“[T]here is . . . a Feuillade current [in cinema], one that marvelously links the fantastic side of Méliès with the realism of Lumière, a current that creates mystery and evokes dreams by the use of the most banal elements of daily life.” — Alain Resnais
Perhaps the most purely entertaining movie I’ve seen, Fantômas is a serialized silent melodrama by France’s prolific Louis Feuillade about an anonymous arch criminal in Paris and the police inspector, Juve, dogging his trail. The latter is assisted by a newspaper reporter, Fandor, and all three men are relentless. Fresh, inventive, poetic/surreal, the five episodes, together, exceed 5½ hours in viewing length. They are taken from a series of 32 novels by journalists Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain that was ongoing even as the film was being launched. (After Souvestre’s death, Allain wrote 11 more, solo.) The result intoxicates.
The first two installments make unmistakable the despicable nature of the masked-and-caped villain who calls himself Fantômas. The first episode, “À l’ombre de la guillotine” (“In the Shadow of the Guillotine”), showcases this thief-assassin’s manipulation of the society woman who loves him and his willingness to cede to her plot to substitute a lookalike stage actor’s neck for his own neck under the blade of justice once he is caught and jailed. The second (and mostly weak), “Juve versus Fantômas,” ends with our anti-hero in a fit of demonic glee as Juve and Fandor, he believes, are burning to death by his design. Yet we do not altogether despise Fantômas. For one thing, the ease with which he slips into various disguises, as well as into either the lower class and high society, seems to suggest he is not bound by shackling definitions we ourselves might earnestly wish to discard. Moreover, we even identify with him insofar as he represents a version of twentieth-century man: the “phantom”—the nothing—that we worry we ourselves are; for this master of disguise seems to possess no reality or identity apart from his disguises. Fantômas is an “actor” on the stage of life who is no more than his masks and his roles; not only does he remind us of ourselves, but our modern selfconsciousness “completes” him. We thus feel we imaginatively participate in the creation of Fantômas.
The high point of Feuillade’s series is the third episode: “Le Mort qui tue” (“The Murderous Corpse”). It is here that Juve, seemingly as invincible as his criminal adversary, proves himself under the influence of Fantômas, whose ingenious capacity for disguise he assumes, in however limited a fashion. We may say that pursuit of Fantômas has even begun to corrupt Juve, whose dedication to his job has set Fantômas at the center of his consciousness; but, whereas Fantômas’s makeup, masks and disguises cover up the nothing that he is at his core, Juve’s adoption of these threatens to loosen, blur and dissolve his distinct personality. The multiple Fantômases at the costume ball in the fourth episode, “Fantômas contre Fantômas” (based on Le policier apache), is a darkly comical reflection of Fantômas’s grip on the general mind—much as the horrific image of the “bleeding wall” suggests the vicious price that this grip exacts. However lame the fifth and final episode, “Le faux magistrat,” appears, it brings the entire series to thematic fruition.
Only a ninny or a nut would claim for Fantômas the brilliance of Feuillade’s masterpiece, Les vampires (1915); but it is remarkable and wonderful, by turns elegant and primitive. And popular, entering the domain of comic books in the U.S. and Mexico as well as France. It is the original movie thriller.
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