Silent Screams

Les Vampires (1915-1916)

a film directed by Louis Feuillade
Image Entertainment, on laser disc pp., $124.99

Irma Vep (1996)

a film directed by Olivier Assayas
Fox Lorber, on videocassette pp., $68.99

The Mystery of Irma Vep

a revival of the 1984 production by Charles Ludlum, directed by and starring Everett Quinton. at the Westside Theatre, New York

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 inextricably mingling glee and rage as she howled what must be the most powerful unheard melody in film history, that the impression of strangeness became overwhelming. This was not, it turned out, the Sixties at all; this was the secret Paris of 1915, and we reverential viewers were to be overrun by Musidora and her Vampires as defenselessly as any of the film’s anxious bourgeois investigators. For a few hours all the life-energy seemed to emanate from the other side of the screen.

There is a kind of cinematic justice in making this film widely available for the first time just at the end of the century: so much of twentieth-century film is already present in the work of Feuillade. He stands at the font of that Great Melodrama in which at least half the films ever made—whether packaged as Saturday matinée serials or Pop Art exercises in style—figure as episodes. With its undercover agents, mad scientists, and murderous temptresses, car chases and intricately planned heists, high society balls and séances and dance parties in underworld cabarets, Les Vampires makes an early comprehensive survey of that landscape of crime and paranoia that will eventually encompass the doctors Caligari and Mabuse, wartime commando adventures and late Forties film noir and Sixties caper pictures, Goldfinger and Batman Returns and Die Hard II, Mister Arkadin and Point Blank and The Usual Suspects—and does so with a crazy invention and robust humor to which Feuillade’s heirs have rarely measured up.

Louis Feuillade was hardly the originator of the crime film—a genre that can be traced back through vigorous if structurally protozoan efforts like the British Daring Daylight Burglary (1903) or the American Automobile Thieves (1906)—or the serial, a form that was pioneered in the US beginning with What Happened to Mary? (1912) and soon found imitators everywhere. He simply sounded the potential of what had been handed to him, accomplishing in melodrama work that can be compared only to what Buster Keaton did in comedy—and by means not so dissimilar. Like Keaton, Feuillade uses sight gags, trick sets, and a choreographic sense of blocking and gesture to make a world in which the impossible becomes visible, and suites of shockingly unexpected actions unfold like demented cadenzas. Les Vampires also shares with Keaton’s films a plastic beauty owing nothing to artistic flourishes: we merely have the impression of seeing the world for the first time.

Video, as might have been surmised, is the perfect format for a film that because of its inordinate length has been seen all too rarely, chiefly at festivals and museums. In any mode of life it is rarely convenient to watch a seven-hour movie, and such marathons of wakefulness distort the effect in any case. Les Vampires was designed to be watched not in a single grueling sitting but in sessions separated by a week or more. A serial works on the viewer not only while being watched but in between times; it piles up suggestions and leaves them suspended so they can filter through days of recollection and anticipation, through dreams haunted by its personae, through moments of reverie in which the mind involuntarily rearranges the half-remembered fragments.

The film’s original poster bore a repeated image of a woman’s face in a black mask, her neck wreathed by a hooklike question mark, and underneath the questions: “Who? What? When? Where?” We are given no answers, only further questions. Of the origins, numbers, and ultimate aims of the Vampires we are told nothing; they simply exist, masters of all forms of dissimulation and intrusion, an underground society whose agents are everywhere, disguised according to circumstance as priests and telephone operators, clairvoyants and caterers. They peer through skylights and flee across rooftops. Shape-shifting nomads of the modern urban underworld, they change clothes and moustaches and ancestries with casual fluidity. Despite their predilection for stealing jewels and bank certificates, some motive deeper than greed is implied; but it is left (mercifully) to the imagination. Their name although not their deeds evokes the supernatural; with their black hoods and hidden lineage of Grand Vampires, they resemble an occult sect; their mastery of sabotage and their arsenal of artillery hints that they might be foreign agents; their targeting of the rich and powerful suggests an anarchist band. The decision to leave their precise mission unspecified made the Vampires the most potently open-ended of metaphors.

Feuillade himself was no revolutionary, but rather an impeccable Catholic and monarchist, a Provence wine merchant’s son who drifted into the film industry as early as 1905 after a brief but prolific career in journalism. He claimed to have directed some seven hundred films, ranging from brief gags (the early ones have titles like Papa Takes the Purge and Don’t Go Out with Nothing On), through scores of tear-jerking melodramas, historical vignettes, vaudeville routines, religious and patriotic tableaux, to the multi-episode dramas in which he ultimately specialized. A glimpse at some of his earlier shorts—a Heliogabalus condensing the matter and manner of a three-hour costume epic into ten minutes or so, or an account of a practical joke played by the hugely popular street urchin Bout-de-Zan—is enough to suggest that a full-scale Feuillade retrospective would be something to wonder at.

He embarked on his cycle of crime serials in 1913 with the epoch-making Fantômas, a sublime visualization of the pulp hero created by the prolific hack novelists Allain and Souvestre, a masked, quite heartless, apparently indestructible criminal. This he followed with Les Vampires, which had no literary antecedent and evidently not so much as a scenario. The improvisational leaps and makeshift devices gave it the wild freedom of a dream that lives from one gesture to the next, never knowing where it will end up. Its seamless mix of realistic urban settings and explosively unlikely events might have stemmed from a collaboration between Eugène Atget and Max Ernst. In the ten years remaining to him he would make further masterpieces in the crime genre—Judex, Barrabas, and Tih Minh (a sequel to Les Vampires which is just about as good)—before shifting to more sentimental material.

Some of the oddness of Les Vampires has been compounded by the passage of time, and there is a temptation to perceive some of its more bizarrely amusing moments as inadvertent. Would one really have expected to find a pair of kilted Scottish dancers providing the entertainment for a gang of murderous South American gangsters? Would the chief of these gangsters while away the time between crimes by lazily browsing in a volume from his library? The deliberateness should not, however, be underestimated. Feuillade’s earlier specialization was farce; one of his two overworked heroes here is the broadly comic vaudevillian Marcel Lévesque (a marvelous performance once one gets used to its Opéra-Comique stylization), and when not sowing terror Feuillade generally fills the interval with bits of humorous business. The aura of madness and obsession that hangs over silent German melodramas like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or the Mabuse films of Fritz Lang is rather different from Feuillade’s frank and casual acceptance of shock as entertainment, his extension of the aesthetic of music hall and Grand Guignol. We will not again find such a knowing, and sometimes downright cheerful, manipulation of the frightful until the advent of Hitchcock.

In the same year that Les Vampires was filmed, D.W. Griffith (who had gotten into the picture business some three years after Feuillade) released The Birth of a Nation, recounting the exploits of a quite distinct band of hooded marauders. The technical complexity of Griffith’s film, with its intricate crosscutting and fluid changes of angle and distance, the sheer busyness of its mechanisms, was calculated to make movies like Feuillade’s look primitive overnight. In Les Vampires the camera scarcely budges, and some of the most eventful scenes are enacted in a single theatrically staged long shot. Nonetheless Feuillade’s use of the medium is arguably subtler than Griffith’s; he just goes at it differently. The apparent archaism of his style looked half a century later like purposeful starkness. When a corpse under a sheet comes to life, there are no special effects, no shifts of vantage point, no shadows, just place and action. Things are shown head-on, as if there were only one way to photograph anything: the way it happens.

Feuillade was never to renounce this aesthetic position, bitterly denouncing the fanciful visual experiments of the Twenties as decadent and calculated to alienate the audience. In Les Vampires he has his vindication: every shot is not just a composition but an event. (Luis Buñuel, an early admirer, achieved something of the same effect in his 1952 film The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, whose simplified style—a series of calm shocks—might almost be an homage to Feuillade.) Where he triumphs above all is in his pacing, which has the somnambulistic force of a train wreck in slow motion. We watch as traps are elaborately set and then recoil as they shut. When a captive Irma is hypnotized into shooting the Grand Vampire, the scene is over literally in a flash. The abruptness gives, more truly than any symphonic buildup, the effect of a traumatic event: “Did that really happen?” One of the film’s most memorable episodes—the gassing and despoliation of a whole houseful of bejeweled aristocrats—is almost haiku-like in its brevity.

Feuillade’s solutions to technical problems are sometimes stunningly basic (actors miming their meaning as in charades) or just peculiar: when his heroes watch a newsreel about a murder case, the alleged movie (for want of any more convincing special effect) is staged as a tableau vivant. Sound and language are made part of this mute world in interesting ways. When Irma Vep is bound and gagged by the hero and left in the front seat of his elegant automobile (one of many stately vehicles that decorate the film), she signals her confederate by repeatedly banging her head on the car horn. The visible raucousness of the participants in the various cabaret and party scenes achieves a sort of “silent scream” effect, above all when Irma (in the shot that has become the film’s most familiar icon) launches into her song with a fright mask of a grimace.

Written language constantly intrudes in the form of visiting cards, telegrams, newspaper articles, posters, secret messages of all kinds. The titles of the episodes themselves have a compelling pulp poetry: “The Gem That Kills,” “The Eyes That Fascinate,” “The Master of the Thunder,” “The Bloody Wedding.” Punctuating the film at crucial moments are two marvelous bits involving animated lettering. When we first encounter the name “Irma Vep” on a cabaret poster, the letters rearrange themselves into “Vampire.” The same gag recurs in more elaborate form when Irma is about to be shipped with other female prisoners to a penal colony in Algeria. The Grand Vampire, who in his disguise as a bearded missionary has been given permission to distribute religious tracts among the felons, winks knowingly as he hands Irma her copy. The title La Vérité Sera à Nu (Truth Shall Be Naked) transmutes merrily into an anagram worthy of Raymond Queneau or Georges Perec: Le Navire Sautera (The Ship Will Explode).

In Feuillade’s world the idea of criminals communicating by means of anagrams seems not altogether out of place. The society he catalogs brims with a sense of its own formality; we are given a series of trim animate lithographs of hotels, theaters, cafés, police bureaus, aristocratic country houses. The characters bring their luggage with them, and their hats, their parasols, their pocket handkerchiefs. There are stiffly splendid genre scenes—the Engagement Party, the Society Ball, Arriving at the Hotel—that for the film’s purposes exist only to be disrupted but to our latecoming eyes are irresistible in their overdecorated stolidity. Merely to observe the body language in Les Vampires is to become privy to the ancient history of European ceremonial forms. Even Irma Vep pauses to straighten her hair before proceeding with a mission of terror. While Feuillade was filming, the battle of Verdun was taking place; the battle of the Somme began a month after the last episode played. The waistcoats and touring cars and wallpaper and potted plants, the rides along deserted roads by car or bicycle or horse, already have the air of belonging to a lost world.

Will it be lost because of the Vampires? The anxiety that attaches to those masked and ruthless opponents is genuine—yet it is matched by Feuillade’s obvious enthusiasm for their resourcefulness. If they come close to triumphing, it is through their chameleonic genius for assuming all the traits of the society they are undermining. In a world of perfect manners, they are the most mannerly. The film resembles at various moments a demonstration of techniques of hypnotism, a field guide to heavy artillery, a sadomasochistic erotic manual, an illustrated history of nineteenth-century theater with special attention to ropes and trapdoors, an antique hotel brochure with a map of secret passageways: so many pedagogical supplements whose lessons have been absorbed and perfected by the Vampires. They have come, it might be supposed, to guide these gowned and top-hatted ladies and gentlemen into the twentieth century: a task which in itself, certainly from the perspective of France in 1915, would be enough to make demons of them.

The film’s conflicting impulses converge in the figure of Irma Vep, a character who escapes from whatever designs the narrative may at some point have had on her, and who so successfully entraps the entrapper that the question arises of how much Musidora is the secret author of Les Vampires. The actress, whose real name was Jeanne Roques, did in fact go on to write poems, screenplays (some of which she directed), magazine articles, and a number of novels (one of them bore the promising title Paroxysms). Her embodiment of Irma Vep carries an authorial weight; the result is a character who even without words seems part of the literature of modern Europe, as endlessly fascinating as her spiritual cousin, Brecht’s Pirate Jenny.

Her legend has been carried on by Olivier Assayas’s 1996 film Irma Vep, which very appropriately casts the Hong Kong star Maggie Cheung as Musidora’s stand-in in fragments of a latter-day remake (the iconic black bodysuit, suitable for roaming in the corridors of large hotels, has not lost its erotic charge). We see her in between scenes of offscreen intrigue and footage from both Feuillade’s original and the Feuilladesque Hong Kong action fantasy The Heroic Trio. Earlier, Charles Ludlam had paid tribute with his play The Mystery of Irma Vep, a brilliant pastiche in which two actors very busily move in and out of six distinct roles. Ludlam’s play, which has been revived recently, strictly speaking has no connection with Feuillade’s film other than the name of its protagonist, and owes what passes for its storyline more to Rebecca, The Mummy, and The Wolf Man. In a deeper sense, however, the two works are linked by a common flair for humor and improvisation; a similar cavalier delight in the arbitrariness of their narratives; an air of having fed the history of melodrama into a shredder and then picked out the gaudiest bits; and above all their exultant faith in theatricality as an end in itself. In Feuillade as in Ludlam, there is no point in looking forward to a resolution or narrative afterlife that will somehow justify or tie together the events we witness. The events don’t stand for anything, they impart no moral or didactic purpose; they merely dazzle and amaze.

At century end’s the fascination of the original Irma Vep is undiminished, a fascination compounded by incessant changes of identity and constant suggestions that if only Irma could speak the audience might be inducted into an alternate reality: the world in which the Vampires come out on top. She is nothing less than protean in her transformations. Like bystanders helpless to intervene we catch sight of her multiple infiltrations: Irma Vep as chanteuse, Irma Vep in black leotard and hood, Irma Vep as substitute telephone operator, Irma Vep in male drag in a Fontainebleau hotel, Irma Vep in jeweled headband and string of pearls, Irma Vep in thick glasses and ill-fitting coat trying desperately to look frumpy, Irma Vep as perkily professional sales rep of a phonograph company, Irma Vep in bacchanalian frenzy dancing at her own wedding. Irma Vep as fashion plate: she stands in long tight-waisted skirt and elegantly cut jacket, the very model of a Gibson Girl, until she sours the impression by putting on a rakish oversized cap—classic burglar’s gear—and stands with hand swaggeringly on hip while talking to a criminal confederate on the telephone.

She is by turns defiant, vulnerable, entranced, sullenly vengeful, wild with the excitement of planning further crimes. In the end the whole seven hours of Les Vampires turns into a movie about her gaze, as she emerges from a trunk or crawls out from under the tarpaulin where she has hidden, caught in the frame with her nervous alert glance of caution, of suspicion, of dawning realization, of triumphant knowledge. Her victory is so complete that, when she is finally obliged to die, Feuillade handles the scene in a single frustratingly perfunctory shot, as if for once he couldn’t bear to look.

  1. *

    The phrase occurs in The Treasure of the Jesuits, an unproduced play by André Breton and Louis Aragon.