The Fantômas Films

Serial Killings: Fantômas, Feuillade, and the Mass-Culture Genealogy of Surrealism by Robin Walz.

First published in The Velvet Light Trap: A Critical Journal of Film and Television, no. 37 (March 1996), pages 51-57. Copyright 1996 by the University of Texas Press. Used by permission. No further use may be made of this material without first contacting the copyright owner.

In the history of surrealism and the popular cinema, critics since Ado Kyrou have noted the surrealists' enthusiasm for the "primitive" era of silent movies.(1) The surrealists felt an affinity for the newly born cultural medium, which was scorned in its early decades by mainstream art and literary critics, particularly in the cinema's power to alter the meaning of everyday life through the phantasy logic of the dream. They drew an analogy between the ability of dreams to detach and reassemble images from common reality as figures of desire on an imaginary level, and the ability of film to juxtapose actual, captured images from real life in new, complex, and fascinating ways. Unlike the interior psychological realm of the dream, however, the flickering life of the movie was projected objectively upon a collective screen, accessible to a mass audience. For this reason, the early surrealists cherished the hope that the cinema could constitute a liberated form of popular culture. The dawn of the cinema, like the emergence of surrealism, occurred during an age of cultural experimentation, technological innovation, and revolutionary proclamations, as Europe moved forward into the twentieth century.

quoteBut such a general characterization is of limited assistance when attempting to explain the nature of the interconnections between an avant-garde movement such as surrealism and film as a form of mass culture. As Linda Williams has stated, the assumption that movies are fundamentally surreal or dreamlike is no more or less true than the assertion that film is essentially realistic.(2) Neither can surrealist interest in the movies be reduced to a common type or function. The surrealists enjoyed a wide range of silent movies—the comedies of Charlot (Charlie Chaplin) and Mack Sennett, the fait-divers films of Ferdinand Zecca, American melodramas sstarring Pearl White, horror films such as Wiene's Caligari and Murnau's Nosferatu, Robert Flaherty's South Seas documentary Moana, and the revolutionary montage of Eisenstein's Potemkin. They also engaged in a variety viewing practices, from roaming indiscriminately from screen to screen and interrupting audiences by eating picnic lunches in movie houses, to writing film reviews in literary journals. In their own cinematic bids, Antonin Artaud, Blaise Cendrars, Robert Desnos, and Philippe Soupault wrote surrealist film scenarios, and a limited number of surrealist films were made by Man Ray, Salvador Dali, and Luis Buñuel. The surrealists' relationship to the movies was complex and multi-faceted, in concept and practice.

Consequently, surrealist film critics such as Ado Kyrou and J. H. Matthews have chosen to address the relationship of surrealism to popular cinema according to genre. The early surrealists particularly enjoyed the silent serialized crime thriller. Within this genre, Louis Feuillade's Fantômas (1913-1914) occupies a renowned position, alongside Les Mystères de New York and Les Vampires. But in order to ascertain what is surreal about Feuillade's Fantômas, the analysis needs to run deeper than genre status. As Kyrou emphasizes, not every celluloid phantom invokes the surrealist marvelous, in which the juxtaposition of disparate elements achieves the poetic cohesion of a dream.(3) From a critical perspective, Williams has argued that the specific operations of the dream model in films must be exposed in order to reveal what is surrealist in them.(4) Along these lines, this essay seeks a more precise understanding of the place of Fantômas among the mass-culture "stimulators" of surrealism, primarily through an examination of four motifs prominent in Feuillade's serial: displaced identitites, endless detours, uncanny objects, and sublime horror.(5) While Fantômas may not be the only popular serial to display these affinities to surrealism, it shows them spectacularly well.

In May 1913, the first Fantômas film by Gaumont director Louis Feuillade illuminated the screens of France. The film was an adaptation of the first in a series of Fantômas novels by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain, which by that time had reached twenty-eight episodes. The novels and films recounted the exploits of Fantômas, "Emperor of Crime" and "Lord of Terror," a notorious archvillain of a thousand faces who cunningly robbed, tortured, and killed scores of innocent victims, individually and en masse. Pitted against the evil machinations of the master-criminal stood the incorruptible Inspector Juve of the Paris Sûreté, and Jerôme Fandor, star reporter for La Capitale. Together, the heroic duo doggedly pursued the villain, determined to bring him to justice. But the elusive Fantômas always escaped. Repeatedly he evaded the long arm of the law in Souvestre and Allain's series of thirty-two Fantômas novels, published monthly from February 1911 to September 1913, with sales approaching five million copies. He escaped all over again in Feuillade's five Fantômas films, from May 1913 to April 1914, and yet again through international distribution. Fantômas was the "Genius Of Evil," and he was tremendously popular.(6)

Over the next two decades, Fantômas was championed by the Parisian avant-garde, first by the young poets gathered around Guillaume Apollinaire, who, together with Max Jacob, founded a Société des Amis de Fantômas in 1913, and later by the surrealists. In July 1914, in the literary review Mercure de France, Apollinaire declared the imaginary richness of Fantômas unparalleled.(7) The same month, in Apollinaire's own review, Les Soirées de Paris, Maurice Raynal proclaimed Feuillade's Fantômas saturated with genius.(8) Over the next two decades, poets such as Blaise Cendrars (who called the series "The Aeneid of Modern Times"), Max Jacob, Jean Cocteau, and Robert Desnos, and painters such as Juan Gris, Yves Tanguy, and René Magritte, incorporated Fantômas motifs into their works. Pierre Prévert's 1928 film, Paris la Belle, featured a Fantômas book cover in the closing sequence, and the Lord of Terror was adapted to the surrealist screen in Ernest Moerman's 1936 film short, Mr. Fantômas, Chapitre 280,000.(9) As the century progresses, Fantômas remained a minor source of artistic inspiration as the subject of cultural nostalgia.(10)

But what had attracted the French avant-garde to Fantômas in the first place? Why, for example, did the pre-surrealist entourage at the literary review Littérature, directed by Breton, Aragon and Péret, include the name of Fantômas in the genealogy of "Erutaréttil," or accursed literature, as a close relative of Lautréamont, Rimbaud, Alfred Jarry, Jacques Vaché, and Raymond Roussel?(11) Or why did Fantômas appear upon the family coat of arms of a monkey in a play by Breton, Desnos and Péret entitled "What a Beautiful Day!"?(12) Precisely what role did Fantômas play in the collective heritage of the surrealist movement? There were certainly no overt sympathies between the creators of Fantômas and the surrealists at the level of literary or cinematic production. Coauthors Souvestre and Allain were two very bourgeois and pedestrian journalists with little appreciation for the experimental literary currents of the era, who were more enticed by Parisian publisher Arthème Fayard II's lucrative pulp fiction contract of 2,000 francs per novel (plus 3 centimes per book on sales over 50,000) and by 6,000 francs from Gaumont studios.(13) Léon Gaumont negotiated the film rights to Fantômas with Souvestre and Allain in the hopes of producing a blockbuster commercial victory over his rival, Pathé Frères. Gaumont entrusted the film the film adaptation to his chief studio director, Louis Feuillade, a conservative ultra-Catholic and political monarchist. It is impossible to conceive that any of these parties responsible for the creation of the novel and film serials would have attached their names willingly to the manifestoes of surrealism.

Instead, the surrealist connection to Fantômas was made directly at the level of the serials themselves. Beyond the conservative views of its literary and film authors, or the profit motives of Fayard's publishing firm and Gaumont studios, the violently fantastic poetics of Fantômas exceeded the ideological constrictions of its production. According to J. H. Matthews, an otherwise ordinary commercial film displays surreal attributes when its content "overspills the mold in which it has been cast."(14) Along related lines, Francis Lacassin, a leading French critic on paraliterature, has noted that in the Fantômas novel series "there was an overflowing of the fantastic into daily life which seems to have had an affinity with surrealist preoccupations—an insolent challenge to aesthetic and social taboos, a relentless demystification, an historical continuity with what Andrré Breton called dark humor. And above all, objective chance...."(15) In the case of Feuillade's Fantômas, Linda Williams has argued that the very crudeness of early movie production, still untainted by stock formulas and film theory, combined with the tremendous popularity of this fresh and new medium, contributed to the sureealists' enthusiasm for this serial.(16) The general point is that Fantômas helped to prepare the cultural terrain for the emergence of a surreal modern mythology in the opening decades of the twentieth century.

Yet the profane illumination of Fantômas was not created by the surrealists; rather it was a dark spectacle viewed by them. Feuillade's Fantômas was not a piece of surrealist cinema, though the serial displayed particular affinities to what can be identified as surrealist motifs. Foremost, the evil Fantômas was, to borrow from Linda Williams's vocabulary, a "figure of desire."(17) The character's ephemeral identity oscillates between being a figure of condensation, in which all crimes and murders are committed by the same Fantômas, and a figure of displacement, as the actual identity of Fantômas continually slides from one mysterious personage to another. Whereas the use of masks and aliases was a stock feature of nineteenth-century French detective fiction and melodrama, in Fantômas this motif was taken to new heights, for there was no "someone else" behind the mask.(18) Throughout the series, readers and viewers depended upon Inspector Juve to recognize the visage of Fantômas among a wide range of characters. In the first Fantômas novel, for example, Juve claims that a French businessman named Etienne Rambert, a masked gentleman-burglar, and an English foot-soldier from the Transvaal named Gurn are all the same person: Fantômas! Neither judge nor jury in Gurn's murder trial accepts the detective's fantastic and obsessive ratiocinations, however. In the second novel, Juve contre Fantômas, Juve pursues both Dr. Chaleck, a Belgian surgeon practicing at the Lariboisière Hospital in Paris, and an underworld apache gang leader named Loupart, as Fantômas. At the end of this same episode, the Lord Of Terror assumes his "true" appearance en cagoule, an anonymous and menacing shadow, stripped of all physically distinguishing features and dressed in a black bodysuit with a cowl covering his head. Henceforth in this series, Fantômas is equally likely to appear as yet someone else or as the faceless Man in Black.

Over the course of the next several novels, Juve continues to discover Fantômas in a wide range of characters, in an esteemed banker named Nanteuil, a blackmailing accordion player called Vagualame (an identity which Juve also assumes in order to retrace the steps of the Master of Crime), the German ambassador Baron de Naarboveck, the Marquis de Sérac of the Court of Hesse-Weimar, concierge Madame Ceiron, a tramp called Ouaouaoua, the swindler Père Moche, and an American detective named Tom Bob. By the end of the fifth episode, Un Roi prisonnier de Fantômas, Juve's obsessive and paranoid ability to see the visage of Fantômas in all these figures, and to connect the multiple crimes of all the previous adventures to the Genius of Evil, leads his superior at the Paris Sûreté, Monsieur Havard, to conclude that Fantômas is none other than Juve himself, and he has the hapless detective imprisoned in the Santé. Throughout the novel series, both Fantômas and Juve pass under a variety of disguises, and on several occasions they assume the identities of each other as well.

When adapting Fantômas to the screen, Feuillade exploited this revolving door of changing appearances. Whether for reasons of narrative coherency or audience recognition, however, the vertiginous flow of characters in the novel series is diminished in Feuillade's films. The number of aliases employed by Fantômas and Juve is decreased. The audience also becomes familiar with these various personages through a series of dissolves featuring actors René Narvarre (Fantômas) and Bréon (Juve) in the opening sequence of the first two films. Yet the indeterminacy of identity remains at the heart of Feuillade's films, most notably in the ballroom scene of the third film, Fantômas contre Fantômas. In this adaptation of the sixth Fantômas novel, Le Policier apache, three figures attend a masked ball disguised as Fantômas (Tom Bob/Fantômas, Fandor, and a Sûreté officer). In a fatal duel between Fantômases, the Sûreté officer dies, although not before wounding his Fantômas assailant. Across town in the Santé Prison, Inspector Juve's arm bears the mark of a knife slash, even though he has been imprisoned the entire time under suspicion of being Fantômas. Soon thereafter, a prison guard is revealed as the accomplice of Fantômas responsible for having drugged and cut Inspector Juve. Still, the essential play with identity displacements permeates the plot. Confusion about the identities of Fantômas and Juve reappears in Feuillade's final Fantômas film, Le Faux Magistrat In this episode, Juve disguises himself as Fantômas in order to switch places with the archcriminal, who is languishing in a Belgian prison (Juve has crafted a plan whereby Fandor recaptures Fantômas and returns the archcriminal to France for execution, for alas! Belgium has abolished the death penalty!). Fantômas is simultaneously anyone, everyone, and no one.

A second surreal affinity, that of endless detours, stems from the continuing saga of Fantômas as l'Insaisissable (the "Unseizable"), which has its analogy in the pleasure derived from the recounting of a recurring yet continually metamorphosing dream.(19) Not only does Fantômas possess a series of elusive identities, his recurring appearance and disappearance cannot be stopped. In the first Feuillade Fantômas, for example, a laughing apparition of the criminal, dressed in formal evening attire with a black top hat and white ball mask, taunts Inspector Juve in the closing sequence. In the following film, Juve contre Fantômas, Juve and Fandor firmly secure Dr. Chaleck/Fantômas by the arms after the criminal exits a fashionable Montmartre restaurant. Suddenly, Fantômas bolts free, and the detective and journalist are left holding artificial limbs attached to Chaleck's overcoat. The law's heroic duo are outsmarted by Fantômas once again, as the archcriminal hops into the back of a cab, tips his hat, and disappears around the corner.

On the level of entertainment, the endless reappearances and escapes of Fantômas in each film episode keep viewers coming back for more. Yet on a more intimate level, the swerves of l'Insaisissable also require the active complicity of the viewer: "When he crossed to the other side of the bridge, the phantoms came to meet him."(20) Unlikely scenarios played out within any given episode demand a willing participation on the part of the audience to swerve between the possible and the impossible with equal ease, analogous to the surrealist imperative to abolish distinctions between reality and the dream.(21) For example, the audience must be willing to accept that Fantômas can instantaneously assume certain aliases—a surgeon, a banker, an American detective, an interrogating magistrate—when the professional skills and social positions required by those identities exceed the mere ability to disguise oneself. Fantômas and his gangs also benefit from an endless series of improbable chance encounters. In Feuillade's Le Faux Magistrat, after Fantômas has escaped from prison in Belgium (thanks to the unlikely assistance of Juve) and has ditched Fandor (thaks to a lucky break in the Louvain train station), the archcriminal just happens to stumble across an elderly judge sitting on a trunk in the baggage car of a train. Not only does Fantômas kill the unsuspecting magistrate and assume his identity, but by coincidence the judge was bound for Saint-Calais, where minions of the Master of Crime already are engaged in jewel theft and murder (and are subsequently pardoned of their crimes by the false judge, Fantômas). In these ways, impossible swerves of characters and story lines require that the audience dispense with what Breton called le peu de réalité, or preconceptions of an ordered reality, and believe only in the dreamlike reality of the cinema.(22)

The uncanny constitutes a third affinity between Fantômas and surrealism.(23) Seemingly ordinary people and familiar objects are often nefarious and shocking. At any moment, accomplices of Fantômas can appear out of nowhere ready to assist in the evil machinations of the Master of Crime.. In Feuillade's Juve contre Fantômas, a casual loiterer suddenly bounds onto the rear of Juve's taxi cab and punctures the rear tire with a knife in order to foil the detective's pursuit of the arch-villain. In Fantômas contre Fantômas, a group of bricklayers needs passage to pass through a judge's chambers in order to reach the scaffolding on the exterior of the building. All at once, they pounce upon the representatives of the law in the room, handcuffing the judge and a bailiff, and stuffing Juve into a sack. Conversely, known assailants may assume unanticipated forms. In Juve contre Fantômas, for example, Inspector Juve dons protective corsets before retiring to bed in anticipation of a dreadful encounter with the archvillain's unknown "silent executioner." Yet in the place of the expected human assassin, a boa constrictor commanded by the Genius of Evil scales multiple stories of an apartment building, enters Juve's window, and nearly crushes the detective to death. Without warning, the familiar becomes fantastic.

In Fantômas, the everyday world is truqué, loaded in favor of the Emperor of Crime. Objective chance is not only possible, it is inevitable. Some circumstances come preassembled as ready-to-use evil. In Juve contre Fantômas, Fantômas's gang uncouples a train wagon, occupied by Fandor and a recently fleeced wine merchant, which subsequently collides with the Simplon express, derailing the passenger train and leaving scores of innocent passengers dead. In both Le Mort qui tue and Le Faux magistrat, Fantômas surreptitiously turns on gas valves in order to asphyxiate his victims. In these cases, ordinary objects are put to nefarious use. But in other instances, objects possess magical lives of their own, as in the first Feuillade film when the name of Fantômas mysteriously appears on a blank calling card, sending the Russian Princess Sonjia Danidoff into an hysterical collapse onto the sofa. Physical reality also can be rigged by Fantômas, as in the closing sequence of Le Mort qui tue, when the banker Nanteuil/Fantômas evades arrest by Juve and Fandor by slipping through a secret wall panel in the false banker's office. Finally, physical objects become the source of uncanny shocks, registered among film characters, if not the viewers. In Le Mort qui tue, Fantômas makes a pair of gloves from the skin of the recently murdered Jacques Dollon in order to leave the ceramic painter's fingerprints at the scenes of the archvllain's crimes (hence the film's title, "The Murderous Cadaver"). In Fantômas contre Fantômas, the American detective Tom Bob/Fantômas pounds a hole into an apartment wall, which spews forth a stream of blood that settles into a gory pool on the floor below. In these instances, shocking sensations become thoroughly interfused with entertainment.

This leads to the final, and most disturbing, affinity between Fantômas and surrealism: sublime horror. One of the defining qualities of surrealism is convulsive beauty, the "chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table."(24) The shocking combination of revulsion and pleasure in the invocation of the surrealist conception of the marvelous has a long cultural genealogy, from gothic novels such as Walpole's The Castle of Otranto and the dark humor of Lautréamont's Maldoror, to the escapades of actual criminals and murders such as Germaine Berton, the Bonnot gang of anarchists, Landru (the "Bluebeard" of Gambais), Violette Nozières, and the von Papen sisters.(25) Placed securely within that heritage, Fantômas is an unredeemed tale of unmotivated violence and death. Throughout the novel series, the Lord of Terror murders scores of victims, indiscriminately and ritualistically, individually and en masse, and the graphic details of these violent scenes are described meticulously by Souvestre and Allain. Many of these horrific moments were captured in lurid, full-color images designed by Gino Starace for the original Fantômas covers, some of which were reproduced in Georges Bataille's countersurrealist journal, Documents.(26) These graphic and imagistic portrayals of violence shock but fail to elucidate why Fantômas commits such outrageous acts of crime and murder other than to assert that he is the Lord of Terror. In this way, the horror of Fantômas satisfies Breton's claim in the "Manifesto of Surrealism" that the shock of any beautiful act contains its own self-justification.(27) The violent machinations of the Genius of Evil are inseparable from the popularity of the series and lie at the heart of surreaist attraction to the novels.

To some degree, sublime horror lay at the heart of Feuillade's Fantômas as well. But graphic, unmotivated, and irredeemable violence also established the limits of how faithfully Feuillade and Gaumont would adapt Souvestre and Allain's Fantômas to the screen. From the outset, Gaumont redesigned the poster promoting the first film, the famous image of Fantômas as a masked gentleman in formal dress and top hat bounding over the Parisian landscape. On the film poster, the arch-villain's kid-gloved right hand was merely a clenched fist, whereas on the cover of the novel he held a deadly dagger. Two titles from the original novel series also were toned down for the films. Le Policier apache was changed to Fantômas contre Fantômas, and Le Magistrat cambrioleur became Le Faux magistrat, losing the implications that a Parisian thug could pass as a police officer or that a judge also might be a burglar. In these small ways, the adaptation of Fantômas novels to film mass media established certain moral limitations upon the glorification of crime and violence not observed in the novels.

The effort to censor the graphic violence of the novel series emerges most forcefully at the end of the first Fantômas movie, where the story line was rewritten altogether. In the closing sequence of both the novel and the film, Fantômas substitutes an actor named Valgrand on the scaffold for his alias Gurn, who has been condemned to death for the murder of Lord Beltham. In Feuillade's Fantômas, Inspector Juve discovers the substitution at the last minute, and saves the innocent and duped actor. In Souvestre and Allain's novel, however, Valgrand loses his head to the guillotine's blade. It is not until after the fact that Inspector Juve, in a shock of realization as the inanimate face fails to change color, rushes forward and retrieves the severed head from its basket, covered with actor's makeup and drenched in blood, and shouts, "Curses! Fantômas has escaped! Fantômas is free! He had an innocent man executed in his place! Fantômas! I tell you, Fantômas is alive!"(28) In the category of sublime horror, the novels of Souvestre and Allain registered more strongly with the surrealists than Feuillade's serial.(29)

Whether due to the interruption of the Great War, or simply because interest in Souvestre and Allain's Fantômas had run its course, Gaumont released Feuillade's final Fantômas film, Le Faux Magistrat, in April 1914.. Within short order, however, Feuillade produced and directed his most famous and notorious film serial for Gaumont, Les Vampires. In ten episodes, released from November 1915 to June 1916, this serial recapitulated the surreal affinities displayed in the Fantômas movies, and surpassed them in nearly every way. In Les Vampires, an entire gang of villains is dressed en cagoule, and the arch-villain leader is replaced by a series of Grand Vampires who assume the role of the Genius of Crime in endless succession.(30) The role of the justicier hero is played by reporter Philippe Guérande, whose commitment to vigilante justice in pursuing and capturing the gang of Vampires renders him far more obsessive and paranoid than Inspector Juve. Freed from the constrictions of adapting ready-made story lines from novels, Feuillade now made up the story and antics as he went along, creating truly original cinematic swerves for the viewing audience. Evil people, deadly objects, and physical impossibilities of time and space drive the action with greater force than plot narrative, and entertaining shocks of violence are supplemented by the erotically charged female body of Irma Vep. In the history of surrealist film, Les Vampires often commands greater attention than Feuillade's Fantômas. Yet both film serials were geneological ancestors to the surrealists. "Beyond fashion! Beyond taste!"(31) Feuillade's crime serials were mass-culture compendiums of a surreal, modern mythology in the process of formation during the early decades of the twentieth century.

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