Saturday, January 30, 2010

Louis Feuillade: Fantômas and Vampires

"Fantômas is the first great movie experience"
– David Thomson

"Feuillade's cinema is very close to dreams – therefore it's perhaps the most realistic"
– Alain Resnais

A glove made out of skin, a boa constrictor coming in through a bedroom window, blood spurting out of a wall, masks, disguises, stolen jewels, secret compartments, masked balls – welcome to the world of director Louis Feuillade (1873-1925).

Incredibly, Feuillade made over 800 films in his career, in every conceivable genre, but is most famous for his crime thrillers: Fantômas (1913-14), Les Vampires (1915-16) and Judex (1916-17). When first released, they were big hits with the masses as well as the intellectuals of the day – James Joyce, Jean Cocteau and the surrealists were fans (Kim Newman calls Fantômas 'pulp surrealism').

Fantômas is one of the first films to be adapted from a book (much like the Harry Potter of its day, there was a bidding war between the film studios to snap the book up – Gaumont offered the most cash). Written by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, apparently they wrote different parts of the serials without consulting one another – sort of like those drawings you did as a kid where one draws the top half of a monster, folds the paper over, another draws the bottom part without seeing the previous drawing – and you end up something unexpected and weird. The surrealists admired the Fantômas books partly because they liked the idea of automatic writing.

The Fantômas film serials were being produced as the books were still being published. They concern the exploits of an evil mastermind criminal, the eponymous sociopath Fantômas, and his gang, terrorising the bourgeoisie high society of Paris. Hot on his tail, always one step behind, is detective Juve and his sidekick, the journalist Jérôme Fandor.

Comparisons between Sherlock Holmes and his nemesis Moriarty have been made but are slightly inaccurate. Indeed, it is Fantômas who is more akin to Holmes with his disguises and intelligence, and Juve is more of a bumbling Watson figure: he never gets his man; Fantomas always gives him the slip – either through secret compartments, fake arms or clever disguises. One episode (Fantômas vs Fantômas) has Fantômas impersonate a 'famous American detective' Tom Bob, and has Juve accused of being Fantômas and put in jail.

Many of the elements have become the staple of crime detective fiction and beyond. Fantomas lay the foundations for everyone from Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock to James Bond, but also, say, Luis Bunuel and David Lynch.

For what makes Fantômas unique (for its time and even now) is the blending of the mundane and the fantastic; the real and the surreal. Shocking, unexpected elements punctuate the seeming normality of the bourgeoisie domestic interiors (snakes; menacing, balaclavaed men all in black; sudden violence). The exterior shots too, all filmed on location, give a grey, dull realism to the often empty Paris streets, but a realism where terror is just around the corner (in reality, WW1 was just around the corner). Scenes have also been colour tinted to great effect, further enhancing the other worldliness (Joseph Cornell would do a similar thing with his experimental films to produce a dreamlike effect).

Scenes are reminiscent of Max Ernst's collage novels (one of which pictured above, right), such as La Femme 100 têtes (1929) and Une Semaine de Bonte (1934), where he transposed surreal elements onto traditional scenes from Victorian etchings to give a familiar yet otherworldly and poetic sensation.

Being an assault on the middle classes, Fantômas share much with film-maker Luis Bunuel. Indeed, some shots of Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L'Age d'or (1930) feel like they were lifted straight out of Fantômas. Bunuel would spend the next fifty years attacking petty bourgeoisie values – something Feuillade did pretty well in just a few years.

It's said there's no such thing as a silent film (live music was often as accompaniment in the early days – it's also said it's easier 'watching' a film with just the soundtrack rather than a film with no sound at all) and Fantômas is no exception. Classical music accompanies the film and the occasional sound effect has been added. The music helps immensely, but when Rossini came on, I was reminded of a Clockwork Orange, and then there's Wagner and that Tango from Un Chien Andalou – another reason why the Bunuel connection comes to mind.

Les Vampires isn't about vampires at all but a gang of villains called Les Vampires. Similar to Fantômas but perhaps not as iconic, it does nevertheless feature the scary/sexy-looking villain Irma Vep (not only an anagram of Vampire but also Im A Perv). The scene with her burgling an apartment wearing an all black body outfit is one of the most erotic of recent memory. There are other great scenes like the guests all being gassed at an evening ball (again, Bunuel comes to mind – when the guests are unable to escape, I thought of An Exterminating Angel), and the Vampires, covered head to foot in black, tiptoeing in over the bodies to steal the booty.

Feuillade saw that (as has been noted by David Thomson), unlike the Lumière brothers (who just wanted to film 'reality') or DW Griffiths (sentimental tosh), the cinema was a place for dreams... or nightmares.

Artificial Eye have released both Fantômas and Les Vampires on DVD.


Pearce said...

Great news that Fantômas has been released on dvd. I saw Les Vampires a few years ago, which I was drawn to by Oliver Assayas's amusing tribute Irma Vep, but Fantômas continued to elude me. I did manage to track down & read some of the books; surely the serial must have toned down their sadism. It also sounds as if Juve's incompetence is played up in the serial much as Dr. Watson's usually was starting from the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce series of Sherlock Holmes films.

When Georges Franju remade Judex in 1963, he had originally tried unsuccessfully to obtain the rights to Fantômas. I've long thought that this was a great shame because as lovely as Franju's movie is, Judex himself is colourless compared to Fantômas; the supporting character of Diana, somewhat in the mould of Irma Vep, was much more interesting to me.

Franju later made a movie called Nuits Rouges, which was very much an unofficial Fantômas movie (I hesitate to call it a rip-off). Nuits Rouges has a lot to recommend it, but unfortunately the rather flat colour photography is no match for the visual poetry of Judex. Despite its flaws, Nuits Rouges definitely has the intoxicating blend of the mundane and the surreal that your write about.

Both of Franju's efforts were made in collaboration with Feuillade's nephew Jacques Champreux, who wrote the scripts and in the case of Nuits Rouges played the lead. They are available together as part of Eureka's Masters of Cinema series.

Another related character is the Italian comic book character Diabolik, who shares a lot of traits with Fantômas. Diabolik was filmed as a pop art masterpiece by Mario Bava in 1968, but for all its charms it was far more pulp than surrealism. Once again, Diabolik's nemesis Ginko was turned into a bumbler (this time played by the wonderful Michel Piccoli - oddly enough a regular in Buñuel's late movies, and the star of a personal favourite of mine, Themroc).

Sorry to ramble on - this is a subject that interests me greatly.

Barnaby said...

Ramble on, ramble on...
I saw those Franju films you mention a while ago and found them somewhat stilted and lacking atmosphere (and especially as I'd so liked his earlier films). Maybe that was why I put off watching Fantomas for so long – but funnily enough Feuillade's adaption's seem to stand up better than Franju's – they're certainly more atmospheric (do things closer to our own time date quicker?).

Many thanks for all the information: I will have to check out Diabolik; yes, I recall Michel Piccoli being in late Bunuel films (as well as almost every French film in the 60s and 70s!).

Funny that Fantomas should elude you so – or not: eluding is what he does best!

Pearce said...

Pity that did didn't enjoy those Franju movies - so it goes. For me any movie where a character's need to get into a high window is answered by his (previously unmentioned) acrobat girlfriend unexpectedly arriving with her entire circus in tow is something to savour. I think I know what you mean about the movies being stilted though, and Nuits Rouges certainly lacks atmosphere.

The only other Franju movie I've seen is Les Yeux sans visage, which I would agree is better.

I should warn you that Diabolik is very silly and very dated, but for me that's part of its appeal. If you've ever seen the Beastie Boys music video Body Moving, it's largely made up of footage from Diabolik and gives a strong sense of the movie's general tone.

I don't know if the R2 Paramount dvd has the same doco that's on the R1 & R4 releases, but I thought that comics artist Stephen Bissette's ruminations on Bava's innovative adaptation of the comic book style to film were almost worth the price of admission.