Les Vampires (1915-16)

The silent film serial is sort of like a precursor to the modern TV mini-series, but feels like it must have its roots in the serial publication of novels so popular in the 19th century. Les Vampires, too, was wildly popular in its time (although not with the contemporary critics, who dismissed its vulgarity), and it’s still possible to make out some of that excitement even through the almost hundred years of distance from us. Indeed much of its frontal staginess now seems quaintly archaic, though Feuillade was no slouch at composing his shots, even when writing and filming at such speed. There’s some great use of depth, as well as occasions when the camera is unmoored to present such scenes as a car chase through suburban streets. There’s a good use of location filming in and around Paris, as well as a formal playfulness, as our journalist-detective and hero Philippe (Édouard Mathé) and particularly his put-upon sidekick Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) break the fourth wall to gesture towards the audience when things are getting particularly heated. To try and summarise the plot of 10 episodes’ worth of cinema would be futile, suffice to say it involves the titular criminal gang, who are not in fact vampires, but rather masked hoodlums — not just literal masks as frequently modelled by one of their key associates, Irma Vep (the delightful Musidora), not averse to prowling around Catwoman-like, but also the masks of respectable society figures like lawyers and aristocrats. The gang has inveigled itself into polite society, where it is causing particular havoc. The focus on this piercing of middle-class respectability hints at a political undertow on the part of Feuillade, who has a critical eye cast towards society’s entitled plutocrats and which is no doubt part of what resounded with popular audiences at a time of European war (and perhaps raised the hackles of establishment critics). However, even without this layer of social commentary, it’s still an enjoyable watch once it gets going for all its mystery thriller twists and turns, though not one perhaps for which you’d want to clear seven hours in one sitting.

Les Vampires film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Louis Feuillade; Cinematographer Manichoux; Starring Musidora, Édouard Mathé, Marcel Lévesque; Length 417 minutes (in 10 episodes).
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 25 October 2014.

Crainquebille (1922)

The Cinema Museum logo As part of the regular monthly ‘Kennington Bioscope’ night, this feature was presented along with a number of short films, with an intermission between them. Piano accompaniment was provided by organisers Lillian Henley and Cyrus Gabrysch for the shorts, and by renowned silent film accompanist and concert pianist Costas Fotopoulos for the feature.


Crainquebille (1922) [France]

The more silent films one watches, the more one realises there’s a huge range of expression beyond the kind of hyperactive slapstick we’ve at length come to associate with the era (though some of the shorts, see below, fulfil this function more than adequately). Instead with this film, we see Belgian director Jacques Feyder expressively try his hand at a kind of proletarian social realism, with moustachioed Maurice de Fléraudy playing an honest working class protagonist ground down by the unfeeling, pettifogging machinations of the authorities. In this respect, it’s not unlike, say, Bresson’s L’Argent (1983), in which a chain of minor events build into tragedy, but the film I’m most minded of is Fassbinder’s Händler der vier Jahreszeiten (The Merchant of Four Seasons, 1971), which also centres on a street peddler pushing around a cart of groceries.

For me, there’s something similar here to the way Fassbinder lays on the incidents and watches his character suffer under their weight. Feyder’s touch is lighter, though, and while things seem bleak at times, it never feels masochistic. The character of Jérôme Crainquebille (or “Bill” in the name given him by the original English-language release of the film) has a largely fatalistic approach to the way he’s treated, first arrested on a false accusation of abusing a bored cop, before being processed through the justice system and eventually released, shunned by his former customers. The scenes in the court, indeed, have an almost farcical quality to them, as we see defence, prosecution and judge respectively amuse themselves, showing little interest in what’s going on before them, and the statue of justice at the front of the courtroom turns and looks accusingly at the poor wretches in the dock.

What elevates the film is the almost naturalistic acting by Féraudy and the other minor characters (shopkeepers, cops, prostitutes and newsboys) who populate this world of street vendors based around the Les Halles market, itself long gone. The set design emphasises the dirt and shabbiness of these lives, punctuated a brief fantasy interlude in which Crainquebille imagines a life in the country, growing his own vegetables rather than selling them from his cart. And while tragedy at times seems inescapable, the film remains affectionate towards its impoverished characters, and allows for a little bit of hope to shine through the gloomy black-and-white.

Crainquebille film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jacques Feyder (based on the novel by Anatole France); Cinematographers Léonce-Henri Burel and Maurice Forster; Starring Maurice de Féraudy; Length 76 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Museum, London, Wednesday 26 March 2014.

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