Louis Feuillade joined Gaumont studios in 1905 as a scriptwriter, hired by none other than Alice Guy, who Feuillade would replace as the company's chief studio director two years later. Feuillade would go on to direct approximately 700 films over the course of his 20-year career, none more popular than his silent ten-part serial Les Vampires. Feuillade's achievements are often ignored in light of the technical innovations being pioneered at the time by the likes of D.W. Griffith and Georges Méliès, but the director's magical mystery tour through a deadly Parisian landscape is, like A Trip to the Moon, a towering and radical work of narrative fiction that, like Broken Blossoms, is remarkably attuned to the morality of the time.
Critic Armond White has defended Stephen Spielberg over the years against a critical establishment seemingly opposed to the director's cinema of fun. The novelistic Les Vampires is in many ways no different than, say, Spielberg's Jurassic Park. According to Feuillade, a ferocious anti-intellectual, "A film is not a sermon nor a conference, even less a rebus, but a means to entertain the eyes and the spirit." And while Les Vampires is every bit as adventuresome as Jurassic Park and even Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, its Machiavellian reflection of a complacent bourgeois order on the brink of collapse makes this realist masterwork a precursor to the surrealist cinema of Luis Buñuel, who, incidentally, was a great fan of Feuillade's film.
The allure of Les Vampires is a simple one. During the early-to-mid-1800s, Charles Dickens milked the Victorian serial publication to great success, a model that continues to entice housewives in today's television soap operas and one that Stephen King successfully exploited with the release of his six-part Green Mile series. The public's voracious fascination with the serial is certainly not unlike a drug addiction. Feuillade, like Dickens and King, gives the spectator his fix, and in telling a story over the course of months (maybe even years), the author ensures the spectator will come back for more. More simply, Feuillade no doubt recognized that some great stories, like life itself, shouldn't be consumed in one sitting. Now, the challenge was to tell the story without betraying the lives of the characters, and in turn the lives of those who bought into them.
There are no vampires in Les Vampires, at least not the blood-sucking kind. There is, though, a group of petty thieves who revolt against the banality of their time by feeding on the anxiety of the Parisian upper class. Nouvelle Vague auteur Jacques Rivette, also a fan and champion of the film, doesn't immediately come to mind when one thinks of Feuillade's criminal aesthetic. But Feuillade's influence on Rivette is obvious, primarily in the way characters slither in and out of rooms through doorways and walk atop rooftops; these motions are anxious, primordial, even pre-sexual. Though the alluring pictorialism of Les Vampires is difficult to ignore, it's ultimately the serpentine and claustrophobic interiors of the film that truly inspire awe and there's a mesmerizing truth beneath the film's realism.
Observe Feuillade's Paris as a body interconnected by a dizzying network of veins. Characters, good and bad, enter rooms via chimneys, water wells, and paintings, slowly invading their environment and seducing themselves with the act of penetration. The vampire threat even takes the film's human vermin by surprise. In the film's fourth episode ("The Spectre"), Musidora's Irma Vep readies herself to filch a room safe only to discover that the sucker in the next room is one of her own. The shape-shifting Le Grand Vampire (Jean Ayamé) is equally titillated and threatened by the mystique they've actively and dangerous propagated. (That a Supreme Court judge is also a member of their group suggests members of the bourgeois were easily "hooked" on this violent mystique.) The Vampires repeatedly tease the public with their presence: their silly dance troupe openly advertises Irma Vep on the marquee. A careful bystander (or is he just paranoid?) concludes that her name must be an anagram for vampire!
In his essay "The Public Is My Master: Louis Feuillade and Les Vampires," Fabrice Zagury stresses, "A long time after Griffith reshaped American cinema, Feuillade kept rejecting the new editing methods, choosing instead to reserve cuts on action and close-ups as moments of unusual punctuation." Not surprisingly, it's these very moments in Les Vampires that are often more daring than Feuillade's long shots. In episode three ("The Red Codebook"), Philippe Guérande (Edouard Mathé), a reporter for the The Chronicle investigating the Vampire crimes, pretends to fall asleep in an attempt to trap Irma Vep, here "disguised" as a maid. He observes through a small hand mirror as she poisons his drink; when Feuillade cuts to a shot of Irma reflected in the mirror, it feels as if this is the first punctuation in the film besides a cut to an intertitle. In episode six ("Hypnotic Eyes"), Feuillade cuts to the first and possibly only close-up of Juan-José Moréno (Fernand Herrmann) in an attempt to emphasize the power of the man's gaze.
It's clear that Feuillade championed action over montage, and Les Vampires is a seductive collection of double-crossings, a major point of focus in Irma Vep, Olivier Assayas's homage to Feuillade's film. Even the film's more plot-fueled segments are ridiculously entertaining. In "Dead Man's Escape," Guérande escapes (again!) from the grasp of the Vampires, partner and ex-criminal Oscar Mazamette (the hammy Marcel Lévesque) saves the day, and the Vampires' rival gang leader Moréno rises fabulously from the dead. As Guérande and Mazamette escape from Moréno's secret hideout, the Vampires have already gassed a roomful of Parisian aristocrats in order to steal their fortunes. That Les Vampires opens with news of a severed and missing head makes it all the more disappointing that these gassed aristocrats aren't really dead.
Zagury believes that, stylistically, Les Vampires may have had an impact on both German expressionism and film noir. The key word here is "may" because, since the film remained unseen in Britain until the '40s and in America until the '60s, it's influence is easier to trace much later: in works as diverse as Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel to Francis Ford Coppola's "epic"sodic The Godfather. As episode five comes to a close, Feuillade not only anticipates the birth of the crime drama as we now know it, but also the demise of his Vampires. After a series of double-crossings, Moréno gets the upper hand over Guérande. The reporter-cum-detective—who gets his daily fix by reading the newspaper (Feuillade himself was a columnist for the Revue Mondiale)—is immediately drawn to one headline: "In all things one must take the end into account."
In episode seven ("Satanas"), Moréno joins forces with the film's motley crew of thieves. After duping an American couple who fled to Paris with money belonging to millionaire George Baldwin, Moréno and the vampires bilk the millionaire himself after he sails to Europe. The thieves love the idea of screwing the same person twice and their plan is as richly detailed as it is drunk with irony. In order to forge the millionaire's signature, a vampire poses as a journalist from Modern Woman magazine. Of course Baldwin decides to sit with the woman. The only French the millionaire knows is: "Parisian women are the most charming I've ever seen." Feuillade, like the sexy, defiant and androgynous Irma Vep, seems to openly flaunt his control over the spectator. It's also easy for them to extol this power because they have an uncanny ability to recognize weakness in both the victim and the spectator. And the chaos they create has a delirious rollover effect.
To keep us interested, Feuillade continued to introduce new characters right up until the 10th episode ("The Terrible Wedding"). It isn't too far-fetched to liken the Vampires to a disease that invades Paris's human body. If they're contagious they're also seemingly incurable. Because the film's Vampires are so resistant to authority, it comes as no surprise they prove so self-devouring by serial's end. The irony here is that the Vampires hone in on bourgeois complacency for personal gain and it's their own self-absorption that repeatedly and finally does them in. Feuillade saw the Vampire power struggles as business as usual. It's a shame then that Irma Vep plays second fiddle to no less than three male Le Grand Vampires throughout the course of the film (Louis Leubas's Satanus and Frederik Moriss's Vénénos followed Jean Ayamé's original).
Irma Vep is nonetheless a ferocious woman warrior. Though she outlasts her fellow Vampires, she is killed unceremoniously by Guérande's fianceé, the very delicate "modern woman" her clan actively and repeatedly revolts against. Perhaps there's a final message here: that the romantic power of the Vampires can repel foreign threats (the American characters in the film are all thwarted) but is no match for France itself. If Zagury is correct that Les Vampires portrays a France rooted in the 19th century, the film's finale seemingly anticipates the birth of the 20th century. Several times during the course of the film, characters make clawing motions with their hands as if grabbing invisible objects before them. Perhaps these are allusions to Feuillade's hold over his audience. Les Vampires grips you for nearly 400 minutes. The high is exhilarating but the comedown is devastating.