'Fantômas': Louis Feuillade Master Criminal & Super-Terrorist

Fantomas DVD Louis Feuillade
Fantomas Rene Navarre
René Navarre as Fantômas

True cinephiles know what to say when asked to explain the relative aggregate crumminess of the films they've bothered to see in 2010: “Too many lousy genre movies … everything's based on some pre-sold franchise property … one sequel after another…”

Well, bully for true cinephiles - they can go waste their time at whatever dour, sexless movie Clint Eastwood's directing this week. The rest of us will be left to enjoy Kino's recent boxed set of Louis Feuillade's Fantômas films which, in addition to committing each of the above-enumerated crimes, is one of the best archival releases of the year.

Often incorrectly referred to as a serial, the movies on this set are in fact a series of five features chronicling the adventures of Inspector Juve and his journalist associate Fandor as they pursue the mysterious arch-criminal Fantômas throughout France.

René Navarre is by turns dashing and spooky as the villain, who plays the role of crime boss, ghostly super-terrorist and world's greatest burglar as the situation calls for it. There's very little long-term plot development over the course of the films (aside from a shift in emphasis from Juve to Fandor as the main protagonist), but rather simply a sequence of crimes, investigation, pursuit and escape, typically with a cliffhanger ending. This lack of resolution is likely an artifact of the pulpy nature of Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain's wildly popular source novels, which were cranked out at a rate of one per month (they produced 32 from 1911 to 1913).

While the Fantômas films are a lot of fun in their own right as spry, breezy crime thrillers (though not quite as crazy as Feuillade's later Les Vampires serial), the documentary value of these movies alone make them essential. Although mostly setbound, the films occasionally venture into the outside world when location scenes are called for.

In these scenes, passers-by look into the camera, a stray dog who spent a short life fighting for scraps wanders into and then out of the frame, ephemeral details of daily life - trends in men's hats, what mailboxes used to look like - are captured for a few seconds and then vanish.

This whole world would vanish shortly thereafter - Fantômas was filmed in the France of 1913 and 1914, with the final episode of this set released shortly before August. That month would see the beginnings of a crime vaster in scope and destruction than anything Fantômas could pull off.

It is a virtual certainty that every Frenchman you see in these films would be directly touched by the coming war, several probably serving in its almost comically destructive battles - Feuillade himself set aside his camera to rush to the defense of La France - and more than a few never to return. Daily routines, social habits and political institutions breed an expectation of permanence into members of a society; there's a certain sense of vertigo that comes with seeing - as opposed to simply reading about - a society with a rude awakening in its future. Its a feeling we ought to get used to as the medium of film ages, as years accumulate between a young audience and the historical context of a movie celebrating its 75th or 90th or 100th birthday.

Fantômas also occupies a place of interest as the beginning of nearly all European genre films. The title criminal is an obvious inspiration for similar characters in Fritz Lang's German films (particularly Dr. Mabuse) as well as the villains of James Bond films (a connection made explicit by the Jean Marais Fantômas of the 1960s). Lemmy Caution, Diabolik and virtually the entire giallo genre have at least some roots in these films, and fans of any of the above ought to familiarize themselves with this set at their earliest opportunity.

Fantomas The Murderous Corpse Louis Feuillade
Fantomas The Murderous Corpse Louis Feuillade
Louis Feuillade's Fantômas: The Murderous Corpse

The same advice is offered to anyone with the slightest interest in film style. Much of the interest in Feuillade is due to the fact that his career occupied the pre-1920s period in which many of the conventions of film aesthetics hadn't yet fully solidified. While Fantômas isn't exactly a radical challenge to the way most viewers understand movies - only a few scattered scenes flirt with incomprehensibility - the sharp-eyed in the audience will find much that seems eccentric a century hence, particularly Feuillade's tendency to eschew editing as a way to structure his scenes.

I found only a handful of close-ups across five films, and they all served to accentuate a detail rather than, say, capture a character's reaction or establish an eyeline. Camera movement is also rare, due to the bulky nature of the pre-WWI apparatus, so most of the Fantômas films are staged as tableaux, with Feuillade relying on the movements of actors to play out the dramatic logic of his scenes.

He finds many inventive and subtle ways to go about this, mostly involving Fantômas unexpectedly entering and exiting the frame, but also in more quotidian, expository scenes as well. (A collection of earlier, non-Fantômas shorts on Disc One also provides useful examples of this style.)

I wouldn't necessarily want every movie to look like this, but against the background of seemingly every 21st-century film consisting of little else but incomprehensible “action” scenes or endless series of talking close-ups, it is a nice change of pace. And it ought to be an example to filmmakers interested in the possibilities of their chosen medium.

While not exactly bursting with extras, the set contains some useful historical context on Disc One in the form of a short documentary - which helpfully draws attention to the generic breadth of Feuillade's vast output; Fantômas and Les Vampires aside, he hardly confined himself to thrillers - and feature commentaries by David Kalat on Fantômas in the Shadow of the Guillotine and Juve vs. Fantômas.

Discs Two and Three serve up their films (The Murderous Corpse, Fantômas vs. Fantômas and The False Magistrate) and nothing else, to the dismay of no one - more extras wouldn't have improved this nearly perfect package.

My only complaints involve a few minor presentation matters. The False Magistrate appears here in such rough condition - extensive damage to the print is obvious in a way that it isn't in the other movies, and several important scenes are missing entirely, replaced by title card descriptions - that I questioned the wisdom of including it at all.

But I suppose even a fragmented, spotty reconstruction attempt is better than nothing at all, and its not as though Kino (let alone restoration director Jacques Champreaux, who did truly heroic work here with most of the surviving footage) can be blamed for the poor condition of these nearly century-old materials.

More egregious and irritating is the inclusion of sound effects in seemingly randomly chosen scenes. This usually takes the form of ambient sound such as the noise of traffic or tweeting birds, but every so often becomes explicitly diagetic sound - gunshots, for some reason, are a favorite target for this treatment. I'm not a strict purist regarding silent movies; dead quiet can be psychically “louder” than appropriate musical accompaniment, particularly since anyone watching silent films in the 21st century will subconsciously expect to find something to occupy the ear.

The sound effects in these films are simply jarring and distracting, though, not to mention bewildering. Did the party responsible for this really think that audiences would be more confused by silent gunshots than silent actors? In any case, this is my severest criticism of the set, and it's pretty penny-ante stuff.

Fantômas (1913-1914). Fantômas in the Shadow of the Guillotine (1913), Juve vs. Fantômas (1913), The Murderous Corpse (1913), Fantômas vs. Fantômas (1914), The False Magistrate (1914). Dir.: Louis Feuillade. Scr.: Louis Feuillade; from Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain's novels. Cast: René Navarre, Edmond Bréon, Georges Melchior, Renée Carl, Jane Faber.

© Dan Erdman

Photos: Courtesy of Kino

'Fantômas': Louis Feuillade Master Criminal & Super-Terrorist © 2004–2018 Alt Film Guide and/or author(s).
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