The Truth Is Out There

Louis Feuillade's Fantômas and the mysteries of movies at their movie-est
by Michael Atkinson  posted October 4, 2010
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The films of Louis Feuillade have long been recognized as more than the quick pulp they were conceived as, but they’re still officially horse-and-buggy-blocked behind the puffing steam engine of Griffith, whose aggregation of syntactical tropes became the way mainstream movies told their stories. Of course, like so many film-history givens, this is a pedagogy manufactured for convenience—imagining cinema as a straight arrow of developmental milestones, with Griffith as Prometheus. Feuillade’s presence troubles the docket, evoking a sense of cinema that’s less nickelodeon hand-holding and more of a stalk through a corridor of wakeful dreaming, of poetic fugue states and vicarious connectivity and otherworldly evocations. Of course, Griffith’s methodology—syntax engineered to control and manipulate the viewer’s attention, largely—has proven to be the more powerful and financially viable avenue. The philosophical differences, in style, between The Birth of a Nation (1915) and today’s blockbusters are nominal—they both aim at keeping our heart rate up, our gamma waves flat, and our wallets empty.

Feuillade, famously, had a different program that became mover of a secret history of art cinema, reliant on depth and mise-en-scène to “present” the action, which unrolls at its own pace, not the pace dictated by the editing strategies. Famously, too, a Feuillade pace is breathlessly rapid, just as his stories are seething with mysteries that cannot be fully understood, in high contrast to the simplicity and obviousness of Griffith’s melodramas. Much as we might like to step over the bodies left in the wake of the formal-historical Griffith-vs.-Feuillade brawl, the context of the pioneering teens and the aggregation of syntax is vital to fathoming Feuillade’s achievement. But, in confronting the new DVD release of the entire Fantômas saga (1913-14), five sequential features connected serial-like end to end, it’s also nearly impossible not to simply get lost in his artificial worlds, thanks almost entirely to their un-Griffithness, their primitive yet elegant romance with time and space.

By primitive I mean childlike, in the best way—Feuillade’s films are pure manifestations of a child’s pretend play, the mass-audience equivalent to being nine and chasing a brother through empty hotel corridors, or exploring an abandoned house, or concocting simple thriller scenarios in a refrigerator box or tree fort. This connection shouldn’t, to my mind, be underestimated—more than theater or fiction, this universal experience is the elemental precedent of cinema, the piece of its history that knew before Edison how exciting it was to stand on a moving train fighting bandits, or crawl over city rooftops dressed in black and burgle strangers’ penthouses. Cinema history has been rife with efforts to characterize exactly what is uniquely “cinematic,” that formal facet to which no other medium has access. There are several answers in a plastic sense, but in spirit, I tend to think this is it: narrative playing, and a return to pre-adult imaginative engagement. If so, Feuillade’s movies are movies at their movie-est.

Very often, Feuillade’s crazy conspiracy sagas feel made up as they go along, like a child’s afternoon of invented mystery drama, and Fantômas, recently issued on DVD by Kino International, is prototypical. In fact, his deep-dish, medium-distanced wide compositions abet this sensibility beautifully—unpestered by shifting perspectives and interventions of the filmmaker’s will (to “make you feel” one thing or another), a Feuillade viewer can relax into the story’s environment completely, allowing its speedy cascade and turnabout betrayals to grab you by the eyes and carry you along as if, in a sense, the film and your involvement with it were transpiring without the behest of an omnipotent director.

The fixed frame (Feuillade began to pan in Les Vampires in 1915, but Fantômas is almost entirely without camera movement) is a key factor in a moodier way. Feuillade’s films are famous now for their impressionistic vibe—while Griffith’s world is composed of dusty, weedy country roads and homely stage interiors, Feuillade’s is a Paris on Mars, an old, opulent, sunlit Euro metropolis often mysteriously barren of people and yet harboring secret societies, schemes, identities, and connections. It’s a much more fun place in which to play. But the force of its seduction may be entirely contingent on the camera’s fixed and patient gaze—as the actors “pretend” the story in what’s close to real time, the streets and estate grounds and parlor rooms harbor vacuums and vacancies and the ideas of possibly hidden things behind doors, paintings, windows, or moving wall panels. Your eyes roam these odd places (abandoned avenues and cluttered interiors, realistic except for the walls’ flat wallpaper-image woodwork) instead of the director telling you where to look, and the absences are brimming with anxiety—if it were a game, they’d be the trials or set-pieces someone had yet to invent. Your watching becomes part of the story, joining the mysterious pursuits and tightening the pull of tenterhooks.

It’s almost impossible to follow Fantômas in any detail—the pursuit of the arch-villain/thief/master of disguises (René Navarre) by the detective Juve (Edmond Bréon) and the reporter Fandor (Georges Melchior) proceeds as rapidly and fulsomely offscreen as it does on, and often the narrative catapults forward beyond us, out of sight. This scripted manner is another ingredient in the dreamy ambience, and it’s difficult to imagine 1914 audiences retaining a full grip on the plot movie-to-movie. Perhaps, being French, they just swooned with it, embraced the ambiguities. In fact, the film that Fantômas evokes most clearly in its secret ligatures is Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), a dissociative classic that in some ways feels merely like a Feuillade remake, shot not in Paris but in the Hollywood Hills.

“Valgrand felt like he was living in a strange nightmare,” a title says in the first film, Fantômas—In the Shadow of the Guillotine, referring to a Fantômas-impersonating actor who’s been doped and used by the titular King of Crime. It’s a line that suggests Feuillade knew what he was going for, and that his atmospherics were far from just pioneer-cinema circumstance and by-product. As it is, Valgrand’s fate is simply the first of multiple swapped, switched, stolen, and doubled identities. If it’s film no. 2, Juve vs. Fantômas, that shakes the ambient paradigm—Paris has many more bustling denizens than in most other major Feuillades, and the streets are busy with carriages, dung piles, and commerce—it’s the fourth, Fantômas vs. Fantômas, that falls into the mirror tunnel, having Juve masquerade as Fantômas (at a single costume ball no less than three versions of the menace face off). In the fifth, The False Magistrate, Juve, passing for Fantômas, takes his place in prison—deliberately—by which point we’ve long surrendered to a slippery universe where nothing is ever quite as it seems. The warping gets so intense that Juve’s superior, shocked by the detective’s paranoid ability to see through Fantômas’s ruses and to see the villain’s face everywhere (including as Tom Bob, an American detective full of Yankee hubris), concludes that Juve is Fantômas. And vice versa.

As well he might. Cinema has been peddled to us for more than a century as an instrument of clarity, of access and simplification and omniscience, and this transaction has proved comforting to the broad population. But that is its Jekyll mode. Just as powerful is its repressed persona as a mystifier, a gnostic mission we undergo and through which we come to understand life and the world as being larger, more complex, less definable, than we may tend to prefer. This is cinema-as-truth, when the medium becomes an experience that celebrates the fact that the truth is unknowable. Après Griffith, you have the deluge of the Hollywood studio assembly line and Steven Spielberg and James Cameron, movies as a form of wish-fulfillment prevarication. Après Feuillade, you get Ozu, Antonioni, Bergman, Godard, Tarkovsky, et al., running to Hou Hsiao-hsien, Carlos Reygadas, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Somewhere to the side, out of frame, behind the door you’re not sure exists, the mysteries have continued to spore and reproduce in the dark. 


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Kino International
Georges Melchior in the Fantômas film series, directed by Louis Feuillade
Photo Gallery: The Truth Is Out There


Michael Atkinson is the author/editor of six books, including Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema (Limelight Eds., 2000), Flickipedia (Chicago Review Press, 2007), Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (SUNY Press, 2008), and the novels from St. Martin's Press Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat.

More articles by Michael Atkinson
Author's Website: Zero for Conduct