The Fantômas Films: Fantômas (1913)

Fantomas stillSynopsis of Fantômas from Richard Abel's The Ciné Goes To Town: French Cinema 1896-1914. Berkeley: University Of California Press, 1994.

Fantômas introduces René Navarre [as Fantômas] immediately in MCU [Medium Close-Up], in the three guises he will take on throughout its three episodes: a Dr. Chaleck, a hotel bellhop, and a bourgeois gentleman named Gurn. This device quickly sketches one of the resources Fantômas must draw on in his profession, but it also places the spectator in a privileged position vis-à-vis all the other characters because Navarre never appears except in these disguises until the very end of the film. The first episode, running the length of the first reel, skillfully establishes the "fantastic realism" that so characterizes the series—in which the mundane, reassuringly sober facade of daily life masks incredible, sometimes bloody expoits.

A dozen shots ranging from LS [Long Shot] to AS ["American Shot" (from the knees up)] describe the arrival one evening of Princess Danidoff (Jane Faber) at the Royal Palace Hotel in Paris. In a meticulous model of continuity editing, the sequence traces her movement through a series of contiguous spaces—the hotel exterior, the foyer, the lobby, the elevator, the fourth-floor corridor, and her spacious room. Later, apparently after a [missing?] intertitle, Dr. Chaleck is introduced in MS [Medium Shot], followed by a LS that suddenly situates him alone in the same room, where he opens the drawer of a foreground secretary desk and then, in response to an offscreen sound, hides behind the background window curtains. After the princess returns in her nightgown, Chaleck calmly steps out to confront her. His smooth demeanor mesmerizes her into silence, and he tops that with the presentation of a blank card (which she gazes at in HA [High Angle] MS and ECU [Extreme Close-Up]). All the while, of course, he is emptying the desk of her money and jewels. Only after he has blown her a kiss and exited does she telephone the hotel front desk, where the night manager sends a bellhop off to the elevator. But Chaleck seizes him in the fourth-floor corridor, and after a series of shots that reverse the elevator's earlier ascent past each floor, the thief steps out into the lobby in the guise of the bellhop. He shrugs at the night manager, gets the key to the front door, lets himself out, and silhouetted in MS in the opaque glass, relocks the door and, in a final exterior shot, strides off in triumph. Now the film cuts back to the princess who examines the blank card once more—and, in ECU, the name of Fantômas dissolves in, in sharp block letters.

[Note: the novel begins with the brutal murder of the Marquise de Langrune, and the creation of Charles Rambert's new identity as Jérôme Fandor. See the synopsis of the novel Fantômas.]

After this display of Fantômas's singular prowess, the other two episodes introduce police inspector Juve (Edmond Bréon) and the crime reporter Fandor (Georges Melchior), who are investigating the disappearance of Lord Beltham. In episode two, Fantômas, now disguised as Gurn, is arrested after Juve discovers Beltham's corpse stuffed into a steamship trunk in Gurn's apartment. In the third, however, Lady Beltham (Renée Carl), who has become his mistress, bribes a prison guard Nibet (Naudier) and concocts a plan by which Fantômas is replaced by an actor named Valgrand (Volbert) and is freed to resume his ruthless career. This section of the film at several points depends on long-take tableaux—for instance, in the sunny, deep-space drawing room of Lady Beltham's suburban villa (with its light-colored wallpaper and floor-length windows overlooking a garden) and in Gurn's smaller, darker bourgeois apartment. Yet both of these also include cut-in CUs—as Juve picks up a clue to Gurn's identity and address through the manufacturer's name on the hat he has left behind and later finds a packet of blank cards in Gurn's apartment. These two episodes also differ from the first in that their action covers not two but three reels and, consequently, carries over through the reel breaks, much as did not only the earlier Zigomar films but also Feuillade's own films from La Tare to L'erreur tragique. Reel two ends, for instance, with Lady Beltham approaching Nibet in the paddy wagon so that reel three can begin with a MS of her passing money to him. Reel three then ends with the alternating sequence of Valgrand disguised as Fantômas (at her request) approaching her villa and Fantômas himself being taken out of his prison cell by Nibet for one last visit to her. This increases the suspense for reel four, which opens with the scene of the substitution.

Perhaps most intriguing in Fantômas are those scenes with Valgrand, who just happens to be playing Fantômas in a successful new drama about the arch-criminal's life and death. In an ironic comment on the genre's conventions, it is he who is shown backstage putting on his "disguise" (for a circle of admirers) and then performing onstage, with Lady Beltham in the audience. She and Fantômas then exploit this theatrical representation in a deceptive mise-en-scène of their own, privately at her villa. In another long-take tableau, Valgrand sneaks into her sitting room, is drugged into semi-consciousness, and is substituted for Fantômas, whom Nibet has "tactfully" allowed to remain alone with his mistress (and who, at the crucial moment, hides behind some curtains). This sets up the next-to-last scene where Valgrand barely escapes being guillotined, in a literal "realization" of his death scene on stage (Juve recognizes him at the last moment), while Fantômas and Lady Beltham watch from the window of a nearby apartment.

[Note: in the novel, Juve doesn't recognize that Valgrand has been substituted for Fantômas on the scaffold until after the actor has been guillotined.]

This latter shot is interesting because it focusses on the difference between the two—in silhouette, with his back to the camera, Fantômas draws the reluctant Lady Beltham to the window, from which she recoils in horror. If this final episode, like the first, encourages the spectator to admire Fantômas's savoir faire in manipulating others, the shifting figure of Lady Beltham, much more than the ineffectual Juve, suggests another more conventional reading position of moral outrage. Consequently, in the final tableau, the mocking specter of Fantômas (replicating the poster) which dissolves in before Juve in his office and holds out his crossed hands (as if to be handcuffed) may provoke some sense of ambivalence in the spectator—all the while, of course, planting the seeds of anticipation for the next film.

Return to filmography