up late to work, Feuillade spitefully killed his character off by having Irma Vep shoot him under Moreno's hypnosis. Two episodes later, the character's replacement, Satanas (Louis Leubas), also had to die--in this case by poisoning himself--after Leubas was called back to the front. Two separate scenes are set in the Gaumont Palace, the same Paris movie theater where the installments of Les Vampires premiered, and according to Lacassin, many of the characters' names can be traced back to Feuillade's birthplace in the south of France.

Most of the stunts were performed by the actors themselves. One scene shows Musidora lying on her back between railroad tracks while 52 freight cars pass over her; another has her plunging head over heels down a rope from a ninth-floor attic to the ground. In a document published in Cahiers du Cinema in 1964, she claims that Feuillade persuaded her to perform the first stunt without a double; in the second, she fell from the attic to the eighth floor, and then later from the second to the first, landing on a mattress, while a dummy was employed for the six-floor drop in between. The fall is seen in a single, unbroken trajectory, and whether or not this was accomplished through trickery, it is an awesome sight to behold. (A remarkable woman in many respects, Musidora was discovered by Feuillade in a Parisian music hall. Born Jeanne Roque in 1889--"the same year," she wrote, "as the Eiffel Tower and Chaplin"--she grew up in a family of artists, derived her stage name from a poem by Theophile Gautier, hung out with Colette, directed a few films, wrote several books and screenplays, shifted to journalism, and, before she died in 1957, worked for Henri Langlois at the Cinematheque Francaise.)

Feuillade's fascination with technology and mind control anticipates Fritz Lang's three Dr. Mabuse films, and his depictions of upper-class decadence, global conquest, and sexual domination through hypnosis all had an undoubtable influence on the nightmarish thrillers that many film historians assume started with Lang. Richard Roud has pointed out that certain Hitchcock touchstones such as the crop-dusting sequence in North by Northwest can be traced back to the world of Feuillade, and one might add that some of the deadly gadgets featured in Les Vampires--a poison ring, a glove concealing an anesthetizing tack--could just as easily turn up in a James Bond picture.

But perhaps an even purer Feuillade legacy is to be found in certain poetic versions of the uncanny created by Jean Cocteau, Jean-Luc Godard, Luis Bunuel, Alain Resnais, Jacques Rivette, and Georges Franju. These include the mythological Paris of Orpheus and Alphaville, the trapped party guests of The Exterminating Angel, the labyrinthine hotel and garden of Last Year at Marienbad, the paranoia and antiparanoia of Out 1: Spectre, and the nocturnal forest interludes in Eyes Without a Face--not to mention Franju's direct hommages in his 1963 Judex, adapted from a Feuillade script by Champreux and Lacassin, and his less successful Feuillade spin-off, Man Without a Face, made in color a decade later for French TV.

Some of these "documentary fantasies" might be regarded as refinements of conceptions found in Feuillade's serials. But as great as many of them are, none can be considered an improvement. (And, for the record, as extraordinary as Les Vampires is, there is another Feuillade serial which is possibly even finer--the 1918 Tih Minh, set on the French Riviera.) Alone among cinema's pioneers, Feuillade implies that the past 70-odd years of moviemaking may be far less essential than most of us have supposed. As critic David Thomson puts it, he is "the first director for whom no historical allowances need to be made." Come to think of it, he is probably one of the last as well.

Pin It

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Jonathan Rosenbaum

Agenda Teaser

Performing Arts
Chimerica TimeLine Theatre Company
May 12
Summer Guide
Maxwell Street Market Maxwell Street Market
July 01

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories

Follow Us

Sign up for newsletters »

 Early Warnings
 Food & Drink
 Reader Recommends
 Reader Events and Offers
America Was Debt Free Only Once In Its History