Thursday, May 5, 2016

Louis Feuillade | 13 films

a feuillade sampler

 Louis Feuillade (writer and director)

Le Récit du colonel (The Colonel’s Account) / 1907

Une Dame vraiment bien (A Very Fine Lady) / 1908

Le Printemps (Spring) / 1909

Possession de L’Enfant (Custody of the Child) / 1909

La Feé des grèves (The Fair in the Surf) 1909

L’Orgie romaine (The Roman Orgy) 1911

La Tare (The Defect) / 1911

Le Trust, ou les batailles de l’argent (The Trust, or the Battles for the Money) / 1911

Le Coeur et l’argent (The Heart and the Money) 1912

La Hantise (The Obsession) / 1912

Erreur tragique (Tragic Error) / 1912

L’Agonie de Byzance (The Agony of Byzance) / 1913

Bout de Zan vole un éléphant (Bout de Zan Steals an Elephant) / 1913

by Douglas Messerli

Watching Kino International’s Gaumont Treasures Volume 2 the other day, I was struck, as so many have been, by the range of director Louis Feuillade, who in his lifetime directed over 800 films.

Granted, many of these are comic shorts, represented in this volume by the 1908 short, Une Dame vraiment bien (A Very Fine Lady) with one of his favorite actors Renée Carl; an example of the many of the Bout de Zan series, this with an small elephant stolen by the true enfant terrible, René Poyen—this time he and the elephant being taken in by a charitable lady as the threesome dine at her dinner table, the elephant politely displaying a napkin at the end of his feeding—a film from 1913; and the one-liner Le Récit du colonel (The Colonel’s Account) of 1907. 
     This selection of 13 movies also includes kitschy fairytales like La Feé des grèves (The Fairy in the Surf) (1909) and the even sillier La Printemps (Spring) of the same year. Religious and historical themes are featured in the early anti-Muslim epic, L’Agonie de Byzance (The Agony of Byzance) in which Ottoman Turks attack and capture the court of Constantine, taking the women as slaves (1913), and the color-tinted  L’Orgie romaine (The Roman Orgy) of 1911, where the participants of the orgy finally turn on the imperious Heliogabalus, who sacrifices a young boy to the lions before loosing the lions on the orgy revelers themselves.
     Feuillade’s best works are his more realist social and family dramas. Possession de l’enfant (Custody of the Child) from 1909, for example, concerns a kind of Kramer vs. Kramer situation in which the husband is given custody of the child after a divorce; yet the child, despite his father’s evidently wealthy showering of gifts upon his offspring, misses his mother who, on a visit to her mother-in-law steals the child, hiding him in her small apartment until the father goes to the police to demand the child be returned to him. Yes, the ending, where, after both mother and child plead with the recalcitrant man, the couple is rejoined for the sake of their son, is highly melodramatic; but the work, nonetheless, seems freshly current after more than a century.
      Many of Feuillade’s films have had important influences upon later filmmakers including Jacques Rivette, Alain Resnais, and George Franju. Feuillade’s touching romance, La Coeur et L’Argent (The Heart and the Money) seems somewhat close to Robert Bresson, as a young beauty in love with a local laborer, is forced by her mother to marry a wealthy banker. The banker, soon after their marriage, dies in a train accident, leaving his estate to her—but with the important stipulation that she never marry again. Still in love with her country bumpkin, she secretly escapes the estate, now ruled over by her mother, attempting to return to her now quite depressed former lover. He, however, unable to get the vision of the banker out of his head, rejects her; she, having nowhere else to go, drowns herself in the river in which she and her lover had previously boated. It is perhaps no accident that Feuillade, like Bresson, was highly religious, particularly when he attended a Catholic seminary as a youth.
      Other dramatic works such as Erreur tragique (Tragic Error) of 1912 concern love and jealousy, particularly when a young married man believes he has discovered his wife as a passing figure in a movie, arm-in-arm with another man. Le Trust, ou les batilles de l’argent of 1911 might almost be seen as a precursor to Marcel L’Herbier’s great adaptation of Zola’s novel Money with this movie’s rubber barons and kidnapping of secret agents. 
     La Hantise (The Obsession) of 1912 concerns a loving woman’s obsession with a crooked palm-reader who warns her that she will soon lose someone very close to her. Soon after, indeed, her husband is about to sail the unsinkable Titanic, and when the newspaper announces that the ship has gone down after hitting an iceberg, her son becomes deathly ill. For a long while he appears that she may lose both of those she loves most—until news comes that her husband and been saved and her visiting grandfather (in a scene missing from the meticulous restoration of these films) tricks the fortuneteller to once again retell his grand-daughter’s fortune, discovering in the process that the fortuneteller is a money-grubbing fake. 
       But the very best of this small selection of films is La Tare (The Defect) of 1911, a social tract wherein a barroom hussy, again played by Renée Carl, is redeemed by a kind man, head of a charitable foundation in Southern France. He takes her in, and she becomes a caring nurse of sick children and old men, finally showing her talents in acting as his personal secretary, proving she is so indispensable that, when the elderly founder dies, his will determines that she should become head of the institution. The board readily approves her, and she shows her abilities even further, overseeing the building of a new wing to the institution and being adored as a near-saint by its sick inhabitants. 
     When one young woman is cured, she asks only for a picture of her “saint.” However, when she finds herself as a flower-seller in the very same Paris café where the new institution head once worked, that woman’s former lover discovers the photograph and travels south to blackmail his ex-mistress. When she refuses, he publishes a revelation in the local paper, which ends in the bourgeois board members immediately forcing her resignation. Attempts to find other employment end quickly when she can provide no references; and for a few remarkable moments in this dark drama, she considers suicide, moving for an instant to the ledge of her poverty-stricken apartment as she readies to jump. When the sun hits her face, she falls back into the dark confines, determined—so we are told by an intertitle—to help with the sickly Asians to who no else dares minister. Critic Richard Roud described this film as “one of the earliest and most beautiful” films in Feuillade’s “Life As It Is” series.
     I look forward to seeing more of Feuillade’s works, which set new heights for very early French and international cinema.

Los Angeles, May 4, 2016

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