Editor's further note: After reposting this below, David Hare, a keen observer of all facets of production and distribution advises as follows - FWIW some upgrades to Blu-ray since Geoff wrote this piece. Fantomas has been reissued in a very fine Blu-ray two disc edition (with chapter stops) by Kino from a Gaumont Blu original restoration. This is the only Feuillade so far on Blu-ray although there has been rumor of new editions for both Judex and Thi Minh in the near future. For L'Herbier so far only "L'Inhumaine in a superb tinted 2K restoration on Flicker Alley in the States. While I am highly dubious of the film itself in the Gallic avant garde canon the disc and its extras are more than worth the price of admission.
I still don't know whether there have been screenings of Feuillade in this neck of the woods. Onward...
In 1995 Gaumont and the the Film Archive of Centre Nationale Cinematographique (CNC) embarked on a restoration process for El Dorado which involved using available shortened copies of the film, which included those lacking inter-titles. No tinted prints were in existence, apparently because the cinematheques holding copies could only afford to make straight black and white prints. The film was restored to its full length, the inter-titles re-inserted and the delicate tinting redone. Needless to say the result is magnificent. Crisp, beautifully coloured, the film has great clarity in its images. The music is recorded with equal clarity. These details are supplied in the quite elaborate booklet that comes with the DVD. The booklet contains a new appreciation of the film by Mireille Bealieu, who also writes essays on the film, the French Cinema of the 20s and on Marius-Francois Gaillard's music written to accompany the film which is now recorded on the DVD. It is of some importance. Noel Burch notes in his entry on L'Herbier in Richard Roud's Cinema:A Critical Dictionary that “the film for the first time in the history of the cinema – and and such incontestable "firsts" are rare – was accompanied by a musical score composed with reference to the images and intended to be performed in constant synchronism with them.'
The disk itself contains a number of additional features that also are designed to give insight into L'Herbier's methods. The most striking of these is an interactive method of comparing the final cut of the film with what I take to be the shooting script. This involves examining the notebook referred to before and then bringing up the related sequence. For me at least, however, L'Herbier's precise but spidery handwriting was too difficult to read and absorb. Nevertheless it's the first time I have seen this method of analysing sequences used on a DVD.
On a first viewing of El Dorado it seemed stilted and somewhat moralistic. On a second, after assistance from some of the accompanying material, the extent or maybe the method of L'Herbier's mise-en-scene started to reveal itself. I became more aware not just of the use of super-impositions, distortions and out of focus shots, but the meaning that L'Herbier was trying to impart to develop the psychology of the characters. The acting seemed less artificial and the employment of the Spanish landscape as a brutal background element became more apparent. The characters, overdressed and heavily groomed, were strangers to this terrain. I have no great knowledge of silent melodrama, and very irregular contact with it and its acting conventions and there is always a process of adjustment when confronted with them. On a second viewing one can more readily appreciate the nuances of the narrative and the methods of defining character.
L'Herbier's work remains largely unknown today. In Australia there has been very little attention given to him though the (Melbourne) Cinematheque has screened a number of his films held from time to time in the French Embassy collection. The only essay I could find on him was that written by Noel Burch in Richard Roud's two volume dictionary. In his end note editor Roud mentions the paucity of material in English on the director. In fact in this jurisdiction almost all French silent cinema is a closed book.
Noel Burch mentions that L'Herbier made one or two very fine and very important films after the coming of sound only to lapse subsequently into distressing conformity. One film is available on DVD to enable a judgement to be made about that "distressing conformity" the romantic comedy La Nuit Fantastique (The Fantastic Night) issued by Image Entertainment in the United States (No Regional Coding, #ID9082SIDVD). According to the packaging the film won the Grand Prix du Cinema Francais in 1942. Yet the film, adapted by Louis Chavance, Maurice Henry and L'Herbier from an original story by Chavance is very pleasant entertainment. In it L'Herbier does resort to some of his magical visuals, even if only to simulate drunkenness, and it has a narrative with a certain surreal mystery attached to it. It's droll and quite winning.
The story is very contrived. Denis is a student by day and a market vegetable box stacker by night. This tires him out leaving his girl friend sufficiently frustrated to begin an affair with a local creep and petty thief. He falls asleep at work and on the first night sees a heavenly vision. On the second night he falls asleep again but this time follows the angel into a narrative that's part romance and part Denis in Wonderland. Micheline Presle, utterly gorgeous in shimmering white and silver lame, plays the angel. You need not be concerned about the plot that involves ever more mysterious moments and derring do escapes but without a breath of suspense.
The DVD is taken from an excellent print and has new crisp yellow English subtitles. There are no features beyond arbitrary division of the film into twelve chapters.
* * *
The complete series of Fantomas consists of five separate serials. The DVD issued in France, in 1999, has only French inter-titles. Les Vampires is available in the United States on both DVD and video. I have only seen the video version so I am unable to comment on what the DVD might include as extras.
As far as I know there has never been a Feuillade film screened in Australia* but again I stand to be happily corrected. On the evidence of Fantomas alone, clearly the claim made by David Thomson for Feuillade as "the first director for whom no historical allowances need to be made" is fully justified. Thomson also claims Fantomas to be "the first great movie experience". It's not hard to see why. Here is a film of rigorous photographic naturalism. It records the streets, the clothes, the decors and the furnishings of all stratas of pre-war Paris society in ravishing detail. Everything, right down to the piles of horse shit in the streets and the passers by staring at the camera while the actors go about their business, is redolent of the most unforced and natural images possible. It's also worthwhile noting that the acting is more restrained than say in L'Herbier's film and there is less obvious encouragement to emote even at the most dramatic moments.
Fantomas on DVD consists of the five separate Fantomas films, each made up of a number of episodes, based on the literary creation of the pulp writers Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre. In each Fantomas is pitted against the redoubtable Inspector Juve and Juve’s sidekick, the handsome young reporter Fandor. The films are largely tales of battles of wits between Fantomas and Juve. Both resort constantly to disguises throughout the five hours and thirty five minutes that the combined films last.
It's a long slog if you try to do it in a night or two. In fact it might have been a long slog for Feuillade as well. By the time we get to the fourth film Fantomas Contre Fantomas the mood has become quite playful. Inspector Juve is bundled out of the way after being arrested for being Fantomas and being unable to prove his innocence. Fandor steps in to keep up the pursuit. By the halfway mark Fantomas has organised a masked costume ball to which have been invited the cream of Parisian society. He intends to gather his enemies into one spot. That night there are not one but three Fantomases darting round the dance floor including Fantomas himself who has come, like the other two, heavily disguised as….Fantomas. Brilliant.
By the time we get to the fifth film, the action, particularly the denouement where Fantomas escapes yet again, is more than a bit perfunctory but it may be that it derives from the novel on which it is based. In the entry on "Louis Feuillade and the Serial" in his Critical Dictionary Richard Roud notes that "today the books seem almost unreadable."
The DVD of Fantomas does not have chapters so it requires the viewer to at least watch one of the five films in its entirety or else go through the tiresome process of fast forwarding to find the spot. This seems a bit odd given that the films themselves have quite clear chapters. The restoration carried out by Gaumont and the Cinematheque Francaise is exquisite. The images are crisp. There are only a couple of (clearly signposted) missing scenes, moments really. There is as well further interesting material in the associated booklet. A section of the second disc, which shows up only as a question mark at the front, when opened reveals a small treasure trove of posters, stills and an old TV interview, in French only, with Marcel Allain. Needless to say the DVDs are not cheap but they are major items for collectors.
When this was first posted a decade or so ago, I advised that French videos may be obtained over the internet through www.fnac.com or www.amazon.fr
US videos are obtainable from www.amazon.com or www.dvdplanet.com