Thoughts On: Every Year In Film #33 - The Defect

19/01/2018

Every Year In Film #33 - The Defect

Thoughts On: The Defect (La Tare, 1911) and other silent film serials


Today we explore the serial film through Louis Feuillade.

  

Today for the Every Year series we will be talking about film art, film serials and Louis Feuillade. These three entities are bound together in a conflict of direction, and so the questions we will be asking today are: What was film art around 1910? What are film serials, and are they art? What did Louis Feuillade do with the film serial, and where is his place in film history?

To open this rather large and complex discussion, we should attempt to make a transition from the previous few posts of the series. Recently, we marked the movement away from a more basic cinema of attractions era that has much to do with the normalisation of the feature-length and narrative film. This movement towards a narrative cinema that resembles cinema as we have known it for decades implied that we are also moving closer to film becoming an art. However, previously, we explored the idea that cinema was always art; that its artistry was a precedent contrived by those before cinema, Muybridge and Marey, and inherited by who we consider to be the first, official filmmakers: Edison's team, the Lumières, Méliès, Guy-Blaché, etc.

Whilst I believe that there are definitions of art that validate such a claim, there is a difference between this fundamental film art and the film art that is still emerging in the 1910s; a narrative film art and a film art that could tell stories. There is then a strong argument that, following the generation of the first filmmakers - or at least, emerging and rising to prominence in the tail end of those first few years around 1900 - came the likes of Zecca and Porter. These filmmakers where among the first to begin to tell more complex stories, building upon the foundations that Guy-Blaché, for example, set. Continuing this development, filmmakers in Pathé, Gaumont, Biograph, Nordisk Film, etc., would then start to make longer, more complex films as the world transitioned into the 1910s. He who has almost always been the face of this movement ever since he emerged is, of course, Griffith.

Today, we will be talking about a contemporary to Griffith, who is arguable a giant of similar magnitude - however, maybe also a giant of a different realm. This giant is Louis Feuillade. Not too much is written or known about Feuillade. He, as you may already know, is famous for his film serials Fantômas, Les Vampires and Judex. The amount of literature written on, in particular, Fantômas and Les Vampires would lead you to think that Feuillade is a well documented figure. However, whilst there is much said about some of his work, the scope of this body of literature isn't too vast. Also, though Feuillade's works are often sold in as high a regard as Griffith's, his films are, in my belief, seen nowhere near as widely as Griffith's. This probably has much to do with the fact that, even though The Birth Of A Nation is 3 hours long and rife with racism, Fantômas is over five hours long, is dense and rife with senseless crime. Because Feuillade didn't/doesn't have the marketing power of Griffith, and because his works are considerably longer, his work isn't as widely viewed or noted. Moreover, the work of his that is viewed and noted is often only a few of his serials - even just an episode of two of them. And for all the film nerd points that you can relish in earning by watching Feuillade's films, it is very easily understood why this is the case.

But, before we continue to talk about Feuillade, we should take a step back to first ask what film serials are. Popular up until the 1950s, film serials existed in some place between television (before television existed) and the likes of The Lord Of The Rings: films with multiple sequels or prequels. The film serials were designed as, in essence, really long movies presented in chapters. One of the very first film serials, which is often overlooked because of how short it is, is a selection of films we have talked about before: Méliès' The Dreyfus Affair. This was a compilation of 11 one-minute docu-dramas depicting the controversial trial of Alfred Dreyfus that was still ongoing as the serial was beginning to be made. These 11 episodes were sold separately, or as a package, to exhibitors and could be shown as such, too: separately across many days or weeks, or all at once. Though this serial in its entirety could fit onto one reel, this was released in 1899 when the majority of films were between 40 seconds and 3 minutes long. Compare this to the 1910s and we have a period where the average film ran between 15 minutes and an hour long; in this time, each episode of serials would fit within this range. Serials of this kind began to be consistently made around 1908. One example of such a serial would be the French Nick Carter films. Serials were fully established and incredibly popular by 1913-1916, however. This 3 year time-span saw the most famous silent film serials emerge. In America there was then the Hazards of Helen, The Perils of Pauline and many Western serials, in Germany, there was Homunculus and in France there were the serials of Louis Feuillade.

Whilst these were the most famous silent film serials, the golden age of the serial is considered to be between the late 1930s and mid 40s. It took some time for serials to re-emerge and find their footing again after cinema's movement into the sound era because sound films were expensive and difficult to make whilst the film serial relied quite heavily on lower budgets and (arguably) simpler filmmaking. This era then saw the release of Flash Gordon and The Adventures Of Captain Marvel, two of the most iconic serials. However, in the 1950s, cinema saw the rise of television, and so the film serial, for very obvious reasons, took a hit. The film serial didn't die off immediately, but, by the 1970s, they were pretty much gone. In the modern day, however, there is an argument for film serials re-emerging on T.V. Consider, for instance, mini-series such as Band Of Brothers. These seem to mark television, in terms of quality and length, becoming more like cinema by inheriting the film serial. Such can even be seen to be true with the likes of Game Of Thrones. Is each episode a television show, or a small movie that comes together to form a grand film serial? I would suggest that Game Of Thrones merely marks an evolution in television. The most intriguing entity to emerge from the modern day, however, has to be the 'cinematic universe'. Following on from the likes of Flash Gordon and The Adventures of Captain Marvel, the Marvel and DC cinematic universes seem to be a cousin to the film serial.

However, let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. There is and always has been a question mark above the film serial as cinema. The questions that we may ask of the film serial would be much like those we could ask of television, animated cartoons that would play before films and short films. Do these not make for a separate form of cinema that has greater internal similarity than they share a similarity with feature films?

This is a question we must hold onto. But, we should also ask, what was the state of film and its perception as art around the emergence of the film serial?

Around the turn of the 20th century, philosophers were questioning reality, time and motion - and this, of course, preempted the emergence of Einsteinian physics, a science of spacetime, quantum mechanics and relativity. Among these philosophers was Henry Bergson, and he would sometimes talk about time and motion with reference to cinema. With this, he coined the term 'movement-image' - which would be adapted by Deleuze many decades later - and he also took cinema seriously as a potential art and invention of importance. Around the same time, filmmakers such as the Lumières and Bolesław Matuszewski saw cinema as an important tool for capturing history, and Matuszewski wrote about the founding of an archive that the Lumières, a few years later, would go onto found (an archive that still exists to this day as one of the most complete and highly preserved archives of film from the silent era).

Around the 1910s, however, there were movements of audience members and filmmakers who essentially wanted cinema to be of better quality and it to be perceived with higher regard. As we have picked up on, in Japan, there was the expression of this through the Pure Film Movement projected through film magazines. In Europe around this time (1913) Italian writer and theorist Ricciotto Canudo was fascinated by cinema and considered it the sixth, later, seventh, art. As a result, he saw film to fit amongst and be in communication with 1) painting, 2) sculpture, 3) music, 4) poetry, 5) architecture, and as he later included, 6) dance, or performing arts in general. It was then common to hear of cinema as the sixth or seventh art in certain circles that cared for such things around the 1910s. There were then movements and film studios that emerged in response to this. Interestingly, however, much of the theory and thought of the 1910s concerning cinema was largely undermined in the 1920s by filmmakers and theorist who would emphasise the fact that cinema was not just another art, but an individual art far removed from the likes of painting and theatre. Thus, we have the cinema and the theories of the French Impressionists, Soviet Constructivists, German Expressionists, etc., that showed what film could do and what no other art could contend with. As a result, the 1920s are seen as an important, foundational time for film as art.

Let us not overlook the earlier period, however. In France, Film D'Art was a movement, a way of thinking about film and a film studio that, as said, expressed the idea that cinema was a seventh or sixth art. As a result, those in the film d'art movement took cinema seriously and attempted to lift it from a more adolescent and primitive era - that being the cinema of attractions era. We have in fact talked about the studio, Film D'Art, before - indirectly, however, and through the first film to have a screenplay written for it by a noted and paid professional writer: The Assassination of the Duke of Guise (1908). The Film D'Art studio would have made this film as a gesture to show that they were attempting to take film seriously, to make a higher quality movie, and to join cinema with other arts (writing in this instance). Following the Film D'Art studio was Pathé, who established their Société Cinématographique des Auteurs et des Gens de Lettres (Film Society of Auteurs and of Men of Letters) in 1908. The films that this society made were for who they perceived to be elite audiences, and were intentionally Film D'Art. In parallel to Pathé's new series, Gaumont, their competitor, also established a Le Film Esthétique (Aesthetic Film) series that was overseen by Louise Feuillade.

Before Feuillade ran the aesthetic art film series, and before he was even hired at Gaumont, he was a writer, a poet and, before even that, a child and young man deeply interested in poetry. It then seems that Feuillade had something of an artistic temperament, or an affinity for art, that saw him transition into film in a way that many of his contemporaries didn't; whilst many people before his time were inventors and entrepreneurs, and many of his time were less inventors and more businessmen, showmen and entertainers, he was a writer and, to some degree, an artist. When he started to write scenarios and screenplays for Gaumont in 1905, he was submitting them to Alice Guy-Blaché - who, a few years after Feuillade hesitantly became a director of his own scripts, would leave her position open to him. As a director and the Art Director of Gaumont, Feuillade earned his stripes as many of the names we still know of this era did by directing hundreds of films of various kinds. By the end of his career, it is estimated that he made around 800 films.

As said, and as was common, Feuillade made every and anything in his first few years of pumping out shorts. It is trying to read about and watch the films of Feuillad from this time that you realise how little is written about him that doesn't concern Fantômas or Les Vampires. However, one of the earliest shorts of Feuillade's that you can find online comes from 1907, and he co-directed this with Guy-Blaché. This is called A 4-Year-Old Heroine:


This early short of Feuillade's is a possible signifier of the ways in which Alice Guy-Blaché would have influenced him and his filmmaking. Here, we see an example of a film focused on narrative and character - which is what Guy always meant to strive for, and is also what we see present in Feuillade's filmmaking. We also see Guy's eye for strong mise en scène that she probably best demonstrated with her biblical adaptations. This strength of composition certainly finds its way into Feuillade's filmmaking, and to see such striking, well-composed shots from so early in his career, it seems that Blaché's hand - which would have been making films for a decade by now - is at play.

Feuillade would continue to work at his craft for 3 years before beginning to take significant steps in his career. In 1910, we then see Feuillade start his first serial and the aesthetic film series. Unfortunately, there seems to be no available episodes - even though 70 were made - of his first serial, the Baby Serial. Made between 1910 and 1913, this was a selection of comedic shorts that see a young child go on a selection of adventures.


The Baby series would have been Feuillade's first experiment with The Infinite Story. And this is in fact what all serials were. As we have talked about on the blog before, The Infinite Story is a simple recognition that stories can start and end anywhere whilst an infinite set of things can happen in between the beginning and conclusion. All stories can be infinitely long, the task of storytelling is finding out what parts of an infinitely long story are worth telling. With the feature film, it is suggested that cinematic stories need roughly two hours to be told. With the serial, however, the infinite story is embraced - and to a degree that allows filmmakers to see a premise and extract 70 episodes and multiple, dozens, sometimes hundreds, of hours out of it. T.V knows The Infinite Story very well.

There is a slight contradiction about Feuillade's Baby series, especially when we take into account that he made this in parallel to his aesthetic art films. The Baby series seems to align itself with a more basic cinema, maybe not a cinema of attractions, but also maybe not art. Feuillade, by the time he started making art films, was very well versed in making films for entertainment's sake. And this is a conflict that we will continue to see throughout his career.

Without jumping too far ahead, let us watch and discuss one of Feuillade's only available films from his aesthetic film series titled Life As It Is. This episode or chapter is called La Tare, or, The Defect:


The Defect is one of Louis Feuillade's earliest surviving art films, and is signified as such through its attempts at realism. This realism is manifested with higher quality sets, better costumes and, for the times, naturalistic acting. So, despite the sometimes flat and unrealistic mise en scène, this brings to life a story with clear social commentary and emotional weight without embellishment, instead, verisimilitude and serious themes.

With The Defect, we are seeing one of the most basic arguments for film art presented. This argument is predicated on realism and film's ability to show the world as we see it in every day life and as no other art form can capture; the play is confined to the stage, the photo cannot move and the word has no image. Such an idea will bind itself to cinema and be constantly expressed throughout the ages with French Impressionism, Poetic Realism, Kino Pravda, Cinema Verite, Direct Cinema, Kitchen Sink Dramas, Italian Neorealism, etc. All of these movements and forms appeal to and question the 'truth' that cinema can provide, and such seems to encompass what Feuillade's idea of art was.

The Defect, as said, is apart of a by-and-large lost serial/series. So, if we want to explore the serial, we must move forward in Feuillade's career to explore one of his most iconic works, Fantômas. Approaching Fantômas after exploring Feuillade's art films, we will see realism present and forgotten. In such, whilst some aspects of Fantômas bear verisimilitude, much of this film is incredibly fantastical, almost ridiculous. More important than this, we will see Feuillade's idea of art conflict with the novel entertainment he has learnt from his contemporaries and through his hundreds of short films. Most pertinently, we will see this conflict played out within the topic of run-time, story and plot.

If we were to begin to establish Feuillade's place of importance in film history, it concerns his innovations with plot and The Infinite Story. In essence, Feuillade developed and refined a plethora of cinematic techniques that kept an audience invested in a film for hours upon hours and over many weeks. He thus capitalised on devices such as the cliff hanger, the mysterious archetype and the cyclical plot. Ultimately, however, Feuillade's work with these devices also defines the grounds upon which we can criticise him.

To delve into this, let us actually start exploring Fantômas itself. Fantômas is, in some respects, the anti-Sherlock Holmes of France; his stories have been recycled countless times, but, instead of solving crimes, Fantômas commits them. A key element of Fantômas, the master criminal, is mystery as we get to know nothing of his past or his character motivations at any point throughout the serial (in the books, there is deeper characterisation, but not much of it). One of the key defining attributes of Fantômas is then expressed in the somewhat iconic opening to each episode:




With the opening, we are shown the various forms that Fantômas will appear in during the episode. This helps the viewer keep track of the story, but it also emphasises the fact that Fantômas is an enigma and a chameleon before he is anything else. The power that Fantômas bears, and this is what we can assume draws audiences to him, is his ability to be whoever he wants and get away with it. It is only when he is dressed in black, completely covered, that Fantômas is then known to be Fantômas. And such is, of course, ironic, as what defines the arch criminal is a dark facade.

This anchoring of mystery in Fantômas' characterisation reduces him to a caricature or an archetype. With Fantômas seen as an archetype, he is chaos manifest in a society of facades. Fantômas may then be seen as a commentary on the class system in French society around 1910, for when he invades the upper class, he does so by fitting in and pretending to be something he is not as to conceal a darker malevolence. And such reflects a criticism of the rich: they are shallow and contrive illusive personas to deceive and cheat people. Fantômas was more than just this, however, as he sometimes (not often, however) invaded the lower classes and was always leading them on a wild goose chase. In such, Fantômas would not only have police officers - Juve and Fandor - chase him, but would also exploit crews of criminals. He would even deceive and try to kill (often successfully when it came to his gangs) all of these figures. And in such, nobody is safe with Fantômas, not if you're rich, poor, guilty or innocence.

This fact, as it manifests in the serial, arguably cheapens Fantômas as a character. As a result, as much as you could call him an archetype of chaos and a commentary on society through its fear of persona and inner shadows, there is a strong argument that suggests that Fantômas was merely an evil dick.



Violence and senseless murder were Fantômas' game. However, for the fact that he is not just a mysterious character, but one who shows no motivation whilst lacking an archetypal counterbalance, Fantômas becomes a weak caricature. In essence, he becomes a Joker without a Batman chasing him around. After all, Juve, the officer that relentlessly chases him, hasn't got much of a voice throughout the entirety of the serial. Without depth given to any of the characters' actions or words despite the numerous hours we spend with them, it is hard to praise Feuillade's character construction. That said, the most expressive element of Fantômas comes in the best episode by far, the final fifth one. This episode opens with Fantômas having been captured in Belgium - as we are told with a title card. After four hours of watching Fantômas escape again and again and again, this comes as a bit of an anti-climactic shock, but, also a relief. However, Juve cannot settle for Fantômas' imprisonment in Belgium because there is no death penalty in that country. So, Juve helps Fantômas escape so that he can capture him again in France and then sentence him to death. As you could imagine, Juve fails in doing this.

This part of the Fantômas story is its most expressive element as we see real characterisation emerge from Juve and the officer become a narcissistic vigilante archetype (a vain Batman), which turns out to be a fatal mistake. If we were to then reprise the idea that Fantômas is chaos manifest and a commentary on French society and facade, this ending may suggest that chaos is there to be controlled and managed, never eradicated. And we see such an idea emerge in a plethora of other stories. As mentioned, we see this in Batman with a constant cat and mouse chase that does not allow for murder. In mythology, for example, Greek mythology, there is also this crucial balance between chaos and order.

In Greek myths, we often see Zeus, who is married to his sister Hera (which itself says a lot about chaos conflicting with order), constantly cheat on her. Zeus' infamous affairs see the birth of a plethora of gods, goddesses and demi-gods, some of which Hera despises - and sometimes so much that she relentless tries to have them killed. Hercules is one of such children. However, Hera doesn't divorce Zeus, and Zeus doesn't definitely stop Hera from trying to kill his children. Thus, we see a powerful hero archetype emerge: the bastard, hated child of the Gods. This archetype is given great power, but is also forced to live a life of misery and pain - something that clearly resonates with humanity. Such an archetype is prevalent, understood and accepted because we know that we do not control the Gods, that sometimes we are infected with chaos and evil, yet are tasked to be orderly and do great goods. These stories then say that we cannot destroy chaos, we can only combat it with order; such is a lesson in Greek mythology, and such is a lesson that Juve learns in the end of Fantômas.

This is the art of Feuillade's serial, in my opinion. He constructs powerful archetypes and has them conflict in a classical cat and mouse, chaos and order fashion. However, it cannot be overlooked that there is no need for this story to be told in over five hours.

The way in which Feuillade communicates the story of Fantômas is undeniably bloated and far too plot-centric. This means that things are just happening and not enough meaning is being manifested. Fantômas is then a little like Warhol's Empire...


There is certainly something to be said about an 8 hour shot of the Empire State building. This is of course extreme realism and an approach to cinema that accepts real time. Embodying the utmost pretence, you could wax lyrical about Empire for thousands of words on end. The truth is, however, this is not a watchable film; it exists, which is of course a novel nicety, but the grand meaning of this film can be realised after 5 minutes. Some might suggest that it is only by sitting through all 8 hours of this that you will understand its revelations. This may be true, but, at the same time, no thanks.

Fantômas is not as extreme as Empire, but, it is made up of a lot of hot air and supported by a serious lack of substance. And such draws upon the downfalls of plot in the cinema. Whilst Feuillade's great contribution to the cinema concerned the embrace of The Infinite Story, he did experiment through somewhat pointless entertainment and not art - and he did this to a degree that has us see his work move further and further away from cinema as we know it. Feuillade's work subsequently makes clear that cinema still has many steps to make in 1913, and that the realisation and experimentation with plot was a dead-end. Let it be noted that the experimentation with plot through the serial wasn't a complete dead-end. However, it says an awful lot that the serial and its plot-centric storytelling was always seen as separate from cinema. T.V embraced this mode of storytelling, and there have been numerous attempts to revive it with cinematic universes and film series made up of prequels and sequels. Nonetheless, cinema has a relationship with story, character and theme that de-prioritises plot, relegating it to the realm of entertainment, and not necessarily art.

With this argument outlined, if we are to learn as much as we can from a close analysis of Fantômas, we should explore its form and Feuillade's cinematic language as this is where we come to see the serial's greatest attributes. Take this scene for instance...



Here we have Fantômas impersonating someone whom a rich lady, Lady Beltham, has fallen fall. Her husband has disappeared, as we are told with the shot of the newspaper, and her and Fantômas' relationship is shown to be an empathetic one with the second shot.



When Juve is announced via a butler bringing his card, we begin to realise that there is something unsettled in Fantômas' and Lady Beltham's relationship. Is Lady Beltham hiding Fantômas from Juve, or is she being fooled by him as he makes his excuses to leave through the back?



Whilst we're left to ponder this, Juve enters and finds Fantômas' hat with an initial on the inner brim. Thus, he starts on the trail towards finding the alter-ego and the criminal himself, but, all without considering the relationship that Lady Beltham may have with him (which turns out to be key later on in the episode with her helping Fantômas escape imprisonment).

This pattern of scene construction is seen all across Fantômas. In such, we see information introduced, often through a letter of some kind, which establishes complex relationships and opens up a conflict between characters within a scene and across multiple spaces. There is then a constant network of things happening, characters relating and trails of information being followed. And such leads to the building of a dense plot that invests an audience and keeps them locked to the screen for hours on end; this is the groundbreaking achievement of Fantômas.

Feuillade's deployment of cinematic language is almost always focused on ensuring the clear unfolding of plot. But, whilst this is one of his greatest directorial achievements, there are elements of direction that are lacking. Starting off light, there are a few sequences in the serial that occur in the streets of Paris. And whilst this gives the film a realist aesthetic, there are a handful of moments like this...


... in which members of the public stop to stare at the camera. This implies that the budget and shooting schedule for Fantômas was quite restricted as the film crew seemingly didn't have the time or means to keep people out of shot or to hire extras. We see the speed of shooting/post-production made evident with small moments like this too:


If you look closely at Juve's right knee you can see that he is about to bump into the furniture... and he does. This shot should have made its way to the cutting room floor, but Feuillade either didn't have footage to cover this up, or didn't catch it in the edit. And it's small moments like these that give insight into the rapid production schedule that would have been designed by producers at Gaumont to keep nearest to the release of the books (they started to come out in 1911).

On the note of the Fantômas books, it is important to mention that original audiences in France would have not gone into the serial without knowing the story as a whole. Thus, this wasn't really about suspense, but the re-representation and visualisation of a story audiences would have read not so long ago. Fantômas must then be understood within the frame of something such as Harry Potter; most people who have seen the movies have read the books. Knowing what is in the books doesn't necessarily devalue the film, it does, however, change the approach and experience.

One of the most telling ways in which Feuillade and his crew embraced this was with the complex plot that, seeing the film by itself, is sometimes too muddled. Take this scene for instance...


Juve and Fandor show up to spy on a meeting, but are ambushed by Fantômas' men...


This spring attack isn't given clear causality. What's more, the construction of this action scene isn't given much logic...




After shooting at Fandor and Juve, Fantômas' crew set everything on fire. But, the pair jump in a barrel and roll down a hill into a nearby river, and we're left to assume they escaped unscathed. This sequence of events is directed and edited quite poorly, and is difficult to understand without knowing the story beforehand - and such a problem arises many times throughout the series.

Whilst some sequences are badly shot and require prior knowledge of what's going on to comprehend, some sequences are, however, just dumb. For example, one of Fantômas' diabolical plans is to kill Juve as he sleeps. By luck, Fandor overhears this scheme for assassination and that it will be occurring that night. The plan that the two then formulate together is that Juve will wear a protective jacket (a corset with nails sticking out of it - which I'm sure is a very comfortable and practical piece of body armour) whilst Fandor hides in the basket at the bottom of his bed. The two will wait for Fantômas to make a move, and then hopefully catch him. The diabolical mastermind, however, doesn't show up. Instead, he sends a giant python into Juve's window...



And as the blue tinting suggest, it is dark in the room. So, when the snake attacks and Juve starts shouting, Fandor is left to flail about blindly, not knowing what to do.



The snake wrestling shot followed by Juve throwing the thing out the window whilst Fandor rolls about on the floor is then very easily criticised - even laughed at. Moreover, it is a signfier that Feuillade wasn't good at handling all kinds of plots and scenes, especially those linked to action.

Whilst Feuillade's weakness are made evident early on, his directorial strengths emerge as we move deeper into the serial. In such, there are many brilliant examples of cinematography and framing both on location and in the studio...



In this sequence here, we also get some nice cinematic language with this shot-reverse-shot:



This shot-reverse-shot is a technique that was born more than a decade before this in trick films such as As Seen Through A Telescope. However, its integration into narrative was not too common until this era. What's more, neither were clever bits of cinematic language like that seen here...



Without an introduction to these characters, just a jump into the first shot, we're made to know their intent and what the man falling over means without an explicitly violent shot - one that would have landed Feuillade in even more controversy. After all, Fantômas (just like Les Vampires) was and always has been criticised for its senseless violence. This is not to say that the serials weren't popular, but, they did come under heavy criticism.

However, whilst Feuillade's cinematic language is sometimes clever, the shot of the newspapers does become tedious and lazy...


On a slight sidenote, there is an American character (Fantômas in disguise) who emerges late in the serial called Tom Bob. This is either a nice bit of satire or horrible writing. Either way, it's quite amusing.

As has already been alluded to, much of Fantômas merges into one long stream of things happening. However, episode five, by virtue of the strong direction, sticks out as the best. It is in this final episode that we see examples of camera movement which are very rare in the previous episodes. Check out, for example, this tracking shot:




What's more, we get some of the best cinematography of the serial in this episode. Look, for example, at this shot here where light is not only manipulated to create a brilliant, expressionist shot, but to tell the story...




Here we see lighting used to show that the character (who, I believe, is Juve on the way to prison) is trapped - the bars shadowing his face symbolise this - and is on a train that moves - the lights turning on and off suggest this. Here the lighting is then building a space, setting a tone and informing the narrative; a brilliant signifier of developing film language.

Staying with cinematography and direction, consider the improved exterior photography in this scene here...




In these shots, we have great texture, lighting, tinting and strong mise en scène. What's more, there aren't many bystanders stopping in the frame to stare at the camera.

One of the best scenes in the final episode concerns Fantômas gassing someone to death (which he has tried before). This scene is then nothing too new, but it is edited and shot perfectly.


With this establishing shot, we see Fantômas look at someone and reach for the gas meter.


With this close-up, we see him turn the handle down and the gas off.


In this wide shot, the fireplace is shown to be next to a person sleeping - a delayed POV shot that shows what Fantômas was looking at.


With this medium close-up we see the fire that is warming the room as fuelled by the gas. This fire goes out.


Back to the wide shot, we see that the man remains asleep.


In the close-up, however, Fantômas turns the gas back on without lighting the fire.


With this brilliant medium shot capturing Fantômas' smug smile, we then know that gas is seeping into the room and will asphyxiate the sleeper to death. Needless to say, but this is textbook direction unassisted by dialogue, V.O or any explanation; pure cinema.

One of the most impressive moments from episode five sees a man climb up into a bell in the top of a church. This would be a difficult scene to shoot considering the volume of the room. However, let us take a look at how Feuillade handles it...







Here we see a tremendous establishing wide shot that is cut into its own frame (a unique silent film aesthetic and cinematic device), before a long track up the ladder with the character. Is there a more impressive way Feuillade could have shot this scene? Not only is the camera movement brilliant, but this sequence captures tension as the man climbing is abandoned in the bell to dangle until it is rang and he falls to his death.

My favourite shot in the entirety of, not just the last episode, but the whole series, is this one:



Fantômas steals a suitcase he thinks has money in, but it turns out to be empty. We see this on his face, but then he shows us the empty suitcase, breaking the fourth wall. This ingenious moment captures the essence of Fantômas as a serial that is not necessarily about story and character, but the movement of a plot. Fantômas showing us the empty suitcase is a sneaky nod to the audience that acknowledges their presence and their interest in how we will be guided through a labyrinthine story.

Seeing these select details, it is clear that Feuillade had his limitations, but was nonetheless making huge steps in the cinematic world of 1913. These steps, as we have already discussed, were in a direction that the likes of Griffith weren't headed. This saw Feuillade develop a form of cinema that never became cinema, instead, remained a cousin to it. Nonetheless, narrative cinema as we have known it for decades would have learnt a lot through experiments in the serial film, and with some of the best and most popular coming from Feuillade. Feuillade and the serial then ultimately saw the exploration of plot and the devices which can keep an engaging story running for many hours on end.

To bring things towards the end, we can conclude that Feuillade's place in cinematic history is intriguing and disputable all at once. He brought art as well as entertainment to the form, but more so entertainment. Moreover, this is what his serials represented; they held the artistry of structure and cinematic language, but were clearly constructed to entertain, little more. But, if you would like to know more about this figure and his films, I recommend further reading. A good starting place to get to know Feuillade better would be this BFI article, but for a wider look at his whole career, this website is also useful. What's more, I cannot overstate how helpful this website on the Fantômas books, films and more was in familiarising myself with the films as and before I watched them. And with that said, I urge you to check out more early silent film serials to discover more for yourself, and to question their place in film.

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