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Thread: Les Vampires (1915)

  1. #1
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    Les Vampires (1915)

    Louis Feuillade's silent film classic Les Vampires apparently played in Toronto in 2007 for Nuit Blanche. I wasn't there, but according to the Ontario Cinematheque's summer film guide it was a sensation in the city.
    Clocking in at 6 hours and 39 minutes, this serial is a cornerstone of cinema history and I'm over the moon that I got to see the first 4 episodes tonight on the big screen.
    The audience was treated to an improvised piano score by William O'Meara (yes improvised- I asked him after the screening if he used the original score sheet. He said no: "I made it all up").
    His improvised score was wonderful. It rose and fell with each scene, with each episodes' tempo.
    The first part of this film event (episodes 1-4) was 148 minutes long and the print was gorgeous. Gorgeous black and white, with flawless titles that were interpreted from the French by a young french woman and spoken through the cinematheque's P.A. system.

    This surreal film is set in early 20th century Paris and was made on the down-low during World War I.
    Lots of great historical outdoor shots of the Paris of 1915 are here, with rooftop shots, great cuts of interior points of view, and the end of the 4th episode even has a tri-image screen ending- very very innovative for it's time. Indeed, Feuillade was forging a cinematic style as he went along, with no one giving him inspiration. It was all practically invented on the fly. And it holds up marvellously in my humble opinion.






    WARNING:SPOILERS
    Last edited by Johann; 07-02-2009 at 07:03 AM.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    EPISODE 1: La Tete Coupee

    Even though this film has acting performances that spell things out quite clearly (due to the need to project for silent cinema), it's difficult to give it a review.

    The heavily made-up actors border on overacting sometimes, but they're just doing all they can to make sure the audience has no illusions (pardon the pun) on what's happening in the story.
    Events go from one to another quite quickly in this serial, with the main thrust being about a "sinistre bande des vampires" who are causing grief in a desolate early 20th Century Paris. They are anti-bourgeois, they dress in black, with what seem to be black cummerbunds, scarves and hoods, like the executioners did in gothic times. They look a little like an all-black army of spidermen, and one of them scales rooftops and water ducts just like the web-slinger. For a brief moment I thought about those modern-day executioners who read some statement before the camera, standing in front of their flag, faces concealed, weapons slung, looking ominous. The vampire gang perpetuate artsy jewel thefts, kidnappings, secret messages, sexy disguises, strange entrances and exits, just your stock mysterious pulpy capers. With a severed head in a box...mmmwahahha!

    A journalist named Phillipe ("Redacteur au Mondial") investigates the jewel heists & tries to upset their dastardly deeds. A frequent character that everyone in the audience seemed to love was Mazamette, a not-so-smart former undertaker/sidekick to Philippe who keeps showing a pic of his family everytime he's done something wrong and is caught. He thinks it will inspire leniency.
    Mazamette figures very prominently in Les Vampires- he's the most interesting character/actor next to Irma Vep.

    But the real star here is Musidora, in a supporting role, who plays Irma Vep (anagram for "Vampire"). She is mesmerizing to gaze at, and my favorite scene is the one in Episode 2 where she dances on a theatre stage in her bat-suit, and then collapses. Greatness. She's iconic for that.
    A definite pioneering special effect is in this movie- the letters on the marquee sign on the street for "Irma Vep" re-arrange themselves before Phillipe's very eyes into "Vampire".
    Still holds up- over 90 years later! The audience reacted positively to that trick.

    It's a little difficult to explain all of the events in this serial.
    A lot happens and I can't explain it, let alone try to describe it.

    In a nutshell, you have a story involving around 300,000 francs, a safe, the main character/reporter Phillipe Guerande, his mother, the "Grande Vampire", a Mrs. Simpson, a "stooge" named Henri who gets murdered, a guy named Mateeser, a Doctor named Nox, a guy named Satanas (who figures prominently in episode 7), a police Inspector named Durtal, a guy named Mr. de Villement, a girl named Marfa, a real estate agent named Mr. Treps, a "hypnotic thief" named Mr. Moreno, a Mr. Montetier and of course Irma, who disguises herself as one "Juliette", a maid. It's like a gothic game of Clue, with tricks and treachery. Hard to take notes for a film like this. Scenes go by in a blur. I wished I could've paused the film a few times...

    I noticed in one review on the imdb that a guy pointed out that if the film has one flaw, it's too many characters being introduced. I agree. There is a new character every few minutes it seems. A new character that we have to learn all about.
    All I can say is that I was very much engaged (no mean feat for a primitive silent from 1915!) and I can't wait to see how it all unfolds over the next two nights it's being screened. I saw it on video years ago but seeing it in the way I am now gives it a whole other impact.
    Near-sold out crowd at Jackman Hall at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
    Loud applause for Mr. O'Meara and the event itself at the end.

    The other episode titles:
    2: La Bagne Qui Tue
    3: Le Cryptogramme Rouge
    4: Le Spectre
    Last edited by Johann; 06-29-2009 at 06:04 AM.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    Marathon, Man

    Saturday night was a huge night of cinema at the Ontario Cinematheque. Episodes 5-8 were screened and it ran 4 hours.

    The theatre staff apologized to me when I asked about the running time at the ticket counter as we filed out (the only one who asked it seemed, even though everyone knew that that was one long screening). There was a misprint in the guide about how long the running time was. Episodes 5-8 total almost 240 minutes.
    I felt sorry for poor Mr. O'Meara, who played a divine upright piano for the whole 4 hours, without faltering once in tempo or energy. Proud of what he did. We all clapped at the end, more out of respect and appreciation for him than the film itself.
    People went up to him after the screening to say thanks.

    I'm just going to let fly with the events that I can remember in this mammoth screening:

    Episode 5: L'Evasion du Mort

    - the thief Moreno is brought in before the authorities in handuffs, and he won't be taken alive. He takes a cyanide tablet and the authorities declare him dead. But is he? His body is taken to a cell overnight. Then he wakes up when a guard comes into his cell to check on him. Like Batman, he takes the guard out and wears his uniform to escape- "l' evasion du mort", get it?

    Then we see Mazamette trying to find out how he can duplicate a lock's key pattern with silly putty. He takes the mold and makes a key, which he hilariously makes obvious to the camera. Then Phillipe is captured by the Vampires! He's pulled from a 3rd story window with a huge noose! (an obviously stuffed dummy- the audience laughed at that- how could you not- it was painfully obvious that it was a dummy) Then Moreno rents cop uniforms for his accomplices. Up to this point we've been led to believe that Le Baron de Montaignes was "the Grand Vampire" but soon we'll see that he's not.
    Next is a Parisian salon, filled with the upper crust toasting the night, who get gassed with a "perfume" and then get robbed wholesale of their jewels by the Vampire gang. I noticed what looked like a bust of Alexander the Great on one of the mantles during this sequence.

    Episode 6: Les Yeux au Fascinent

    The maid Laure is hypnotized by the thief Moreno.
    Then there's a "film within a film"? in 1915? Visionary! called "L'assassination de Notaire", brief but very cool.
    Here's my notes, with no other explanations.
    You see it and add your two cents please.
    Hotel Fontainbleau. Mr. and Mrs. Horatio Werner.
    Horses. Bicycles. on location.
    Phillipe and Mazamette climb some rock faces and find a locked box hidden in them. They take it back to their homebase and unlock it- money!!!!!!
    Viscount de Kerlor. Millionaire Geo Baldwin.
    Newspapers. Business card shots. Raphael Norton.
    Smoking. Pipe? Cigar? tea time!
    A Napoleonic flashback sequence was very interesting to me.
    Napoleon's Marshal Murat tangles with a raging bull (?)
    Vicomte guy? Irma finds a map! To the tresor!
    Irma's an imposter!
    Grand Veneur Hotel.
    La Comte de Kerlor. a revolver!
    Mr. Metadier is assassinated.
    Irma shoots, Irma kills!
    Sumptuous apartment. The journalists are here for an interview!
    Virtue is always rewarded.



    A little chaotic, this serial...
    Last edited by Johann; 06-29-2009 at 07:39 AM.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    Epsiode 7: Satanas

    Early during this episode an audience members' cell phone went off and everybody was incredulous. I couldn't believe it- at the cinematheque? of all places? People were quite angry- the guy let it ring for like, 30 seconds!

    Then, just when the phone stops ringing, a subtitle comes on screen: An urgent ringing was heard..
    I laughed. Did that guy do that on purpose?
    To fuck with us? I forgave the ringing phone because of it, whether the phone was a joke or not. Some nice levity there..

    Irma cross-dresses in this episode, wearing a checked gabardine.
    Her eyes are really something, man. I Love her eyes.

    Satanas is revealed in this episode as the Grand Vampire.
    The dude who was murdered as such was just an underling, according to Satanas.
    Scenes here are just as breakneck and hard to get a handle on as the previous episodes. In that sense, this film is "coherent".
    Scenes involving the Happy Cagibi nightclub take place, a regular meeting place of Moreno and his gang.
    Pocketwatch timecheck. An artillery cannon with huge shells is hidden behind a decadent fireplace and is used no problem. at 2 PM. Fired out of a window. Of an apartment. Yesssir.
    I also noticed nice bronze statues are seen throughout this film, and I also noticed what seemed to be a miniature copy of the Venus de Milo.
    An old man with muskets.
    Irma and Moreno surrender.
    "Together we are going to do great things"
    article: Nouvelles de Partout.
    "Lily" or Fleur de lys is an accomplice!
    The Parc-Hotel. Henriette de Granville. A phonograph that records famous voices: Parisian women are the most charming of all women- All right
    Lucie Machet, the receptionist.
    A psychopathic dance (x2)- the dude is very violent with his partner! Bizarro!

    Episode 8: La Maitre de la Faudre

    Irma is in Saint-Lazare prison. She's transferred to a penal colony in Algeria, "Sidi-Ovedzem". Locomotive shot.
    La nave Sautera. Port Yendres arsenal.
    One of the most exciting scenes in the whole series so far is in this episode: the cannon blowing the ship up. That was REAL footage. Actual footage of a real ship being blown to kingdom come. I'd like to know the story behind that footage..

    A cryptogramme map of Montmartre is analyzed and given a significant amount of screen time, detailing the plans for the gang. Mazamette's son Eustache makes his debut here, most notably in a scene where he accidentally shoots his old man who was hiding in a chest.
    We see the Vampires hanging out at "The Howling Cat", a honky-tonk! Wow!

    So you see what we're dealing with here?
    This serial requires a special kind of patience in order to sit through it and follow the narrative. There is so much happening, without many pauses for reflection. In fact there's none.
    It must have been tremendously exciting to see in it's day. It must've been like a comet striking the earth.
    90-some years later, it is a historical artifact, a window into how Parisian artists saw and used the film medium to express themselves. And to think that Henri Langlois salvaged it from the garbage cans behind Gaumont studios! There are scores of shots, many different angles- Feuillade's camera moved around a lot!

    The final two episodes screen tonight and I'm looking very forward to it. It's becoming clear to me how mammoth this film is considering the time it was created.
    I apologize if my "review" doesn't please you.
    If anybody here can give a more fluid and concise summary of events, I welcome you with open arms.

    Saturday night's screening had no translator.
    Subtitles were the only way to discern what was happening and I was told that tonight will have no interpreter either.
    And the film was a pristine 35mm print.
    Very very rare moviegoing experience here and I'm very happy that I'll have seen this one the way it was meant to be seen.
    When I remember the home viewing experience I had, this blows it out of the water. Just like that ship...
    Last edited by Johann; 06-29-2009 at 12:56 PM.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    Ear to the ground like a Sioux warrior

    Episode 9: l'Homme des Poisons

    More of my schizo reviewing:
    (I've left out so much on this film it's crazy. But hopefully you check it out yourself and can get a better handle on it than me).

    This chapter opens with shots of Irma and the "new" Grand Vampire Venenos in white lab smocks and masks preparing their "potions" in a chem lab. They will be married later...
    The police thought Irma was dead and now she's a collaborator of Venenos.
    115 rue d'Artois
    An apartment is given a viewing and approved by Jane Bremontier, Phillipe's new flame (they are to wed as well).
    Phillipe's mother takes care of wedding plans, Phillipe and Jane kiss. There's scenes dealing with Bechamel's, a caterer and two new characters named Hortense and Aurelie. There's a dinner party, and Mazamette appears again. He's got a really big schnozz! Maybe not a big as Karl Malden's, but it's one distinctive proboscis! A cartoon silhouette of Mazamette is made later on, towards the end of the film. He's a real comedic actor. I want to know more about the actor who played him. He reminded me of Chaplin a few times, with his mugging and wacky mannerisms.
    Great comedic role.

    The champagne at the dinner party is poisoned, hence the title of this episode. More rooftop shenanigans, more scaling of buildings (and waterducts). You got more telegrammes that push the narrative, more "perfume" is concocted to gas the Vampires' victims and Irma at one point sprays Mazamette when he finds her baiting a carriage with it. He's dragged off by a female accomplice of Irma's, who drops him on the street and summons the cops to be rid of this "drunk". They cart him away. Irma stows herself in the trunk that's attached to the carriage. then she plots an escape- into the car itself, which Phillipe realizes too late after dealing with Mazamette by telephone at the cop shop. Musidora does her own daring stunts in the next scene, when she escapes from the moving car. It's real stuntwork. They filmed it on the fly- it was great to see that the French in those days were kinda like Buster Keaton...there are quite a few interesting stunts throughout the whole serial.
    Scenes at the Hotel de la Pyramide, Fontainbleau, there's even a PAN shot! in 1915! It's the scene where Irma is tied up by Mazamette and Phillipe and tossed into their car. I couldn't believe it! An actual pan! it's short, but it's there.
    I swear, the French have cinema in their DNA...

    Irma honks for her rescue with her head! (she was tied up, after all) She escapes with help, then she drives off in Mazamettes car. Why they left her alone is a mystery. There's a really great train chase in this episode, and it looks to have been carefully planned and orchestrated. I kept reminding myself of how brilliant the editing of this Epic is, and what miles and miles of footage was edited out or not used. Did they have one take for each shot?
    Phillipe jumps from a bridge onto a moving train to chase the baddie, with Mazamette close behind. But the cops prevent Maza from jumping. So he slaps the cop. For not letting him assist his friend. Hilarious. He realizes immediately how wrong that act was and offers his cheek to the copper to slap. They book him instead. Phillipe jumps from the train and injures himself and is later reunited with Maza at the cop shop.
    I noticed parts of this episode's original negative was in worse shape than the rest of the film- quite a few lines and scratches.
    But the print itself was pristine (for a silent transfer at least).
    Tragic engagement party.
    Phillipe and Jane are married.
    Another character, Augustine, is offered a chambermaid job.
    I don't remember exactly where the episode ended, so I'll blend these comments with the last
    Episode 10: Les Noces Sanglantes:

    Wild stunts with climbing ropes and falling from buildings (again with obvious dummies- audience howled at the obviousness).
    Police chases, meandering scenes with Phillipe on a bike, climbing over fences and roofs, the dinner party rages on with toasts, and the actors in this opus really really went for it. They put their all into this film, from start to finish. You can tell that miles away.
    This episode basically has a lot of chaotic shit going down, ending in a Vampires orgy and gunfight! Yes, you heard right. Mazamette is honored with a sketch on an easel of his huge nose/face, which has no eye drawn. Venenos draws his gun and fires single bullet into the drawing, creating an "eye".
    There's some wild vamp dancing and pirouetting and the climax (if there is one) is Irma Vep being shot in the left breast.

    This is the best I can do for a review of this mammoth work.
    It's difficult for me to get my head around this schizo yet engaging 10-parter. There isn't too much in the way of profundity here, but it is essential viewing if you are a cinephile. You have to see it at least once. For historical importance at the very least.
    If you are entertained (and I think you will be if you love silent cinema) then that's a bonus.
    Last edited by Johann; 07-08-2009 at 05:30 PM.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    I went up to Mr. O'Meara after the screening to ask him how his hands were feeling after Saturday night.
    He said: You were here for the whole series! I can't believe it! I said "Yes, why see only one part?"
    I asked him if he knew saturday night was going to be 4 hours and he said no: nobody told me!
    I was like, "What?!"

    He said: But it's Ok, I also played the piano for the Nuit Blanche screening in 2007 and that was 7 hours straight! The whole film!
    I couldn't believe it. I told him that if they ever do a deluxe DVD release that they should tap him to do the score.
    His piano playing was superb.
    Really tremendous.
    He said he practises to DVD copies of silent films that the cinematheque wants him to play for. He's a class act, man.
    He was very friendly and the immediacy he added to the screenings was immense. To have a live piano soundtrack (which I sat quite close to) adds so much to the experience.
    You are immersed in the film that way.
    Loved it.
    What an amazing cinema experience.
    The crowd was considerably smaller than Friday and Saturday- literally less than half capacity. But that's not surprising.
    After Saturday, some people might've sworn off silents forever!
    Last edited by Johann; 06-30-2009 at 07:16 AM.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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