Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Essays, Silent Cinema

Louis Feuillade: An Introduction

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.

‘The Murderous Corpse’

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).

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Blu-ray/DVD: Louis Feuillade’s ‘Les Vampires’

Louis Feuillade was not simply one of the giants of cinema in the formative years of the 1910s. His distinctive approach to filmmaking followed a different path than that trailblazed by D.W. Griffith. Feuillade emphasized tableaux scenes played out in single takes over the editing grammar that Griffith was exploring, yet packed his frames with energetic movement and his labyrinthine stories with the fantastic and the unpredictable. American audiences have only been able to appreciate his legacy fairly recently, beginning with a video release of his second great serial, Les Vampires (1915-1916), in 1999. Since then Fantomas (1913) and Judex (1916) have been released on DVD, but for many silent movie fans and lovers of the cinema le fantastique, Les Vampires was their introduction to the glories of Feuillade and still their favorite work from the silent movie master. Kino now releases a new edition of Les Vampires on DVD and Blu-ray, making it the first Feuillade production released stateside on the high definition format.

Musidora as Irma Vep

The Vampires of the title are bloodsuckers only in the metaphorical sense; this Masonic master criminal organization, as vast as anything Fritz Lang would concoct on the 1920s, robs, kidnaps, and murders their way through Parisian society while our ostensible hero, the intrepid reporter Philip Gueraude (Édouard Mathé), chases leads to expose the conspiracy. He outlives a succession of Vampire Grand Masters but the grand dame of all femmes fatales, the slinky, sinister Irma Vep (French icon Musidora in a body stocking and black mask), eludes him. The name Irma Vep, of course, is an anagram for Vampire, fitting for the organization’s muse. (The character later became the inspiration for director Olivier Assayas’ 1996 love letter to filmmaking, Irma Vep.)

It’s easy to see why the surrealists embraced Feuillade’s mad serialized tale. Les Vampires is a strange and wonderful masterpiece of elegant beauty and cinematic surprises. Spiced with sudden revelations and unexpected humor, the pulp plots of his episodic adventure are less mystery than chaotic thriller where nothing is as it seems and anything goes. When Philip discover and opens the hidden compartment above his bed, his pride turns to shock when he finds a severed head inside. And that’s just the beginning of this heady mix of secret passages, poison pen letters (with real poison pens!), disappearing bodies, and disguises galore. Major characters die suddenly and capriciously, victims are lassoed from windows and yanked into waiting sacks, society patrons find themselves suddenly walled in their mansion banquet hall and gassed by thieves so brazen they rob the place during a party!

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