Canons form based on availability. This is notoriously true for literature, where translation helps determine who gets to read what, and when—just think of the fervor with which the American literary establishment has greeted W.G. Sebald and Roberto Bolaño novels over the past 20 years once their work has been translated, well after the authors’ books were celebrated back home in their original languages. But lack of access also haunts cinema studies, often for equally transnational reasons. Many movies don’t cross the pond. Foreign cinema currently accounts for less than five percent of all movies released theatrically in America, so the problem is especially true now. It’s also true for repertory—DVD can only account for so much. Jean-Pierre Melville, the great French crime director whose 1969 French Resistance film Army of Shadows received its stateside theatrical premiere a few years ago and was acclaimed by many critics as the best release of 2006, is a recent discovery for most American cinephiles. The Portuguese Pedro Costa, who may be the world’s greatest filmmaker age 50 or younger, is a discovery-in-progress. Louis Feuillade (pronounced “Foy-yad”), the brilliant French silent film director without whom Surrealism might never have flourished, has barely been discovered at all.
Feuillade directed films from 1906 to 1924, the year before his death. He has one high-profile, universally acclaimed crime thriller, 1915’s Les Vampires, available on DVD in the States, as well as another, less-acclaimed but also brilliant policier (1916’s Judex) and a series of about 10 shorts on an omnibus silent film box set released by the famed French studio Gaumont. This seems like ample representation, until one realizes that Feuillade made more than 600 films in his career. Even though many of his films were 20 minutes or shorter, this is a stunning level of productivity. Feuillade is all the more impressive for working so voluminously even during WWI. Yet despite so many credits, few American moviegoers know Feuillade. Senses of Cinema lists over 200 entries in its Great Directors section, but lacks a Feuillade page; by contrast, the Ken Russell and Craig Baldwin entries seem pretty complete.
Many of Feuillade’s films were lost or destroyed during World War II. I’m not qualified to comment on rights issues, but I can still cite three further reasons why American audiences haven’t seen more of Feullade’s work:
1. Format: Calling Feuillade’s most revered films features is stretching the term some. He was more properly a film serial director, a tradition which sprung out of the 19th-century newspaper tradition of serializing stories over weeks or even months (if the film serial’s precedent was the newspaper serial, its descendant has been the TV miniseries). In contrast to most feature films, in which a self-contained story unfolds over a block of time meant to be experienced in one viewing, Feuillade made multi-part films whose installments came out theatrically in subsequent order, building momentum each week. You can think of Les Vampires and Judex as long films, or as a series of short films—for instance, Les Vampires has 10 parts. Back when cinema was the main popular entertainment, asking a large audience to come out to the movie theater over 10 consecutive weeks was reasonable; nowadays, it would be suicide. This is just as well since, like Béla Tarr’s 1994 film Satántángó, another long-form, multi-piece work, the parts form a cogent whole when shown together. But projecting the entirety of a Feuillade serial creates another problem.
2. Length: With all the parts added together, it’s common for an entire Feuillade serial to run six to eight hours. As Richard Maxwell has noted, the tradition of showing Feuillade’s serials in their entirety in the United States began in the 1970s, around the time when artists like Robert LaPlage, Robert Wilson, and Philip Glass began conducting long-form experiments in music and theater. Yet the problems such works face in finding an audience now seem self-evident.
3. Silence: Because they were made on cheap, easily flammable and/or disintegrating film stock, most silent films are lost to us today (in the United States alone it’s been estimated that 75 percent of silent films are irretrievable). Because they’re so rare, audiences are not used to them, and tend to be apprehensive. I don’t mean that audiences don’t like silent movies—I mean that they’re unwilling even to watch them.
For over 90 years 1913’s Juve vs. Fantômas was the only Feuillade film circulating theatrically in the States. Even the Feuillade work currently known and available is so largely because of more recent remakes and adaptations—the French filmmaker Georges Franju (Eyes Without a Face) remade Judex in 1963, and Olivier Assayas made Irma Vep, a Maggie Cheung-starring comedy about a film crew remaking Les Vampires, in 1996. But many of the audiences that have seen Judex and Les Vampires don’t know about Feuillade’s other great work, such as 1914’s Fantômas, 1919’s Barrabas, and perhaps most supremely, 1918’s Tih Minh.
The critic Jonathan Rosenbaum considers Tih Minh one of his 100 favorite movies, thinks it is better than Les Vampires, and, in his book Midnight Movies, calls it the perfect late-night attraction, even with a 357-minute running time. Yet the Internet Movie Database lists no reviews of the film whatsoever, nor anything so much as a plot summary; ditto for Tih Minh’s Wikipedia page.
Tih Minh prints are hard to find. The Cinématheque Francaise owns one, as does Anthology Film Archives, but public screenings rarely happen. I was thus fortunate to catch a screening recently at a Yale conference, spearheaded by History of Art and Film Studies graduate student Richard Suchenski, called “After the Great War: European Film in 1919.” The conference also showed rare treats like Abel Gance’s J’Accuse and Ernst Lubitsch’s The Oyster Princess (The Auteurs’s Daniel Kasman remarked that, had it played in New York, the conference would have been the city’s best repertory series of 2009), but opened with Feuillade. Suchenski’s program notes read that “Although Tih Minh was a great success during its initial release, it was never translated for export and circulated only in incomplete or damaged prints for decades.” After years spent hoping to see Tih Minh, I found it more than worth the wait.
The film begins with explorer Jacques d’Athys (René Cresté) returning home to his family from Indochina. He brings along Tih Minh (Mary Harald), a lovely young girl that he picked up in Laos. He and his loyal servant Placide (Georges Biscot) soon involve themselves in international intrigue that includes jewel thieves-cum-spies who render their victims amnesiacs, a treasure map written in an ancient Asian hand, a literally hypnotic Hindu villain, an insane asylum, and a rock avalanche. A character declares, “Understand that I have to avenge the death of my father.” In the midst of the madness Tih Minh herself becomes a structuring principle, as many of the film’s 12 episodes involve the villains kidnapping her and her subsequent escape or rescue. As the serial’s first third concludes, our heroes flee from the villains, their lovely T.M. in tow; the second third ends with the villains fleeing from them; and the last four episodes build to a final, deadly mountaintop confrontation between the two groups.
The movie doesn’t have a plot so much as a list of incidents. I don’t feel like I’ve given much away, since the one-damn-thing-after-another structure keeps the viewer watching more for what happens moment to moment than for where the story’s going overall. As a consequence of its cliffhangers, and despite its length, Tih Minh zips. In an April 1999 Sight & Sound piece on Feuillade, Vicki Callahan wrote that “the serial form means that the pursuit of criminality or evil is essentially an ongoing saga that can never be completed; the capture of the criminal is not a moment of closure but rather an opportunity to start the narrative anew, since capture is invariably, and sometimes immediately, followed by escape. Rather than a linear, goal-oriented story we have a narrative loop, and one that is further complicated by character movements (whether through misidentification or a particular character’s ethical transformation) between the criminal and law-abiding roles.”
As Callahan points out, Tih Minh’s characters frequently tend to shape-shift and role-play, both through external and internal activity (disguise is one example of the first, hypnotism of the second—misidentification is common in the film, though ethical transformation is scarce). In one scene Tih Minh and Placide’s maid fiancée Rosette (Jeanne Rollette) are visited by a pair of nuns at their home, the Villa Luciola. One of the nuns soon throws off the habit, revealing herself to be the villainous male thief, Kistna (Louis Leubel). Brandishing a pistol, Kistna leads Tih Minh out into the garden to find a map for him; he fires his gun, and the bullet ricochets against a statue and wounds him in the hand. At this point Placide (who’s discovered the hidden microphones) bursts into the frame and, chasing Kistna with a powerful hose, drives him over the garden fence. The sequence mimics the film’s overall power struggle—from good, to evil, to a restoration of the good. In the next episode Kistna will send a spying maid and her equally spying dog to infiltrate the Luciola gang, but that too will pass. Like a Shakespearean comedy, Tih Minh moves from chaos to a restoration of order. The film even marches toward a traditional comedic ending—d’Athys and Placide plan a double-wedding for when all the chases are done.
Feuillade is able to depict such wild happenings onscreen because his foundations are so solid. I mean this not just from a storytelling perspective, but from a visual one. The director consistently relies on static medium-to-establishing shots, proscenium-like in their orientation, the camera viewing the characters from a slightly elevated angle, and the lighting’s generally unobtrusive. In other words, Feuillade gives us a relatively normal, stable-looking frame so that the odd happenings within it can seem all the more disruptive.
Some of these moments are indomitably striking, especially in the film’s first few episodes. Dreaming of the abducted Tih Minh, d’Athys envisions a ghostly superimposition of her, white dress billowing over waves. Later, upon breaking into the spies’ memorably-named Villa Circé to look for her, d’Athys and Placide stumble across a basement room and swing the door open. Inside they see hundreds of women, their hair wild, eyes wide, and white dresses soiled, crawling over each other, the only ray of light beaming in from a barred window above. The men begin searching for Tih Minh, but cannot find her. Meanwhile, the women crawl out and, arms forward, zombie-like, begin wandering the island.
The film frequently invokes mental health—both good and bad doctors lead people into forgetting and remembering their pasts, or inventing new ones, and at one point a key character is even mistakenly locked up in an insane asylum, the plot unable to advance until his release. Freud’s burgeoning theories of psychoanalysis hover about the film (while the 63 year-old Freud had yet to write major works like Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Civilization and Its Discontents at the time of Tih Minh’s release, The Interpretation of Dreams had been in print for almost 20 years). So, too, does World War I: The Armistice was signed November 11th, 1918; Tih Minh’s first episode premiered theatrically on November 30th. The references to the unnamed conflicting governments for whom the characters work recall the convoluted alliances countries formed and broke with each other during the Great War, but the lingering sense of devastation and trauma that the war left across Europe floats through the movie as well.
Feuillade is filming a rousing adventure story, but he’s also questioning the future of the world. It’s a world explicitly without central authority figures, in which the characters fight to assert their own moral order—as one of d’Athys’s companions conveniently says late in the film to justify hunting the thieves, “why inform the police? We are mixed up in the most remarkable adventure in the world, let’s go all the way with it ourselves.” To show how free society hangs in the balance between poles of good and evil, Feuillade doubles many opposing characters. D’Athys’s friend, the good Doctor Davesne, is mirrored by the chief spy Doctor Gilson. Rosette, the good maid, faces an evil maid as her counterpart. Tih Minh breaks out of the spell Gilson and Kistna have put her under, while Gilson’s henchwoman Dolores confesses everything to Davesne under hypnosis. Kistna and his servant Fritz ultimately betray each other, while d’Athys and Placide stay true to one another (all the performers portray effective archetypes, but Biscot’s comic servant is especially wonderful—as he charges gallantly forward to save the women from harm, his flat eyes and smushed face make him seem like a more adult Stan Laurel, though equally, sweetly monstrous). Tih Minh and Kistna show the good and bad possibilities of Europe mixing with Asia.
The film balances its societal poles so that Nature ultimately has to intervene. Toward the end of the film, as the felons flee into the mountains, Feuillade moves his camera several hundred feet back and we see them as specks in the landscape. Unlike Les Vampires, in which the black-clad Irma Vep appears and disappears at her liking, the antagonists here never seem more than human; once the boulders crash, they seem especially so. D’Athys, a bland hero, triumphs over his adversaries not through skill so much as through luck and fate. Rather than a screenplay deficiency, this seems the movie’s point.
I wrote earlier that modern audiences are unused to watching silent films, but other silent cinema isn’t the right point of comparison for Feuillade’s work. Les Vampires came out the same year as The Birth of a Nation, but as Jonathan Rosenbaum writes, Griffith and Feuillade “seem to belong to different centuries. While Griffith’s work reeks of Victorian morality and nostalgia for the mid-19th century, Feuillade looks ahead to the global paranoia, conspiratorial intrigues, and SF technological fantasies of the current century, right up to today.”
The most appropriate comparison for Tih Minh isn’t to another silent film, but to a recent hit like The Dark Knight. Both films are about shape-shifting, disguise-donning villains and the heroes who take the law into their own hands to stop them. Both films structure themselves as a series of setpieces alternating between each party’s capture and escape. Both films are allegories about the wars their countries were then fighting (Tih Minh’s gang is a gaggle of foreigners; several Dark Knight characters call the Joker a terrorist).
Yet Tih Minh trumps The Dark Knight stylistically, tonally, and thematically. Christopher Nolan edits his movie to death, rendering a car chase indecipherable; Feuillade respects the laws of physical space, so that when characters chase each other on ski lifts, a thousand feet off the ground, we still sense where they are in relation to each other and what they have to do to catch up. Nolan pounds his points home with glum, dark seriousness while simultaneously asking us to believe in a clown who can stuff a bomb into a fat man’s chest when no one’s looking; Feuillade knows a poisoned potion in the wine is improbable, and has Placide switch it with sugared water. The Dark Knight insists that wire-tapping, torture, and government cover-ups are necessary in the name of freedom, accepting these precepts fatalistically; Tih Minh, by contrast, shows us a world worth saving. I never want to see Nolan’s movie again, but while Feuillade’s film is almost triple its length, I feel I could watch Tih Minh at least 30 more times. One film exhausts, the other liberates; the comic book film thinks it’s addressing reality, but the human film knows it speaks the language of dreams.