The Innovators 1910-1920: Detailing The Impossible

Film still for The Innovators 1910-1920: Detailing The Impossible

When Louis Feuillade first began to make crime serials he was vilified. But 'Fantômas' and 'Les Vampires' began a rich tradition of questioning narrative certainty, argues Vicki Callahan

Two of the great works of cinema were released in 1915: D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation and Louis Feuillade's Les Vampires, a ten-part film with episodes appearing between November 1915 and June 1916. The disparity in tone and style between these two masterpieces stems not only from their directors' individual visions or the different national contexts in which they were produced. Rather, what these films represent are two distinct modes of cinematic expression and two separate paths for cinema history. If the Griffith film has been taken as a signpost on the way to 'classical' Hollywood or the 'institutional' mode of film-making, the place of Feuillade's Les Vampires is less clear cut.

Feuillade's relative absence from the stage of cinema history can be traced to a certain extent to the mixed reception given his films at the time of their release. Born in 1873, Feuillade came to Paris from southern France in 1898 to pursue a career in journalism. His conservative educational background and association with the right-wing press gave little hint of the radically subversive aesthetic that would emerge in his films. He was hired by Gaumont as a scriptwriter in 1905 and in 1907 replaced Alice Guy as head of production. Before leaving Gaumont in 1924 Feuillade made more than 800 films covering almost every contemporary genre: historical drama, comedy, realist drama, melodrama, religious films, and so on. However, he was most famous, or infamous, for his crime serials: Fantômas (1913-14), Les Vampires, Judex (1916), La Nouvelle Mission de Judex (1917), Tih-Minh (1918) and Barrabas (1919).

These films were particularly despised. The crime serial was a popular and prolific genre at the time in both American and French cinema; French precursors to Fantômas include the Eclair company's Nick Carter (1908-10) and Zigomar (1911-13). The five episodes of Fantômas were based on a series of 32 novels by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre which tracked the exploits of the elusive (insaisissable) eponymous criminal (René Navarre) and his dogged pursuers, the detective Juve (Bréon) and his ally Fandor (Georges Melchior), a journalist. The key term here is elusive - even the final episode in a repeated structure of chase, capture and escape leaves the criminal's fate open-ended.

The production of Les Vampires was initiated when Gaumont learned of the projected release in France of the American film Les Mystères de New York, starring popular serial heroine Pearl White of The Perils of Pauline fame. The structure - based on the pursuit of a criminal gang, the Vampires, by journalist Philippe Guérande (Edouard Mathé) - is similar to that of Fantómas, but here the head of the criminal gang changes with disconcerting frequency (in part, no doubt, because of the difficulty of keeping actors during the war years). The one consistent figure is jewel thief and prototypical femme fatale Irma Vep, portrayed by Musidora.

A typical reaction to these films is that of a critic in Hebdo-Film (22 April 1916): "That a man of talent, an artist, as the director of most of the great films which have been the success and glory of Gaumont, starts again to deal with this unhealthy genre [the crime film], obsolete and condemned by all people of taste, remains for me a real problem." Feuillade's crime films were perceived as old-fashioned and inartistic - unable to boost cinema's status as 'art' or to confer it with bourgeois respectability (which is precisely what endeared them to the Surrealists). The preoccupation of French critics and film-makers in the 1910s and 20s was to elevate cinema, especially French cinema - and the French saw their own films as lacking the artistry and sophistication of Griffith or DeMille - to the level of art. It was years before Feuillade's films escaped the label of aesthetic backwardness, and as a result until recently only a handful of theorists and historians (Richard Abel, No'l Burch, Francis Lacassin, Annette Michelson, Richard Roud) have examined his work closely.

But responsibility for Feuillade's marginal status within film history cannot be placed solely at the doorstep of past critics. Rather, his film style is organised around an aesthetic of uncertainty that makes his work unclassifiable in terms of the categories traditionally applied to silent-era film-making. Early film is usually divided into what historian Tom Gunning has called a "cinema of attractions" and a "cinema of narrative integration". In the former, the spectator is external to the story space, an effect created by tableau staging, long takes and the essential autonomy of each shot. The overall strategy is one of showing: the displaying of events, tricks and scenes rather than the telling of, or immersion in, a story. The 'trick' films of Georges Méliès provide a clear example of this mode of film-making - even a film like Le Voyage dans la lune (1902), with its clear-cut narrative trajectory featuring a group of scientists' journey to the moon and back, foregrounds the spectacle of the trip and the display of adventures along the way rather than the story itself.

Griffith, by contrast - the prime exponent of Gunning's "cinema of narrative integration" - implements cinematic devices (parallel editing, point-of-view shots, close-ups) to draw us into the story space. Film form in this context becomes subordinate to narrative drive - a feature perfected by 'classical' Hollywood to the point where visual style is often said to be 'invisible'. Though Griffith's films may utilise non-continuous elements - moving across space, time and characters - the overall drive is to create a unified sense of space and time, a coherent and cohesive story world. Narrative is not just foregrounded in this process but is a crucial component; it must provide adequate details (character information and depth) and a particular trajectory to enhance the effect. At the end of The Birth of a Nation, for instance, the rescue by the Ku Klux Klan of South Carolina sweetheart Elsie (Lillian Gish) from a forced marriage with black villain of the piece Silas Lynch (George Siegmann) signals the unequivocal defeat of evil and the rescue of Southern 'culture'. President Woodrow Wilson described The Birth of a Nation as "like writing history with lightning" in that the film seared its particular version of history in its audience's and ultimately the national consciousness.

If The Birth of a Nation gives us history written "with lightning", Les Vampires gives us history written by a phantom. Neither a "cinema of attractions" nor a "cinema of narrative integration", Feuillade's films offer us a cinema of fluidity and uncertainty whose operation can be traced to three factors: his investigation of cinema's recording function; the serial narrative form; and his abstraction of the body as the site of cinematic uncertainty.

Feuillade's crime serials oscillate between and reach beyond the "cinema of attractions" and "cinema of narrative integration" models. As in the former, he uses long takes and a stationary camera to create a tableau effect, with title cards often providing the only break between successive, but spatio-temporally consistent, tableaux. In other words, there is a minimum of cut-ins, close-ups or movements between spaces (via the match cut) in his narrative exposition and any cut-ins that do appear are rarely attached to a particular point of view (which would position us within a character's vision and knowledge), functioning rather as a more or less 'objective' insertion of information. This is typically how we are made aware of plot motors such as poison rings, hiding spaces and means of escape.

In a scene from Fantômas, for instance, we see the criminal smash the bottom of a wine bottle in long shot and then cut in to a close-up of the broken area of the bottle. There is no close-up of the character's glance as he surveys the area, though he does appear to turn slightly as if to put the information of the broken bottle on display for the audience. This soon becomes an important detail in the narrative when the criminal escapes the police by hiding in a water tank and breathing with the aid of the broken bottle. This act of display by Fantômas rather than our alignment with his perspective is typical of the "cinema of attractions" elements in Feuillade's film-making. Nonetheless, examples of continuity editing can also be found, and their deployment to link consecutive narrative units would seem to suggest a more unified story space. But the problem becomes what we learn in that story space.

Feuillade's long takes, in conjunction with the deep space of a detailed interior set or a Parisian city space, produce an effect of the real. But this effect is quickly undone. For instance in one of the many abduction sequences in Les Vampires, Philippe Guérande hears a sound at his upstairs window. The first shot of the sequence shows him at work in his office; he hears the noise and goes to the window to investigate its cause. Then, in a match cut, he moves through the window space to look outside, in medium shot (shot 2). Suddenly a noose appears in the shot and pulls Philippe downwards. As he falls we cut to a long shot (shot 3), in a perfect continuity match, in which we see Philippe's fall to his captors. Shot 4 (in medium shot) shows the kidnappers catch their prey (barehanded, no less), again in a continuity match. Every aspect of this impossible fall and catch is tracked for us by the camera in seemingly close detail. The cuts back and forth from medium to long to medium shots facilitate the trick and the substitution of a dummy for part of the fall does not hamper the sheer facticity of the event we have witnessed. The cinema has shown us something that is, in effect, impossible to see. And our faith in cinema's record of the real, and the very relationship between vision and knowledge, are thereby questioned.

As with Griffith's "cinema of narrative integration", the effect of the cinema of uncertainty is produced through the interaction of visual elements and narrative form. While Feuillade's crime films may appear to be consistent with certain narrative conventions - as in Griffith's work it seems clear who is the criminal and who is the force of the law - in fact a number of them play with ambiguities concerning the identity of the real criminal. At one point in Fantômas the detective Juve is suspected of being the master criminal and even has an identifying wound only the real criminal could have (which of course turns out to be a false sign). At another point the criminal's tell-tale disguise - his black bodysuit - is appropriated simultaneously by two other characters as part of police efforts to trap Fantômas at a costume party, so the ensuing chase presents us with three figures dressed identically with no markers as to who should be vanquished. Moreover, the serial form means that the pursuit of criminality or evil is essentially an ongoing saga that can never be completed; the capture of the criminal is not a moment of closure but rather an opportunity to start the narrative anew, since capture is invariably, and sometimes immediately, followed by escape. Rather than a linear, goal-oriented story we have a narrative loop, and one that is further complicated by character movements (whether through misidentification or a particular character's ethical transformation) between the criminal and law-abiding roles.

A similar narrative pattern can be found in Jacques Rivette's Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974). Here the two women, who appear to meet by chance, take turns to recount (repeatedly) a mystery narrative. Each woman inserts herself in the same role within the narrative, but near the end both appear in the mystery-story space simultaneously. And this narrative loop is extended to the larger framing story, since the film ends as it began with the two women meeting by chance again, but with the roles of the encounter reversed. (The film also offers a more direct homage to Feuillade when Céline and Julie rollerskate by in black bodysuits - a reference to Fantômas or an invocation of Musidora/Irma Vep from Les Vampires.)

Like Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, Feuillade's Les Vampires can be read as a historical document. Here the uncertainty within the visual field reflects a larger cultural anxiety - France in 1915 was undergoing enormous cultural, social and technological changes wrought by World War I and the related phenomenon of the so-called new woman. It is no accident that the figure of criminality in Feuillade's two most famous films ostensibly appears the same - the black bodysuit - but changes sex (from male in Fantômas to female in Les Vampires). To put it another way, it is possible to see the body in its plain black casing as a negative screen on which is projected a series of anxieties to do with the cultural upheavals. This abstraction of anxiety is then displaced once more by the substitution of Irma Vep for Fantômas, making sexual difference the site of all differences, all anxieties. In Olivier Assayas' Irma Vep (1996) the fictional director René Vidal recognises that Irma is the central character in his remake of Feuillade's Les Vampires. And much like Musidora, actress Maggie Cheung, who plays herself in the film, becomes a blank screen on which several of the characters project their anxieties and desires.

Feuillade's use of the bodysuit for Musidora can be read as an effort to fix the uncertainty, to stabilise the ongoing fluidity at the level of narrative form and visual style. However, the previous use of the suit by Fantômas, and the circulation of Musidora's image beyond the textual boundaries of Les Vampires, shows us that this is only one of many disguises - once again a phantom screen presence.

What Feuillade has done is to offer us an alternative cinematic mode to Griffiths', one that continues in updated variants throughout French cinema. It is predicated on a principle of uncertainty, on a use of cinema that questions our understanding of the real. It is as fluid and elusive a tradition as a cat burglar, dressed in black on a night-time rooftop.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012