Saturday, 2 March 2013

Les Vampires

Les Vampires (1915) 3.5 Stars

France (Gaumont) 440m Silent BW
Director: Louis Feuillade
Screenplay: Louis Feuillade
Music: Robert Israel
Cast: Edouard Mathé, Musidora, Marcel Lévesque, Jean Aymé, Fernand Herrmann, Stacia Napierkowska

I will begin by stating that this ten part crime serial is not in any way related to the recent ‘Twilight Saga’, and that there is nothing supernatural about ‘The Vampires’: they are in fact an infamous crime syndicate plaguing Paris. The story begins dramatically with ‘The Severed Head’, in which crack reporter Philipe Guérande (Mathé) begins his investigation as to the missing, decapitated, head of Inspector Durtal (later found in an iconic ‘head-in-a-box’ moment). The crime was of course committed by ‘The Vampires’ but throughout the episode we are still unsure of exactly who or what they are: “My friend, I know nothing about the Vampires except that everyone is afraid of them” a character highlights in one of the serial's many title screens. This technique can be witnessed in modern films including Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’ in which the shark isn't revealed until late on. ‘Les Vampires’ goes on to follow Guérande, along with ex Vampire Oscar-Cloud Mazamette (Lévesque), and their attempts to put an end to the notorious gang.

The fast pace of the plot is striking; it is already complex and thrilling with a number of twists and now classic ideas, from secret passages and codes to chemical weaponry in the form of a pen. This speed is both a blessing and a curse to the viewer, as we are immediately drawn in and excited, but at the same time the serial loses its effect as it progresses; for this reason my favourite episode was the first. This focus on immediate excitement could be due to the competition facing director Louis Feuillade at the time, coming mainly from rival Pathé rendering him understandably frantic. However, this is not to say that the serial completely loses all drama after ‘The Severed Head’, I would simply recommend watching the episodes separately over a number of days or weeks in order to take time to breathe.

The ‘legendary opus’ often alludes to Gothic writers and poets: particularly Edgar Allan Poe in my view. The gang was reminiscent of his presentations of evil organisations such as ‘The Spanish Inquisition’ and I found Guérande to be the likeness of some of Poe’s protagonists (namely Dupin).  However, the gang was also similar to today’s ‘Cirque du Soleil’: with their cat suit costumes, slinking movements and often very impressive acrobatics, namely scaling rooftops. This is best personified in one of the serial’s main villains: Irma Vep (an anagram of ‘Vampire’, which is unnecessarily revealed to us through some admittedly advanced special effects), the role which catapulted the actress Musidora to fame. Irma’s make up and expressions are arguably the most iconic part of ‘Les Vampires’, her snarl (see above photo) was pictured on most of the promotional posters and is still what is most associated with the saga.

Arguably the vast amount conveyed by the silent acting begins to have a negative effect on the viewer, as it comes in unison with a bombardment of generally superfluous title screens. I grew to find this boring and irritating; it detracts attention from the subject matter as we wait for the screen to move on. The cinematography of this film was criticised for its simplicity: it is bare apart from the occasional light going on or off or costume change – in this way I found ‘Le Voyage Dans La Lune’ to be far more adventurous and advanced, despite being released over a decade earlier. However, in terms of camera positioning there is some good that can be said: there are clear early signs of Avant Garde cinema and its tension building techniques are visible in more modern thrillers, such as those of Hitchcock. Another strong point for the serial is the subject matter’s cohesion with the soundtrack; which, after the previous silent films I have reviewed, I thought must be somehow impossible.

To conclude, the seven-hour-not-‘Twilight’ saga ‘Les Vampires’ thoroughly earns its place on ‘1001 movies you must see before you die’. It is not faultless when considering its arrangement of excitement and its primitiveness in terms of cinematography; but that is outweighed by the quality of its story, skill of acting and its classic, insane, all round, French brilliance.

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