Fantomas in the Shadow of the Guillotine (1913)

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*. It takes an effort to look at the “primitive cinema” with fresh eyes. A lot of the grammar of film had yet to be written.
*. In this launch of the Fantômas series Louis Feuillade set a stationary camera in front of simple sets and filmed what was basically a play. There were no tracking shots or pans, few effects, almost no intra-scene editing or close-ups. There’s little to see but the complex plot unfolding.
*. There’s a good commentary on the Kino DVD by David Kalat, but he’s basically just reading an essay without making any reference to what’s happening on screen. I think that’s because so little is happening on screen that needs explaining.
*. Complicating things further is the fact that the plots of these films, which drive everything, weren’t the big draw at the time. The films were based, sometimes very loosely, on wildly popular novels. If you didn’t already know the story, synopses were handed out to the audience. So these weren’t suspense thrillers by today’s reckoning.
*. I think Feuillade was more of what we would today call a producer. He was in charge of Gaumont and was credited with some 800 movies. It was an assembly line, and in the case of the Fantômas novels the authors were equally industrial, churning out the novels at a staggering rate. Like was calling out to like.
*. René Navarre as Fantômas and Edmund Breon as Inspector Juve are solid, but I was most impressed by Renée Carl as Lady Beltham. In silent film the actors usually overplay their parts with a lot of big, body gestures, but all the performers here do a lot with their eyes, and no one more so than Carl.

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*. If you read much about these films you’re inevitably going to find the subject of fantasy coming up. Kalat is no exception, talking a lot about unreality, irrationality, and illogic. He sees the proceedings here as “marked by narrative chaos,” without any relation of cause and effect between scenes.
*. The influence of Feuillade on prominent surrealist artists like René Magritte may be the starting point for this sort of analysis. By this way of reckoning Feuillade becomes a kind of proto-surrealist, the Fantômas serial pregnant with dream imagery.
*. And yes, you can find such imagery here (and in his other well known serial Les Vampires). But I don’t see nearly as much of this as others do. The archetypes invoked were conventions. Contra Kalat, the laws of cause and effect in this first film are adhered to. (For a real breakdown of narrative cause and effect into pure dream logic the movie to see is Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr.) The actor Valgrand may feel like he is in some kind of drugged nightmare, but the audience is always perfectly aware of everything that is going on. And finally the plot to break Fantômas out of prison is complicated, but it’s not fantastic or surreal.
*. I think this may be the hardest thing for contemporary audiences to “get” about this movie. It’s not that the plot is slow to develop or poorly paced, it’s that we’re too far ahead of the action. That wasn’t a problem at the time because audiences weren’t looking to be surprised.
*. As a final note, I have to commend a marvelous restoration job. It’s amazing enough that a movie this old even survives, much less looks this good.

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