Sunday, January 05, 2014


The films of Georges Méliès have, justifiably, received much attention in recent years. They remain remarkable for their imagery — Méliès was a master of stage magic — yet are essentially spectacles with just enough story to sustain 3 to 14 minutes of attention.  The early filmmaker who continues to fascinate me most, however, is Louis Feuillade, who explored the potential of film for narrative in a time before the rules of the medium were established and in ways which still have creative potential.  It is estimated that he made over 800 films in his 20 years of activity, in all genres, from trick films and comedies to mythical adventures, biblical dramas and salon melodramas, but his genre of vituosity was suspense serial and, although the greater part of his work has not survived, there are four serials that are among the most engaging works I know:  Fantômas (1913-14), Les Vampires (1915)

Judex (1916), and Tih-Minh (1918)(Edward Gorey, who enthusiastically recommended Feuillade to me, thought that the serial Barrabas (1919) was the "greatest movie ever made"; unfortunately, I've never been able to see either it, the second series of Judex or 1922's Parisette.)  It is understood that Feuillade came from a conservative, Catholic background and had a military career, which offers no explanation at all as to why he would suddenly start in filmaking around 1905 and proceed with such explosive productivity to make works with proto-surreal imagery and strage plots that persistantly resist the conventions of bourgeois morality like his suspense serials, in which the villains rapidly become your heros.  The criminal gang of Les Vampires or the outside-the-law heroes of Fantômas or Judex certainly inspire the audience's allegiance more firmly than their opponents in the establishment.  There is an anarchic tendency here that famously got Les Vampires banned for a time, but also is a powerful source for every masked film hero to come.

IMDB offers up this plot summary for Tih-Tinh:  
"Jacques d'Athys, a French adventurer, returns to his home in Nice after an expedition to Indochina where he has picked up a Eurasian fiancée and a book that, unbeknownst to him, contains a coded message revealing the whereabouts of both secret treasures and sensitive government intelligence. This makes him the target of foreign spies, including a Marquise of mysterious Latin origin, a Hindu hypnotist and an evil German doctor, who will stop at nothing to obtain the book."

Yes, it sounds silly, with all the elements of a boy's adventure tale, too, but I'm not altogether certain that I'd have let my son watch this when he was 12!  There is a ernstness, indeed a foreboding darkness, in these films that is unique and makes the fanciful elements essential details instead of just entertaining surface features.  Feuillade achieves this through three elements:  brilliant actors (Musidora, who played Irma Vep in Les Vampires and Marie Verdier in Judex, was an incredibly disciplined physical actor and remains one of the most erotic presences ever on screen,
and René Navarre, who played the title role in  Fantômas was simply one of the greatest, most confoundingly expressive, actors ever, both of them acting before the rules of the game for film acting were set), brilliant images (to be fair, part of my appreciation for this simply comes from the fascination of looking closely at a world well before my own, with streets near-empty of auto traffic and pre-electric interior walls covered in near-hallucinatory wallpaper patters;  Feuillade did not go for the spectacles of Méliès, but could just as reliably and much more efficiently come up with an image that you will never forget) , and through his use of time, contrasting very occasional short cuts (did you see that?) with a leisurely use of the large-scale serial format, in which a story, no, a world, is allowed to open up over several hours, sometimes six to eight hours at that, time, spread for the viewer over several weeks time of regular cinema visits.   Feuillade really invented film as a narrative medium and he left potential areas for exploration that are still rich, but outside the typical 90 to 120 minute theatrical format. Let me say something outrageous, but true: there is a drect line from the Les Vampires to The Wire and Judex to Breaking Bad.

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