A Screenful of Secrets: Behind the Mastery of Feuillade’s FANTOMAS


In his review of the new Kino DVD box set of Louis Feuillade’s Fantômas, Dave Kehr, with his characteristically epigrammatic eloquence, sums up the legacy of Feuillade’s films: “Form has devoured content, leaving only art behind.” Kehr argues that these films, presumably intended over 80 years ago as disposable serial entertainments for European spectators, can now be regarded from today’s vantage point as touchstones to modernist cinema, with its fascination towards the innate properties of material objects on screen. What on the surface seems like clunky, filmed theater from the silent era belies a surprisingly complex approach towards cinematic space and notions of “reality.”

In Kehr’s words:

Feuillade stages his scenes… as they might be witnessed by a spectator sitting in the auditorium of a theater, using long takes to cover action presented within a proscenium space. For generations this early tableau style was dismissed by historians as primitive and uncinematic, but Feuillade’s work is the perfect illustration of how dynamic and expressive it could be. The opening scene of Episode 3, “The Murderous Corpse,” makes a very sophisticated use of blocking and composition to direct the viewer’s eye to different areas of the frame as characters enter and leave a second-hand clothing shop, climaxing with the revelation of a trap door leading to one of Fantômas’s secret escape routes. What might have been visual chaos in the hands of another director here seems crisp, clear and logical. There may be no cutting within the scene, but Feuillade’s way of sequentially focusing attention on different details makes it seem as if there were.

This passage had me revisiting the scene in question, the result being this sequence of screen grabs illustrating Feuillade’s technique. In this first capture, in the foreground we have Mother Toulouche, proprietor of a shop that secretly trades in stolen goods. She’s talking to Nibet, a prison guard who’s an accomplice to the criminal Fantomas. To the left Toulouche’s hire, a simpleton named Cranajour, is checking the pockets of freshly acquired apparel.


A couple enters to sell some wares (presumably stolen) to Toulouche. Nibet makes a hasty retreat to the rear to conceal himself (is it that he doesn’t want to be spotted in such an unsavory spot?)


As the woman presents her goods to Toulouche, her partner strolls to the entrance, possibly to keep watch in case of the fuzz (how ironic that a man of the law is but a couple yards away).


When it comes time to settle the transaction, the man returns to the foreground to take the money, subtly conveying the power dynamic between this couple. All this time Caranjour alternates between picking through clothes and staring at the others in slack-jawed uncomprehension. In an interesting visual rhyme, Caranjour takes a single coin out of a pocket just as Toulouche hands a similar coin to the man for the goods. Small change for both!


The couple leaves and Nibet returns to the foreground to congratulate Toulouche on driving a hard bargain.


Now it’s Toulouche’s turn to visit the rear, opening a trapdoor that, in retrospect, had been visible all along.


Nibet hands Caranjour the new loot and they descend through the trapdoor to deposit it in a secret lair.



Given that I watched this sequence multiple times to glean this much information, I’m not sure how much I agree that the scene is “crisp, clear and logical.” On the other hand, it isn’t “visual chaos;” the screen holds concentrated areas of activity and meaning (or possible meaning) that upon reflection come together to produce a scene yielding multiple intrigues. Ultimately, it works with its own inlaid logic, but takes time to tease out. It reflects a sensitivity to a way of relating to space, character and culture that contemporary viewers may require some effort to exercise. (But isn’t that part of the reason why Mad Men is so fun to watch?)

In any case it is a far cry from the films of Feuillade’s contemporary D.W. Griffith, whose swiftly edited scenes (not nearly as long as the four minute single take examined above) make a clean, direct impact, an ethos of efficacy that still ripples through today’s Hollywood (cf. Inception). Both are puzzle-makers: Griffith’s parallel storylines will juxtapose different things happening in different places or times on a collision course with destiny, hurtling the viewer into its dramatic spectacle. For Feuillade, the pieces are all there, but it’s left to the viewer to burrow into the screen to connect the dots. In the process, the screen is transformed into a constant world-in-progress, a series of surfaces concealing a universe of secrets. It’s a screen that insinuates its own unsettling qualities on our everyday reality. Reflected in Feuillade’s world, nothing around us is as it seems.

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