Some little time ago, I wrote some notes about the French release, in 1999, of Louis Feuillade’s Fantomas (1913–14) on DVD. (1) The release by Gaumont of a version of the film that had undergone significant restoration work was a landmark in the then short history of DVD distribution. It was made possible, at least in that form, by funding support by the Cinémathèque Française for the restoration and the Centre Nationale de la Cinématographie. The very best material available was used and for this we have to be grateful that the production company, Gaumont, seems to have been a very good servant of both Feuillade’s work and art. It is believed that some 500 of the 700 films he made still exist in some form.
In welcoming the release of the film, I lamented at the time that Australia had yet to see any of the major Feuillade serials on the screen and with musical accompaniment, and this is still the case. (2) That makes it even more of an event for the third (after Les Vampires, 1915–16) of Feuillade’s major works, Judex (1916), to be released on DVD in America.
The print quality of the latest release does not, however, match its predecessors. Any restoration work for the release of Judex seems to have been confined to making, by Turner Classic Movies, a new set of English inter-titles with print large enough for them to be read easily on small television screens. There does not appear to have been any work done on improving or cleaning the image, which shows at times severe signs of deterioration. (3)
Despite this, another small but very significant piece of the Feuillade œuvre is now available. After a viewing, it is clear that it reinforces the views of historians and commentators as to the director’s place in film history as the first master. (4) It is known to be one of his greatest commercial successes in its day, having achieved Feuillade’s aim of making a film
which we wished to be popular in the largest best sense of the word, a family show, exalting the finest sentiments and in which we have endeavoured to please great and small, thanks to the most diverse and unusual incidents to the action. (5)
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When I saw the previous Feuillade titles, Fantomas and Les Vampires (1915–16), I did so without any pre-determined views, and without any particular knowledge of the films or their subjects beyond their legendary reputation and the many references to the influence they have had on filmmakers from Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock to Alain Resnais, who first saw the serials at screenings organised by Georges Franju and Henri Langlois at the Cinémathèque Française.
An appreciation of Judex starts from a different point – not just the earlier sightings of the director’s work but, importantly, regular viewings of Franju’s own remake of Judex (1963), a homage to Feuillade which in its own way has served to keep the master silent filmmaker’s name alive when attention on his films had subsided following their first revival and re-presentation.
Franju sought in particular to recapture Feuillade’s sense of documentary and his playfulness. He reproduced with as much exactitude as possible the costumes and settings which Feuillade filmed in scrupulous detail. Feuillade’s street-scapes are now an invaluable documentary record, but Franju also paid particular attention to reproducing the elaborate interior designs and furnishings of the day, resulting in settings of quite extraordinary detail and clutter. Franju also sought, despite the playfulness, to avoid any camp satire of these elements by over-emphasis or any special attention being paid to them.
In the title role, Franju pulled off his most brilliant coup by casting the master prestidigator of his day, near godlike in his handsomeness, Channing Pollock. Pollock’s skills as a magician were employed to produce a dazzling array of apparent magical occurrences involving, most particularly, disappearing doves, a plot device that Feuillade uses to enable the regular rescue of the heroine and others by Judex. Franju’s Judex is a far livelier, less sombre, more inventive and more mysterious character than that of Feuillade.
Feuillade chose a matinee idol, René Cresté, to play the part of Judex. Cresté has a certain gravitas, especially when dressed in his black cape and hat, but the character’s only ‘trick’ is to assume the disguise of the faithful household retainer Valliere, simultaneously servant to and pursuer of the wicked banker Favraux (Louis Leubas).
Franju also had a way with comic relief. He lifted the naïve and gung-ho detectives out of Les Vampires to invigorate Feuillade’s creation, the dim-witted and rather idiotic Cocantin (Marcel Lévesque).
This was the baggage brought to Feuillade’s Judex, some 80-plus years after the film’s first screenings in 1917 and 40 years since a first sighting of the Franju update. Franju’s 90 minute distillation was at the forefront of memory as the viewing of Feuillade’s five hour 17 minute serial commenced. Yet within a short space of time, after easily spotting Judex in his first disguise in the prologue to the 12 following chapters, Franju’s film recedes into its own space – that of ethereal mystery and a romance between brilliant and magical (Pollock) Judex and the white faced icy and reserved beauty of Jacqueline Favraux, played by Franju’s fetish female, Edith Scob.
Feuillade’s plot has other things in mind in “exalting the finest sentiments”. It starts with a family occasion, an engagement party, and ends with static scenes of multiple sets of happy, newly-created ‘families’. The uniting and re-uniting of these groups is the end towards which the film has meandered. Judex finally wins his Jacqueline (Yvette Andréyor). He has viewed her from afar throughout, first as the son of the wronged party, then as Valliere. Most of his wooing of her is done on his behalf by others, including his brother, various children, the dim-witted detective and his mother.
Cocantin finds happiness with Daisy Torp (Lily Deligny), whom he must have known from some other adventure because she is introduced into the narrative at a very late stage. Daisy is the most delectable of the female cast and several sequences of her in a very slinky black bathing suit are nothing short of sensational. They are momentarily matched and echoed, however, by Musidora, playing the chief villainess Diana Monti, who escapes one trap by stripping down to her black underwear and diving into a fast flowing river through a mill trapdoor. Musidora, who played Irma Vep in Les Vampires, has a lesser though central part here and retains the doe-eyed magnetism of her earlier villainy. These moments must have caused frissons in their day.
Other families form. Cocantin and Daisy adopt the orphan The Licorice Kid (Bout-de-Zan), a very street-smart child who forms an unlikely alliance with Jacqueline’s son, Jean. Jean appears rather girlish and is played by Olinda Mano. (6)
The other minor characters are all in some grouping or other that suggests new bonds. Even Favraux, the villainous banker, is allowed to be reunited with his family after being ‘tortured’ to insanity by Judex and his brother, who first appear to murder him and then bring him ‘back from the dead’ and imprison him in a hi-tech cell.
Only a couple of deaths occur, though one is Diana Monti’s. These elements of the film are highlighted by Jan-Christopher Horak in his DVD essay which, in a very insightful manner, delineates Judex from its darker and more violent predecessors.
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DVDs are causing a least some significant if very random strip-mining of the classical cinema. Some films are being released after full-scale restoration work. Others seem to be more eclectic choices. From Feuillade and Gaumont we can only ask for more, please. We await La Nouvelle Mission de Judex (1917), Tih Minh (1918) and Barablas (1919). That would only leave something like a little over 490 of the remaining Feuillade titles to exploit!
Spare a thought, too, for the neglected Georges Franju whose work, as both director and curator of the Cinémathèque back in the 1940s when the films were first rediscovered and screened, without intertitles, has surely contributed to keeping Feuillade’s name alive.
Franju’s career as a filmmaker – and he worked continuously from the late ’40s to the late ’70s, an era from which much material is now available on DVD – has been somewhat overlooked. He made 13 shorts between 1949 and 1958 and, from 1958 to 1978, directed eleven features.
At this moment, only one of the features has been released on DVD, his most infamous work, Les Yeux sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face), made in 1959. There are apparently prints of at least some of his films available. Last year the Brisbane International Film Festival screened his Jean Cocteau adaptation, Thomas the Imposter (1965), but screenings seem to be rare of most of his work and one wonders what state the prints and negatives are in when a Paris Cinémathèque screening last year of his 1973 Nuits Rouges (Shadowman) used a digital disc.
It is to be hoped that the release on DVD by Criterion in the US of Eyes Without a Face will provoke renewed interest in one of the key figures of 20th century cinema. The DVD gives Franju the full treatment. It contains the a high-definition digital transfer with splendid, removable subtitles, archival interviews with Franju at various ages of his life, interviews with Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac who worked on the script (the interview alas containing no reference to that work!), trailers, stills, posters and the Franju short film, Le Sang des Bêtes (1949), which is almost as notorious as Eyes Without a Face and which resonates with the feature film to an almost eerie extent.
There is, as well, a section of the disc titled “Dr Génessier’s Clinic”, which contains some very bizarre background about the some elements of the film including the so-called process of “heterografting” by which one person’s body parts are used to remake another. The sleeve also contains two essays, the first by historian David Kalat. Novelist Patrick McGrath, who wrote Spider, then offers a succinct but superb analysis of the film’s themes, its images and Franju’s approach to his material.
That approach is indeed quite remarkable. The opening credits plunge you straight into the action and, as the names come up, you wait for the moment for Edith Scob to be mentioned. She is the last of the actors to have her name recorded and the credit seems to linger a little. Whether it does in actuality I’m not sure. There is one surprise as well. The memory of Scob is so enduring that the presence in the film of Juliette Mayniel, who plays the first victim, Edna, had been entirely forgotten. Mayniel had a cold, withdrawn beauty and her presence also illuminated Claude Chabrol’s Les Cousins (1959). It’s hard to believe that her part in this film could not be remembered. But more powerful images overwhelmed it.
What next strikes you is the sheer stately quality of the storytelling. The film depicts extreme human violence in an atmosphere of complete horror. Yet everything moves at a steady, almost languid pace, even in the moments of tension such as the early disposal of the body in the river and the opening scenes with Louise (Alida Valli) driving away from danger, a disguised corpse in the rear seat. There is no cross-cutting that might represent a seen or unseen danger.
Even as the tension mounts and the police seem to be closing in on Dr Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), disturbing him as he is about to embark on his next attempt to give his daughter a new face, he attends to them by stripping off his face mask and unhurriedly walks across the full diagonal width of a courtyard between his laboratory and his country château. The first cut is to his entrance inside the house to meet the patient cops. In other circumstances, this might mitigate against the narrative, but here Franju is hardly trying to create ‘tension’. As he explains in one of the interviews on the disc, he “didn’t believe in fairy tales, but reality amazed” him. He constantly found unusual (“insolite”) moments in the everyday world. He had no desire to make the world of his drama even more artificial than it was. Hence, there is the extended paraphernalia of the doctor’s medical lecture and the sequence of slow dissolves of Edith Scob’s first facial transplant degenerating while on the soundtrack there is the doctor’s commentary describing, in detailed medical terms, the nature of the disintegration.
There is, of course, one famous moment of pure horror, something which caused audiences to blanch and faint in its day, when Edna’s face is lifted. Even then, the camera only slowly tracks in for a moment to reveal a shapeless blackness marked only by the whites of the eyes. That did cause a few outcries and was apparently removed from many of the circulating prints. The DVD contains the moment and it is gruesome still.
That horror is, however, not quite as chilling as at least one moment in Le Sang des Bêtes when a roomful of calves have been decapitated, skinned and their feet/hooves removed. They are tied down on benches and the remains of their bodies still quiver. It is as shocking an image as has been rendered on screen, even more so because we have been taken step by step through the process by which the calves arrived at this state. It occurs towards the end of the film and the audience has already seen a horse, a cow and some sheep slaughtered for their meat.
Franju’s sense of the bizarre found in the everyday has its roots in the work of the French surrealists and those who sought to find ‘lyrical’ moments in shocking images. Beyond that he has sought to keep alive classical French traditions and bring to the screen French institutions, whether they be buildings or places or major artists. His work connects us to Cocteau, François Mauriac and other French novelists. But, as well, it connects us to Feuillade and, both in his quotidian work and his filmmaking, to the history of the cinema. Like the release of Judex, the release of Eyes Without a Face should hopefully help towards a major process of rediscovery, outside France at least, of two key figures in French cinema.
- See http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/01/13/dvdlandmarks.html.
- I was reminded at the time that it seemed likely that Feuillade’s films, or some at least, would have been exhibited in the cinemas of the day in Australia, at least after the 1914-18 War as part of normal commercial screenings of silent films. Without searching the newspapers of the day, I have no way of knowing.
- By comparison, the images of Joe May’s The Indian Tomb (1921), also released in the past few years on US DVD, are near pristine, the film having been restored and then been the subject of a major screening at the Pordenone Film Festival before its release on DVD in the US.
- In my earlier piece on Fantomas, I quoted David Thomson on Feuillade, saying that he is “the first director for whom no historical allowances need to be made”.
- That quote is from the essay by Jan-Christopher Horak contained in the packaging of the DVD by Flicker Alley. The DVD is zoned to Region 1.
- The child actors are encouraged to hug each other in a quite intense way. Whether this was assisted by the boy Jean apparently being played by a young girl, or at least an actor with a girl’s name and female appearance, is well … interesting.