Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Juve contre Fantômas (1913)

Juve Against Fantômas (Juve contre Fantômas) is the second installment of Louis Feuillade's 1913 Fantômas serial, which had an immense influence on the crime, adventure and horror movie genres. And despite being almost a century old it’s still great fun.

This second installment is itself divided into four parts with a total running time of around an hour. The diabolical criminal mastermind Fantômas is up to more wickedness, and is once again being pursued by his arch-nemesis, Inspector Juve of the Sûreté. Plot coherence has been more or less thrown out the window this time around, but it doesn’t really matter. As long as there are dastardly deeds afoot and we know that Fantômas is behind them and as long as the action keeps coming we don’t need to worry about details. After all, Fantômas is a master of disguise so who can tell exactly which crimes he might be responsible for?

There are links to the first installment, with Lady Beltham (the mistress of Fantômas) making another appearance. The master criminal is using her villa as his secret hide-out. And Juve is once again assisted by the energetic journalist Jérôme Fandor. Fantômas is also plotting to eliminate the witnesses to his earlier crimes, by destroying an entire train carriage by uncoupling it and leaving it in the path of a speeding express train.

It would be another decade or so before film-makers learnt the art of using a moving camera but Feuillade is clearly already aware of the limitations of the static camera. And he has found a number of ways to overcome this limitation. He uses depth of field, with action taking place in the background as well as the foreground, to maintain visual interest. And he makes sure there is always movement within the frame. These techniques are enough to give his movie a sense of dynamism so that you really don’t notice the stationary camera. The camera may be static, but his compositions never are. The use of different coloured tints also helps.

He also makes considerable (and effective) use of location shooting. Apart from adding a sense of excitement to the film this also gives us some wonderful glimpses of Paris street life before the Great War. In several scenes you can see passers-by suddenly noticing the film crew!

And although this is 1913 there are special effects, with some quite impressive model shots.

The acting is fairly naturalistic, which works well since the subject matter is so melodramatic that you don’t want the actors getting too histrionic. The costumes are great and you have to keep reminding yourself that these weren’t really costumes as such, it really was 1913 and the actors were simply wearing contemporary dress!

There are some very fine visual set-pieces - the train hijacking and especially the shoot-out on the beach among the wine barrels still seem imaginative after all these years. And there’s even an attempted murder by python. Fantômas makes a series of dramatic escapes, but Inspector Juve sticks to his trail with dogged determination.

It’s wonderful that these serials survive at all, but what’s even more pleasing is that they’re complete and in exceptionally good condition, and they look absolutely splendid.

Fantômas has influenced countless cinematic bad guys (and heroes as well) in the century that has passed since his first appearance on celluloid. He’s still a compelling villain, and Feuillade's serials remain fascinating and highly entertaining.

1 comment:

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