Fantômas: The Case of the Dastardly Scalawag

Fantômas! Fiend! Killer! Seducer! Terrorist! King of the underworld! Master of disguise! Collector of exclamation points! The sensational adventures of this amoral villain burst upon France and the rest of the doomed pre-WWI civilization from the pulpy pens of Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain. It was necessary instantly to turn his exploits into this series of five films from the equally prolific and inexhaustible Louis Feuillade. From book series to film series, here was the giddy James Bond phenom of its day.

What does it mean that a world about to die in radical convulsions should celebrate the shudder-ific shenanigans of a villain capable of orchestrating a train crash as a distraction for his getaway? What does it mean that readers devoured each new adventure of the diabolical ruffian’s unending skirmishes with Inspector Juve, who was never capable of bringing to justice a man whom jails couldn’t hold, whom women couldn’t resist, and who flouted law and order? Was it a sign of the death-wish a fin-de-siècle Europe was about to explode upon itself? We’re tempted to read portents into pre-cataclysmic pop culture, but we should all have selfish reasons for dearly hoping there’s nothing in it.

Fantômas really has no character and almost no concrete existence. In these films, we rarely see actor René Navarre looking like himself, except in the introductions that show us the disguises he will wear in this particular episode so that we’ll never be confused or surprised on that point, no matter how disoriented we are by anything else. As David Kalat says in his commentary, “if he has a face, it’s the face that wears the mask”. Fantômas is more of an idea, an embodiment of the cruel, anti-social impulse who can step out from behind any number of apparently respectable identities.

The stories make no sense, and that’s a deliberate quality more than a careless one, even though they seem to have been dictated off the tops of the authors’ heads. They wrote alternating chapters without consulting each other, a procedure that delighted the Surrealists. The resulting plots can best be described by that overused term “dreamlike” (or the critics’ preference, “oneiric”). In this case, dreamlike means that provisional, unquestioning sense you have in dreams that one scene has led to the next by some train of association, and that you can’t stop to examine or retrace it or the whole thing will evaporate. The setpieces are connected by intangible threads with no particular motive. Into every adventure, in the middle of this murk, arrive two or three moments so bizarre that they seem to be plucked from a dream-state, and indeed they often involve characters who are asleep or drugged or pretending to sleep. I shan’t describe any examples, since they partly depend on their unexpectedness. Okay, one involves a reptile.

As an example of making no sense, one adventure begins with the report of a woman’s crushed body. The police speculate that it might be the corpse of Lady Beltham (Renée Carl), who shows up in several of these things. Or maybe that’s just what we’re supposed to think. Then a bunch of things start happening one after another and this original mystery is quite forgotten. When the movie gets around to explaining something about it, the “answer” leaves much unexplained (like who was killed and why), and nobody cares.

The methods of Inspector Juve (Edmund Bréon) are just as haphazard. He’s brilliant and ingenious, but he doesn’t bother to question anybody about what they know and he spends a lot of time sitting in his spacious office chatting with journalist chum Fandor (Georges Melchior). This secondary hero sure gets great access to everything that’s going on, and it’s a good thing no other reporters seem to be covering the events.

All one really needs to know is that Fantômas will be in disguise as one or more people, when he’s not entirely hooded in a kind of catsuit, and that half the time people will think he’s dead or that Juve is dead when one or more of them is really masquerading as the other. Fantômas always, always escapes at the last minute. (One of these escapes feels like something out of a Mack Sennett slapstick.) Fantômas or his minions are in every institution. Fantômas is often at a high level while the minions are low, like servants and prison guards. In fact, one segment is about the fact that the public suspects Juve is Fantômas, thus furthering the sense of confusion about the corrupt and paradoxical forces of “order” in these overplotted nonsense tales. Thesis: Order is chaos and chaos order. Discuss.

Feuillade’s visual style in these films is a modified hybrid. The early episodes of 1913 most resemble the primitive features circa 1912, where titles announce the scene and then we watch it in a single unedited shot, as though looking at a stage. Feuillade had made films in that style — he’d cranked out hundreds of movies since 1905 for the Gaumont company — but that look was already becoming passé (not to be confused with Pathé) by 1914 thanks to the popular close-ups and cross-cuts of D.W. Griffith’s style.

Feuillade was aware of all this, and closer study reveals that these episodes have complicated sequences with cross-cuts and close-ups, moreso as we get to the 1914 items on the eve of war. There are lots of inserts, especially when people read something, and other key objects (a torn dress, a fingerprint, a gas faucet) are given the close-up treatment as well. We also follow peoples’ gazes through binoculars and windows. (I’d like to know the earliest movie that used a binocular shape over the image; here’s one from 1914.) Occasionally the camera will pan to right or left, as when revealing the surprising presence of a corpse. On one remarkable occasion, the camera even rises upward. Still, even with all this evidence of encroaching modernism, for the most part these films feel like the primitive, statically shot proscenium approach.

That primitive sense mainly derives from having the camera observe most scenes from an impassive middle distance. This no longer seems as antique as it might have done twenty years ago, at least to non-mainstream audiences who have been schooled on the critics’ darlings and film-festival favorites who adopt precisely such a cool, removed, contemplative style. It’s meant to be an alternative to what critics call “suturing”, the standard approach to editing films in a way that draws the viewer into the action through identification with characters’ eyelines and such. Most of the new school don’t make melodramas, but sometimes they do (e.g. Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Three Monkeys), and several Japanese genre directors (Takeshi Kitano, Takashi Miike, Kiyoshi Kurosawa) have been known to adopt the middle distance and the reserved camera even when depicting frenzied activity.

Another aspect of the primitive is the melodramatic style of acting, with characters waving their arms in dismay, pointing at things we should see, and conveying elaborate shrugs. Again, there’s more of this in the first movie than the last. People sometimes think of this as a silent style or even a stage style but it’s important to realize that this was never the only style in silent films nor the contemporary stage. It was a style used in particular modes of comedy and melodrama and understood as such. These episodes mix styles and are sometimes naturalistic. Mostly they blend styles according to scene or character. There are examples of breaking the fourth wall as someone (most often the rule-breaking Fantômas) glances or gestures to the viewer, making us complicit in his dastardly behavior.

David Kalat offers commentary on the first two films. While most DVD commentaries aren’t worth hearing, Kalat is essential. He traces the devilishly complicated history of Fantômas, his creators, progenitors, brethren and offspring. The reality is indeed as fantastic as the fiction. The French Sûreté, for which Juve works, was founded by a master criminal named Vidocq, thus hatching the blurring between criminal and cop that marks the genre. This implies that one reason Juve or society cannot kill or imprison Fantômas is that it would mean to stop oneself. Vidocq’s example inspired many master detectives and criminals in life and fiction. Not only were Souvestre and Allain following in well-trodden archetypes, but Feuillade and the film industry had for several years caught the bug of criminal serials. There were remakes of Fantômas in various media, and he directly inspired items like Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, another foreboding, labyrinthine, trick-happy scoundrel of a rampantly corrupt era.

Two Feuillade shorts are included as a bonus, as well as a brief overview of his career that’s also on Kino’s Gaumont Treasures box. The first short is a 14-minute telling of The Nativity (1910) with many postures and gestures against painted sets. Part of a series of Jesus films, this focuses mostly on the domestic melodrama of Herod and his wife, who is shown as the shrewish power behind the throne. As early as 1910, we see Feuillade breaking from primitive sequence-shots into more complicated sequences. The final shot, with a painted sphinx, is memorable kitsch.

Another creature altogether is The Dwarf (1912, 17-minutes), one of his lovely entries in a naturalistic series he called Life As It Is (La Vie telle qu’elle est). If this isn’t the first movie to star a dwarf in a non-comic or grotesque role, I’m an Englishman. This short gentleman, living with his mother, makes a hit as the anonymous author of a play but fears to reveal his love to the leading lady. As per Feuillade’s agenda, the story isn’t melodrama, even if the gestures are elegantly postured. There’s no forced resolution, only an outcome that’s believable and almost anecdotal.

Kalat mentions that the first wave of French film critics blindly dismissed Feuillade’s popular serials, though it should be considered that Feuillade might have brought it on himself. As possibly the most vigorous and important filmmaker of his time and place, he pioneered and promoted “aesthetic” and “realistic” movements in film, accompanied by manifestos that slammed the melodramatic, and he showed the way brilliantly.

In other words, his example did much to create those tasteful, high-toned audiences and critics who would naturally belittle his efforts at blood-and-thunder mass-teria, so he has no one to blame if they absorbed his lectures too completely. To give Feuillade’s critics their due, it’s possible that if he’d spent his energies on other projects as they wished, he might just as easily have created other types of masterpieces. He already had. What matters is that his shameful melodramas cleaned up at the box office. He basically never looked back and made serials for the next decade until his death in 1925. We tend to know his earlier serials (this one, Les Vampires and Judex), so it’s difficult to say how his work developed.

It would be false to characterize these serials as the refined, European, under-edited, middle-distance equivalents of Griffith’s over-excited, in-your-face, American thrill machines, because Griffith’s films are usually just as slow, refined, and distanced until they make their way towards their thundering climaxes. The two directors feel more alike than different in several ways, including their mixture of melodrama and subtlety, and their feel for the picturesque in outdoor scenes and night shots. And they seem to have fallen out of fashion together. Still, the Feuillades are more of a mazelike piece rather than clearly posted narratives aiming at a climax of adrenalin. Indeed, the inevitable escapes from justice feel like a kind of anti-climax or what Kalat calls an endless loop. The films are very suspenseful, yet more enervated than cathartic. They cast a restless, opiated, somnabulistic spell.

These prints look very good, and some scenes are tinted. There is damage here and there, especially in the last film, which summarizes several missing sequences. English title cards have been provided for this edition, which is based in a 1998 edition issued on Region 2 DVD in France.