Fantomas

The Fantômas Films: Louis Feuillade

Louis FeuilladeLouis Feuillade (1873-1925), by Robin Walz. (Image from mubi.com.)

Louis Feuillade was chief director for Gaumont Studios, 1907-1925. He directed over 800 films and helped to establish Gaumont as France's second largest film studio, after Pathé Frères. Feuillade is highly praised among film critics for the "fantastic realism" of his crime serials, among which Fantômas and Les Vampires are the best remembered.

Louis Feuillade was born on February 19, 1873, in the small village of Lunel (Hérault) near the French Mediterranean. A political monarchist and devout Catholic, Feuillade had little enthusiasm for the French Third Republic. As a young man, he joined his father and brothers as a wine merchant. When the family business fell on hard times after the death of his father, Feuillade became a journalist and moved to Paris. In 1905, he was approached by Gaumont's secretary, Alice Guy, and asked to write film scenarios. By 1907, "boss" Léon Gaumont made Feuillade chief studio director in Paris, and in Nice after 1918, a position which Feuillade held until his premature death in 1925.

One of France's leading directors during the early silent film era, Feuillade was producing nearly 80 films a year by the eve of the Great War of 1914. Feuillade made films in all genres, including comedy (Bébé, Bout-de-Zan), "slice of life" realist dramas (La vie telle qu'elle est), historical epics (Promethée, L'Agonie de Byzance), and serial melodramas (L'Orpheline, Parisette). In competition with Pathé's popular serial, Les Mystères de New York, starring the renowned American actress Pearl White, Feuillade made a number of crime serials for Gaumont, including Fantômas (1913-14), Les Vampires (1915-16), Judex (1917), La Nouvelle mission de Judex (1917), Tih Minh (1918), and Barrabas (1919).


Louis Feuillade (1873-1925). Excerpted from David Thomson's A Biographical Dictionary of Film, Third Edition, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

...Fantômas [1913-14] is the first great movie experience, Feuillade the first director for whom no historical allowances need to be made. See him today and you still wonder what will happen next...

Feuillade predicts a twentieth-century world to come. Even in the years of the First World War, he looked past the horrific clash of machine guns and cavalry, of mud and dress uniform, to an atmosphere of urban anxiety...

Feuillade's genius is simply measured: he saw that it was possible to achieve intense photographic naturalism and yet convey an imaginative experience of the world. Thus his films still involve audiences. They respond to the startling contrast of the mundane and the unexpected; and they are intrigued by the relentless criminal organizations in Fantômas and Vampires [1915]. All the roots of the thriller and suspense genres are in Feuillade's sense that evil, anarchy, and destructiveness speak to the frustrations banked up in modern society... As Alain Resnais has said, "...Feuillade's cinema is very close to dreams—therefore it's perhaps the most realistic." Not only has Feuillade's pregnant view of grey streets become an accepted normality; his expectation of conspiracy, violence, and disaster spring at us every day.

Feuillade managed this alertness despite all the impediments of the age: he was the son of a civil servant; educated at a Catholic seminary; four years in the cavalry. He worked as a journalist and ran a magazine before he began to submit scripts to Gaumont [Studios]. His energy was prodigious and when Alice Guy left Gaumont for New York he took her place as artistic director. He plunged into his serials and in a directing life of less than twenty years produced more than seven hundred films, despite service in the French army in 1915 and a wound sufficient for a discharge.

Fantômas and the Vampires were criminal gangs [sic] intent on gaining material and psychological power over a decadent bourgeoisie. Their names show how far they are destructive angels, dreaded and craved by their victims. And Feuillade's inventiveness—of plot, action, and visual revelation—has exactly the same inspiration as the gang's plans: a cheerful contempt for society that gains as much from Anarchism as it looks forward to Dada and Surrealism...It is worth emphasizing that, at the time, Vampires alarmed the authorities. The serial was briefly banned and Judex [1917] was Feuillade's attempt to reassure the trembling bourgeois. Tih Minh [1918], however, returns to organized malice, with the remnants of the Vampires in Nice planning world destruction, with England as first target.

The films themselves are still hard to see; only good anarchists have preserved Feuillade. [Good anarchists and Gaumont Studios, which fully restored all of the serials discussed here for the 1995 centenary of the birth of cinema.] The serials run between four and six hours, and they are dreamlike if only because of the endlessly regenerating plots. The action is hallucinatory, but the images are astonishingly concrete...Tom Milne has acclaimed the moment in Fantômas when a character in a box at the theater is shown conceiving an idea—to use the actor onstage as Fantômas to replace the real one in jail—in the same shot as we see the [actor on] stage behind her. It is this immediate appetite for the real world and the stirring up of fantastic events that makes Feuillade the most serious of the pioneers. He foresaw that people who went into the dark to participate in stories, no matter how sophisticated their world, were still primitive creatures.

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