Les Vampires (1915-1916)
Irma Vep (1996)
The Mystery of Irma Vep
The uncanniness of the way film preserves living moments never registered so sharply as on a July night in the mid-1960s when I was initiated into the work of Louis Feuillade. The occasion was an uninterrupted screening of his seven-hour masterpiece Les Vampires at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris. This was the old Cinémathèque, not the comfortable carpeted shrine in the Palais de Chaillot but the more rudimentary screening room that preceded it; no refreshments were served, the chairs were uncomfortable, the ventilation barely supportable, and, in keeping with an iron law of the Cinémathèque, no music accompanied the film. The distinctly unhistorical silence (silent movie theaters, even when they were not music palaces, almost always provided some sort of live soundtrack) was doubtless intended to focus attention rigorously and unwaveringly on the image. No arbitrary glissandos were permitted to interpolate emotional shadings or mar the purity of the visual rhythm. The hall was reasonably crowded and for the whole seven hours neither laughter nor whispering nor so much as a restless shuffle was to be heard.
This mood of cinephilic awe could hardly have found a more appropriate object. An adventure serial about the elaborate misdeeds of a mysterious band of outlaws, filmed in Paris and environs between the fall of 1915 and the spring of 1916, Les Vampires had from its first appearance acquired an aura of fascination and danger. The Parisian prefect of police suspended screenings for two months on grounds of an alleged glamorizing of crime, while André Breton and his associates discerned traces of “the great reality of this century—beyond fashion, beyond taste.” The film’s antiquity and rarity, its long absence from most film histories, its legendary importance first to the Surrealists and later to filmmakers such as Alain Resnais and Georges Franju, its sheer length: all these certainly helped to create an air of mystery around Feuillade’s work, but if there was ever a film with no need for special pleading it was Les Vampires.
Without buildup or the slightest hint of backstory, it unleashed a succession of perturbing images and inescapable situations, which neither had nor required any justification beyond their own intensity. Severed heads turned up in hatboxes; householders were lassoed out of windows and then rolled down stairways in baskets; motorcars raced on dark errands along deserted country roads; conspirators caroused in low dives; masked assassins slipped across the roofs of Paris; a tack treated with a stupefying drug was hidden in a suede glove; chambermaids submitted to hypnosis; top hats exploded when hurled to the ground. And beyond all that, beyond comparison, there was Irma Vep: the villainous heroine, or heroic villainess, not so much portrayed as embodied by Musidora, the actress whom Louis Aragon called—with what seems to me justifiable hyperbole—“the Tenth Muse.”
It was at the moment in the third episode when Musidora made her appearance as a kohl-lidded chanteuse in the Howling Cat café, staring directly into the camera with an expression …