Monday, Aug. 31, 2009

Fans of Fantomas

By David Luhrssen
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They are legendary among students of early film, Fantomas and Les Vampires, a pair of serials from the 1910s. Their pulp fiction stories looked ahead toward the fantastic strain in action cinema, while seeming to invert the moral universe adopted by Hollywood. The title characters were sociopathic criminals in a world without superheroes. By implication, the society they preyed upon might not have been worth defending.

Before either series was filmed, their director, Louis Feuillade, had already enjoyed a prolific career with France’s major early studio, Gaumont. Thirteen early Feuillade films from 1907 through 1913 fill one of three discs in the DVD set “Gaumont Treasures: 1897-1913.” They reveal an imaginative filmmaker in command of the cinematic craft of his day and comfortable in many of the nascent film genres. Well paced and acted, Feuillade’s movies sometimes featured spectral special effects and split screens. But like virtually all movies from before World War I, they were shot by static cameras at mid-range in takes broken only by cuts to the title cards.

As for content, Feuillade’s four-minute comedy, The Colonel’s Account (1907), could be revised as an Adam Sandler sketch. A pompous dinner guest, a war veteran recounting his glory days, destroys the dining room as he dramatically reenacts the great battle of his youth, only to be defeated when his companions counterattack with a barrage of plates. The Roman Orgy (1911), gloriously costumed and color tinted, was an exciting historical drama complete with lions running loose in the court of a decadent Roman emperor. With its henchmen disguised as women, sleep-inducing gas, vanishing ink and cabals of masked plutocrats, The Trust (1911) was a precursor to the fantastic adventures of Fantomas and Les Vampires.

Alice Guy, represented in the Gaumont set by a disc of her own short subjects from 1897-1907, hired Feuillade at the studio. Like most early films, Guy’s movies reveled in the sheer magic of pictures that moved, focusing on street scenes, bathing-suited men splashing on a river bank and dancers enacting their numbers. Although her movies are of historical, not aesthetic interest, her prominence at Gaumont is evidence for the overlooked role of women in early cinema. Guy sojourned in America, making forgotten films during the World War I period before returning home to obscurity.

The final disc of “Gaumont Treasures,” comprised of a pair of pre-World War I features by director Leonce Perret, shows how the scope of cinema expanded with the employment of backlighting, low-angle shots, close-ups and more mobile cameras.

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