Fantômas (1913-1914)

   Film. Written and directed for Gaumont Studios by Louis Feuillade, the Fantômas series and the Vampires series were two of Feuillade's most significant contributions to the cinema and two of the most important works in French silent cinema. Fantômas was not a film, but a series of five films: Fantômas (1913), Juve contre Fantômas (1913), Le Mort qui tue (1913), Fantômas contre Fantômas (1914), and Le Faux magistrat (1914). The series was based on the best-selling serial novels by Pierre Sylvestre and Marcel Allain. The films chronicle the activities of the criminal mastermind Fantômas, who is played by René Navarre. Fantômas is a master manipulator and a master of disguise. He transforms identities and personalities, and among his various incarnations are a doctor, a bellhop, a gentleman, and a detective.
   The series centers on Fantômas's crime sprees and the efforts of his enemy, Inspector Juve (Edmond Bréon), to put an end to them. The world of Fantômas is one in which anyone is capable of anything, and in which the veneer of normal daily life disguises a frighteningly unstable, often brutal, reality. Feuillade's interpretation of Fantômas is noteworthy both in its use of narrative technique (Feuillade experiments with different shots and continuity editing in a way that prefigures much later French filmmaking) and in its mise-en-scène, which is also characterized by the use of social or fantastic realism (he was one of the first directors to film outside, using the real backdrop of the city).
   Les Vampires (1915) is also a series of films including the titles La Tête coupée, La Bague qui tue, Le Cryptogramme rouge, Le Spectre, L'Évasion du mort, Les Yeux qui fascinent, Satanas, Le Maître de la foudre, L'Homme des poisons, and Les Noces sanglantes. The series repeats the preoccupation with crime and instability, replacing the criminal mastermind with a gang of criminal masterminds, equally capable of morphing into everyday identities and disappearing into the urban space. The series also repeats and develops Feuillade's earlier progress in narrative, editing, and mise-en-scène.
   Perhaps the most interesting addition to story in Les Vampires is the character of Irma Vep (Musidora), a female criminal mastermind, who is sexually liberated, and who uses her status as a working woman to gain access to her victims. A precursor to the femme fatale, Irma Vep is something like the missing link between nineteenth-century literary women such as Nana and Emma Bovary and the very twentieth-century film figure, Cat Woman. Irma Vep is often figured onscreen in a black cat suit that emphasizes her female form, and her use of her body to get what she wants is a theme in the series. She has sometimes been read as a prefeminist figure, but it is likely that this is an anachronistic rereading. Given her function within the films, it is more likely that she functions as a strategic warning against the dangers of granting women economic and sexual freedom.
   Similarly, some have seen Feuillade's crime series as an avant-garde renunciation of his conservative upbringing. This is also a likely misreading of his films. Feuillade's techniques and his poetics were avant-garde, however, which is why he was beloved by the surrealists a generation after his films were first released. However, in terms of thematics, his films remain quite conservative. Order is always restored, and the criminals ultimately die or are brought to justice. Those who have argued that Feuillade's films revel in chaos are probably overstating matters. It is true that there is a good deal of chaos, but it is a source of disquiet in the films and the spectators who watch them.
   It is first and foremost difficult to believe that an avowed monarchist who had previously published a defense of Catholicism would suddenly and inexplicably become an anarchist and a feminist, and there remains the fact that Feuillade made more biblical dramas than any other director of his day. More important, if Fantômas and Les Vampires revel in chaos, they do so only for a short space, within the relatively safe confines of the cinema and, not insignificantly, they do so only until they again restore order, which occurs at the end of each series.

Historical Dictionary of French Cinema. . 2007.

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