Sunday, April 26, 2009

Fantômas: In the Shadow of the Guillotine/Juve Versus Fantômas

The pulp fiction villain Fantômas was one of the early cinema's first great criminal figures, as depicted in the famed five-film serial directed by Louis Feuillade. The first film in the series was Fantômas: In the Shadow of the Guillotine, which established the titular bandit and criminal (played in all five films by René Navarre) as well as his adversary, Inspector Juve (Edmund Breon), both of them taken from a popular series of novels of the time. Fantômas is a master of disguise, as hinted at in the opening montage, which fades between several different mugshot-like portraits of the villain in various guises and false beards. This hour-long opening chapter of the serial depicts Fantômas robbing and murdering, scheming with the Lady Beltham (Renée Carl) to kill her husband, and presumably take his money, too, though this is never spelled out. The interesting thing about Fantômas is that his crimes rarely seem to have any overriding motive; he's in it for the money, yes, but more than that he just seems to get a kick out of doing evil things for their own sake. But the clever Juve is on the trail, and with the help of his friend, the reporter Jérôme Fandor (Georges Melchior), he is soon able to apprehend Fantômas, sending him to prison to await execution.

The second half of the film is thus dedicated to Fantômas' plan to escape from prison and his deadly fate. Interestingly, Feuillade more or less places the audience in a position of identification, not with Juve, but with Fantômas himself. With the criminal caught and sent to jail halfway through the picture, this can't be a typical police mystery where the audience is rooting for the detective to catch the criminal and solve the case. Once the case is solved, the big question becomes: how is Fantômas going to escape? It's a foregone conclusion that he will escape, that he'll live to rob and kill again another day, so the suspense is simply all about seeing how he'll do it, what clever plan he'll come up with. The plan turns out to be a good one, not necessarily in terms of its logic (which is non-existent), but in terms of the way its convoluted mechanics play out on screen. With the help of his accomplice Lady Beltham, Fantômas lures the actor Valgrand (Volbert), who is playing Fantômas in a stage re-enactment of his crimes and punishment, to appear at a house near the prison in his performance costume. Once there, he is substituted for Fantômas and sent to a rendezvous with the guillotine while the master criminal makes his escape. Juve saves the man at the last minute and vows to pursue Fantômas from then on. The film's final scene is its best: Juve, in his study, has a vision of his adversary, fading into view in the corner of the room, dressed in a top hat with a domino mask across his eyes, taunting the inspector to chase him down.

Feuillade's aesthetic is simple and direct, very much of its time. His camera set-ups are of course static, and even stagey. With the exception of a few, rare closeups to highlight an object (like Fantômas' clever calling cards, which appear blank at first before his name fades into view), the film is staged entirely in tableau-like medium shots, with all the action playing out for each scene within a single room, from a steady, head-on angle. Given the limitations of the cameras of the time, Feuillade often composed in depth, using his static shots to his advantage. An automobile parked alongside the curb is shot from a skewed angle that accentuates the sidewalk stretching away into the distance, calling attention to the man walking towards the car, who will prove to be important. Later, when Lady Beltham goes to watch Valgrand's performance as Fantômas, the scene is shot from her booth in the back of the theater, with the stage itself framed, like a cinema screen within the screen, by the boundaries of her booth. The multiple levels achieved within this shot are striking: the cinema audience watches someone else, who's watching another audience that's watching a play.

These layered, deep-focus compositions are the most interesting aspect of this first chapter in the Fantômas serial. The action here is slow and drawn-out, and the staging of some scenes — like Fantômas' first robbery, at a hotel — are awkward and clumsy, making the dashing villain seem very amateurish indeed. This installment mainly just sets up the characters and situations that would be exploited throughout the remainder of the series.

Already with the serial's second chapter, Juve Versus Fantômas, the pieces seem to be more firmly in place, and the action more elaborate and thrilling. Curiously enough, the story here is also more rambling and incoherent, often threatening to fall apart completely, as though Fantômas himself had forgotten what his plot was all about. A dead body appears, supposed to be Lady Beltham, but apparently not since she is alive later; in any event, the corpse is quickly forgotten. Instead, Fantômas plots to get a large sum of money from a businessman, although this too is unceremoniously dropped in the latter half of the film. Basically, this hour-long film is a string of inventive set pieces, in which Fantômas engages in a duel of wits and brawn against the combined forces of Juve and Fandor.

There's an exciting action sequence in which Fantômas and his gang of thieves hold up a train, uncoupling the last car in order to facilitate their getaway and trigger a horrible collision to eliminate any witnesses. Feuillade stages this by fluidly blending together model shots and images taken aboard a real moving train, and there's a propulsive rhythm to the editing during this scene that belies the static nature of the individual shots. Feuillade manages to convey the motion and energy of the trains without even moving the camera once. Even better is a shootout at a wine barreling plant, where Fantômas' hoods are hiding out in a large field of wine barrels, popping up sporadically between the rows to trade shots with Juve and Fandor. The whole thing is set up like a carnival shooting game, and Feuillade plays it for near-slapstick humor without ever dissipating the sense of danger. Feuillade likes to play with the entirety of the frame, often enlivening his static shots with bits of business tucked away in all the layers from foreground to background. In a scene at a nightclub where Juve and Fandor confront Fantômas' girl Josephine (Yvette Andréyor), the frame is packed with activity and small jokes, distractions at the edges or in the extreme foreground, like the drunk guy who keeps nodding off to sleep in the corner of the frame. Finally, there's a rousing concluding set piece at Lady Beltham's abandoned mansion, where the police track down Fantômas, who avoids them through some clever hiding spots. The whole thing closes with a fiery cliffhanger, a teaser for the next episode.

With this second film, the pace of Feuillade's storytelling picks up a bit — though it's still often plodding by modern standards — and there's a lot of fun in watching Fantômas and Juve match wits. This installment places the inspector on an equal footing with his adversary, as indicated by both the title and the opening montage, in which Fantômas' line-up of disguises is followed by a similar introduction for Juve. This film solidifies the series' mania for dressing up and switching identities. Now even the cops get in on the fun, putting on fake beards and disguises in an effort to keep up with their enemy. Identities become fluid and temporary. Fantômas' favorite trick is changing while he's out of view, either in an elevator or in the back of a motor car, becoming a different person in the time it takes him to get from one place to another. And in the finale, he very nearly becomes nobody, donning a form-fitting black costume and mask that turns him into an iconic, mysterious phantom.


Sam Juliano said...

If anyone were talented and informed enough to give these definitive treatment it would be you above all, and you have done a magnificent job with this fecund summation. The poetic lyricism of these films is conjoined by that documentary feel that in this sense chronicles life in France on the cusp of the First World War.

I have owned the marvelous Region 1 here for several years, and have enjoyed some enlightening discourse with my colleague Mr. Fish, who really needs to read this review here, which really leaves no stone unturned. I did delight in the 'layered' and deep-focus compositions, and understood the stationary aspect of filmmaking of this era to come off as 'static' and 'theatrical' but even the later LA ROUE by Abel Gance could be labeled with the same (yet it is one of the greatest films ever made, because OF it's melodrama)

I will say that I did read at one point that the first five volumes of the series that Feuillade filmed were far from the best of the lot.

Excellent essay here also for its meticulous and fascinating description of the set of shots and teh technique. Fascinating stuff.

Sam Juliano said...

As an addition to my previous comment, I would just like to say that Feuillade's LES VAMPIRES, which I have on the Water Bearer/Image set, and JUDEX (which I also have on the Flicker Alley) are equally essential, though the former is Feuillade's pinnacle, methinks.

Wombatz said...

Juves vs Fantomas is the lone pinnacle of this series, methinks, and I'd rate it much higher than you seem to do. You do mention the fun that everyone seems to have shooting this, but the romp through convoluted plotlines also has a sophisticated aspect to it, eg the inspector donning the spike shirt teasing us to guess what the silent executioner will be like. My favorite moment in the whole series might be the clearly visible fingerprint on the unconscious primadonna's neck, but on the whole the digs at stage culture probably no longer translate well, and it's the beautiful location shooting that lifts this episode to another level.