Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The cinema’s lord of terror and the French avant-garde

“His enormous shadow spreads
Over Paris and the world,
What is this grey eyed specter
Who surges through the silence?
Might it be you, Fantômas,
Prowling on the high rooftops?”

- La Complainte de Fantômas
By Robert Desnos (1933)
Translation by M. Lapin (2009)

The Philadelphia International festival of the arts (PIFA) kicked off April 7th and runs through May 1st, with dance, theater, music, film and a host of associated events. The festival’s inspiration is the artistic explosion that was taking place in Paris a hundred years ago, and while that era causes most people to think of Picasso, Stravinsky and Modigliani there are other names and art forms that deserve to be better known.

One of these names is Fantômas, the Lord of Terror, whose fictional incarnation turns 100 years old this year and whose film incarnation in the 1913-14 silent classic by Louis Feuillade is being screened at the festival starting April 13.

Besides being an excellent film in itself Fantômas has a special place in 20th century art history for the inspiration it provided the next wave of Modernist irreverence, for whom even Matisse and Diaghilev reeked too much of high culture. The Societé des Amis de Fantômas was founded by Guillaume Apollinaire and Max Jacob, later included Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Colette.

The arch-fiend’s influence carried into Surrealism, with painter André Masson saying that Fantômas ranked with Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and Lautréamont’s Maldoror in the movement’s early days. Painters such as Juan Gris and René Magritte painted him – Magritte’s famous “The Threatening Murderer” (L'assassin menacé) can be traced to an actual scene from one of the films.

The poet Robert Desnos wrote his Ballad of Fantômas in 1933, which was set to music by Kurt Weill. In 25 beautiful stanzas the poem sums up each and every one of Fantômas’ crimes (Don’t read the poem before you have seen the film!)

Of course filmmakers drew from it as well, Luis Buñuel saying that he much preferred Fantômas to the more self-conscious avant-garde cinema of the 20’s and later. Alain Resnais also attested to the strong influence of the film and most recently Olivier Assayas made Irma Vep (1996), a film about a modern day director trying to remake Feuillade’s series Les Vampires (1915).

PIFA will also feature a screening of Léonce Perret’s The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador (Le Mystère des roches de Kador). The promo clip unfortunately has a “ha ha aren’t these old, silent films wacky” narration, presumably to draw in a crowd of ironic youth to yuck it up at the old-fashioned melodramas. But, Apollinaire, Magritte and all the others weren’t wrong - these films deserve a serious viewing.

No comments: