In the rapid evolution of film style in the first twenty years of cinema, from the earliest shorts by the Lumieres, the Edison Studio and Méliès to the narrative storytelling of D.W. Griffith, editing is king. It is, we are told, the foundation of film grammar. It gives the filmmaker a tool to direct our attention, brings us from the general to the specific with cut-ins, provides point and counterpoint with cross-cutting, provides intimacy, slows the action down to let us absorb the emotional content of a scene or build suspense, and speeds it up to increase anxiety and tension in action sequences.
As Griffith created more sophisticated narratives with increasing reliance on editing and varying shot size, the old tableaux style of static cameras and scenes played out in full, with the frame akin to the proscenium arch of a theatrical stage, began to look old fashioned, like the primitive efforts of early cinema and the elephantine grandeur of the Italian epics of the early 1910s. But even as American and British cinema was developing its grammar of film editing, in Paris, Louis Feuillade was playing with the possibilities inherent in tableaux filmmaking.
Feuillade found his style making scores of short comedies, fantasies, and historical spectacles at a pace that would make even D.W. Griffith blink. While Griffith was slowing down his output to craft and shape his stories and develop his narrative film grammar, Feuillade was cranking out shorts, serials, and short features at a breakneck pace, setting up scenes and letting coherence and chaos battle it out in his mise-en-scène. He wasn’t behind the times. His distinctive approach to filmmaking simply followed a different path. Where Griffith drove action through editing and turned to cutting as a defining element of his pacing, Feuillade was exploring the possibilities of set design, elaborate staging in depth, character movement, and surprise revelations, directing the audience’s attention within the frame and setting the rhythm of the film through its internal movement. His scenes played out in single takes with unmoving cameras (apart from the rare pan), yet he packed his frames with energetic movement and his labyrinthine stories with the fantastic and the unpredictable. In the years 1913 through 1917, there is no more creatively energetic, playfully inventive and entertainingly surreal filmmaking than in his wild crime serials: Fantômas (France/1913-1914), Les Vampires (France/1915-1916), and Judex (1917).