On the left: a wide, cobbled street lined with lamp-posts and leafy trees. The street curves around at a sharp angle, entering the page at the bottom left-hand corner, exiting at the upper-left hand corner. A lamp-post stands at the center of the curve, black, ornamental. Apparently it is there as a marker for traffic. Cars are to route themselves around one side or the other, though—at the moment—there are no cars (or perhaps just one, disappearing in the distance).
On the right: Two heavy black columns, spaced about six feet apart. We can imagine them lamp-posts but this is not certain since we are unable to see their tops. In any case they define the curve of the sidewalk and shadow the curve of the street. Between them a heavy-set man is frozen in profile. He walks briskly, wearing a sort of messenger's hat. In front of him, and just passing the nearest column, is a woman whose face is shadowed, almost indecipherable. She wears a black dress. Her right arm is extended to the side, perhaps touching the column. Is the column a mailbox? If she is indeed dropping a letter in the mailbox slot, then that action is made to seem at once public and secretive. She moves among the black verticals of the scene, a black vertical herself. A moment from now she will disappear, curving with the sidewalk and street, exiting where they entered. The letter—assuming there is one—will go on its way, following a route less visible than hers.
A photograph of this vaguely disturbing tableau appears in Richard Roud's Cinema: A Critical Dictionary (New York: Viking Press, 1980), pp. 356-357. Find the book. Look at the photo for a while, taking care to savour the obvious period details, the grainy but evocative texture of what is evidently the enlargement of a film frame. Then imagine a movie composed of pictures like this one, pictures, of course, set in motion and connected by a plot. Your curiosity cannot but be provoked. You may even want to view the work whose existence is implied by this mysterious image. In that case you will have to search out Louis Feuillade's wonderful Les Vampires.
Les Vampires (1915), a serial in ten installments about the exploits of a gang of Parisian jewel thieves, has always had something of a reputation. Avant-garde filmmakers contemporary with Feuillade thought it a vulgar concession to mass taste— but then there were rebels within the avant-garde camp, directors like Luis Buñuel who perceived in Feuillade's work the expression of "une realite insolite" (an unusual reality).
It is easy to see why Buñuel was fascinated—and why his approach to the film has been passed down so easily to subsequent commentators, Richard Roud included.1 No one who has sat through Les Vampires will forget the moment when Satanas' cannon first rolls out from behind the mantlepiece in a little Montmartre flat; or when the gang is discovered in black body stockings skulking over the roofs of Paris, with Notre-Dame towering in the background; or when the notorious Irma Vep makes her reappearance at the Howling Cat cabaret after her apparent exile to Algeria. Even apparently nondescript scenes, like the shot of Irma described above, possess a strange poignancy: they generate more feeling, more mystery, than a hundred such vignettes from later movies in the vein of intrigue and mystery.
Though Feuillade's political and religious opinions were conservative, he seems—despite himself—to have fashioned a surrealist epic. Les Vampires apparently suggests that everyday life is full of inexplicable forces, working on us without our conscious knowledge; it revels in bizarre imagery that wells up out of nowhere; it presses the notion of the criminal as a kind of artist and, by a typical surrealist twist, the artist as a kind of criminal. We get our thrills from the notion that Feuillade unwittingly wandered into this territory; as Roud puts it, in an essay from Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, Feuillade's films are compelling because of "the tensions set up. . . between his consciously held views . . . and the fascination he found in women like Irma Vep."
So Roud—and so the rest of us— have supposed. The supposition is sensible, I think, and in some respects quite near to the spirit of Les Vampires, but recently I began noticing another movie within the one everybody has been praising since its rediscovery in the early 1940s: a movie created not so much by its viewers, especially by viewers like Buñuel, or by its critics, especially critics like Roud, as by the conscious intention of the director.
The story of how this second film emerged is worth hearing, even for readers who have never seen Feuillade's epic. It shows that a critical tradition can shape the way we receive works of art; it presses home the importance of that obscure figure, the film archivist and restorer; it gives us, in the last analysis, a work more puzzling and more powerful than the version of Les Vampires many of us have learned to love.
The crucial point is this: every time a print of Feuillade's masterpiece arrives on these shores, the film is longer, a bit more complete. As recently as the mid- or late Seventies, in the essay already quoted, Roud supposed that "the inter-titles for the film . . . long ago vanished"; he went on to argue that "this is all to the good since present-day audiences are more sophisticated as to film narrative than audiences in 1915. We really don't need a title to say 'The Next Day.' "
It is received critical doctrine— correct as far as it goes—that Feuillade had a brilliant visual imagination, that he was supremely excellent at telling a story in pictures. This is surely Roud's point. On the other hand, to dismiss the words ahead of time, to assume that they make no difference, turns out to have been rather brash. The latest version of Les Vampires, shown at the New York Film Festival during September 1987, included those supposedly vanished intertitles. There were a few hitches in the presentation, largely due to an unfortunate young person who was assigned the task of translating the words and failed all too often.
All the same, the new Vampires demonstrated the importance of titles to Feuillade's cumulative accomplishment. Given access to narration and dialogue previously withheld, we discovered that we were watching a new film.2 To confront Les Vampires fully restored was to realize that it is less a delirious surrealist collage bursting from the subterranean recesses of a repressed mind than it is a vast novel, extravagant but also sober, impulsive but also purposeful.
The film's new effect can be suggested through a brief look at one of its ten episodes. I focus on "La Bague qui tue" (The Ring That Kills) because, as the second installment, it sets the tone of much that follows. For the sake of clarity, cues from the previously unavailable intertitles will be italicized.
"La Bague" begins at what Feuillade describes as an elegant and expensive club. Seated to the side of a table in the foreground, the Count of Noirmoutier is reading his newspaper. He notes a column of backstage gossip: a ballet, "Les Vampires," is to be performed tonight by Marfa Koutiloff, whom "all Paris" knows is the fiancee of Philippe Guerande. The Vampires hate publicity. They have been getting more than their share from Philippe, a newspaper reporter. Now his girlfriend is aiding and abetting him. As the Count reads, a sleazy-looking club member detaches himself from a group in the background. He passes a ring to the Count, informing him that the slightest scratch is fatal.
If we have not done so before, we recognize that Noirmoutier is the Grand Vampire himself in one of his many disguises. Just before Marfa's performance he presents her with the ring. She dies on stage, in the middle of the Vampire ballet, as the Count watches. Philippe, who is there also, recognizes the Count as a Vampire and follows him to the abandoned fortifications outside Paris where Noirmoutier's confederates kidnap him. They decide to kill him according to an elaborate ritual (they will be linked by crime, "Her par le crime").
Before this execution can be accomplished, however, the police arrive. They manage to shoot and kill one Vampire, the Grand Inquisitor (all the others escape through a trap door which they lock behind them). The dead man proves to be the sleazy fellow who originally gave Noirmoutier the ring. He is identified as the President of the Supreme Court ("Cour de la Cassation," not an exact counterpart of the American Supreme Court but . . . close enough for our present purposes.)
Philippe observes that this victim is not really so important; he was only a supernumerary, a conjuror's confederate, an ally in trickery (the French word, "comparse," has no exact English equivalent but suggests a certain amount of contempt). He then makes a gesture that will recur through the film as a sort of leitmotif: holding both hands out as though to grab at something—which then slips through his fingers.
Some of the cues from the inter-titles add little. We know that the ring is poisoned from the title of the episode and, of course, from Marfa's eventual death. Others have the effect of underlining. We can see how elegant and expensive the Count's club must be—there is a huge fireplace in the background with carved storks in relief—but having the characterizing adjectives allows us to focus on these qualities more exclusively.
A third sort of cue articulates ideas that are present but (extremely) latent. It is useful for us to know why the Vampires are killing Philippe: not just as a means of revenge (that motive will become central later in the film) and not just as a random act of violence but rather as a way of affirming their community, their bonds with one another. This notion of the Vampires as a little society within a society will run throughout all ten episodes, allowing Feuillade to pose fundamental questions about social contracts and social agreements.
Finally—perhaps most importantly—there are cues which give us vital information otherwise unprovided. "La Hague qui tue" moves from an elegant and expensive club to a hideout of the Vampires, yet we find the same people in both places. Most especially, we discover the President of the Supreme Court, who has a secret identity as another and more sinister sort of judge.
The New York audience for the fresh print of Les Vampires laughed raucously when the line about the Supreme Court was translated for them. This may have been because the Bork nomination was in the news, but there is, of course, a better reason to find Feuillade's words remarkable. He has gone out of his way to suggest that there is corruption at the very top of French society. One wants to discover why a conservative Catholic Monarchist would make this sort of extravagant claim: imagine a contemporary American film directed by (say) John Milius which implied that William Rehnquist was an agent of Libyan terrorists, then showed him lying dead in Cabrini-Green, slaughtered by the FBI.
We begin to understand that the much-vaunted subversiveness of Les Vampires is not altogether subliminal, but must have a planned and intentional role in the film, however unexpected it may be. We start to become interested in the circumstances—this was, after all, the first year of the Great War— that might have brought Feuillade to this peculiar juncture in his career, in his relation to the Third Republic, and perhaps even in his thinking about the future of civilization.
There's a lot more I want to know about Feuillade's early films and about France in the first decades of our century before I venture my own solution to the puzzle. Much of the pre-Vampire Feuillade is now being studied for the first time.3 The history of the Third Republic is, of course, well-known: the Dreyfus affair, and the backlash against anti-republicans that followed it may figure here, as well as the terrorist gangs often cited when Les Vampires is discussed.
For the purposes of this essay, it is perhaps enough to cite a single clue—once again, from an intertitle. The word "comparse," glossed above, implies a theatrical metaphor observable elsewhere in "La Hague" (e.g., when Marfa dances). Everyone in Les Vampires—heroes and villains alike—is obsessed with creating illusions, doing tricks, putting on a show.
It is possible that the unspeakable reality of World War I has pointed Feuillade towards this notion of his society as a kind of huge audition, with the players getting more and more out of control, more liable to mix their play-acting with real violence, real death. He would not be the only right-wing, high-church type to experience the destruction of the old Europe on these terms. I can think of a prominent parallel: Eliot laboring on The Waste Land, a Jeremiad—reshaped by Jacobean drama—against the depredations of modern culture.
In any case, whatever the historical significance of Les Vampires may prove to be, the archivists have presented us with a film which can never again be seen as a mainly unconscious work, a nightmare despite itself. The surrealists loved the films of Feuillade, but loved them as the expression of a collective, therefore unattributable dream. Irma strolling down the sidewalk expressed more than Feuillade knew, or knew that he knew. We now begin to understand that Les Vampires belongs to Feuillade: that its dreams are dreamt on purpose.
1As director of the New York Film Festival, Roud has been particularly influential in bringing Les Vampires to America; indeed, the film might never have been exhibited here were it not for his efforts.
2Like earlier works in the literary tradition from which it derived (Eugene Sue's Les Mysteries de Paris would be an outstanding example), Les Vampires is pervaded by written words: telegrams, letters, business cards, etc. In a sense, then, even the prints without titles provide us with generous word clues. However, my primary concern here is not for the words within the images but the words which comment on the images. The distinction between these two kinds of verbal guides needs further thinking-out, something I'm not going to attempt at the moment.
3Richard Abel addresses this subject in an essay for the Fall, 1987 issue of Postscript.