Paris, 1915. A city of darkness, thrown into paralysis by an unusual, uncontrollable epidemic: Vampires. These creatures of the night are not the famed blood-suckers of folklore however (though causing bloodshed is certainly of their essence), but a fearsome gang of cat burglars and criminal masterminds who orchestrate the virtual strangulation of an entire metropolis. So great is their proliferation of French society that even the president of the nation’s Court of Cassation is eventually exposed as one of their accomplices – and somewhat tellingly, he’s seen as totally expendable. Having initiated a wave of corruption that poisons every rung of the social ladder, the key members of this hedonistic troupe retreat into underground lairs and sordid taverns (their destination of choice: a club called “The Hissing Cat”) where they concoct ever greater heists and swindles during raucous bacchanals, all the while plotting the extermination of their primary foes: Philippe Guérande, a self-righteous newspaper editor, and Oscar Mazamette, his happy-go-lucky sidekick; a pair of (relatively) law-abiding citizens intent on bringing the Vampires to justice. The imminence of impending doom reverberates upon both sides of this war, and with the streets of the city curiously shorn of life (a different, greater war is felt in spirit but never once referred to), Paris becomes a shell of its almighty reputation – humiliatingly stripped of its populace as it nervously awaits an inevitable showdown between the forces of good and evil.
Louis Feuillade’s famed ten-part serial is nowadays renowned as one of the high points of cinema’s formative years: a sprawling epic that continues to withstand the hazardous tests of time almost a century after conception. Nevertheless, on the basis of artistry alone, Les vampires can read like something of a disappointment. The director’s construction rests almost entirely upon the long-takes of a stationary camera – a decision that fails to distinguish the film from its innumerable peers of similar, theatrical pretensions. Look again however, and Feuillade reveals himself to be an early master of mise-en-scène, utilising remarkable depth of field to reinforce the tension within his modest set-ups. His is a cinematic world built upon audience uncertainty, induced by actively encouraging the awareness of off-screen space. Thus, although his staging appears conventional, the director frequently bestows atypical prominence to doors and windows, ensuring that they remain centred within his static frames. Given that Feuillade’s Paris is conceived as a labyrinthine series of tunnels and passageways which allow the Vampires ease of access to their victims, his decision has major ramifications upon both his narrative and the viewer’s response to it. Any opening that provides contiguity with the exterior world consequently breeds anxiety, allowing the acrobatic gangsters an orifice from which to penetrate the lives of others; psychosexuality, naturally, simmering beneath all surface action. Additionally, the director’s settings are often more complex than meets the eye, boasting a series of trap-doors, secret compartments and false artefacts that render even the familiar unsafe (as if to reinforce this, one of the film’s more ludicrous scenarios finds the Vampires-as-estate agents letting an apartment with a particularly conspicuous “safe” – whose removable back opens up into their own, adjacent domicile). Alongside the agoraphobia (open spaces are recast as playing fields in which criminals are free to plunder humans at will) and distrust (duplicitous identities are abound and double-crossing is rampant), Les vampires plays out like a full-scale assault on the very notion of bourgeois security.
Its gumption now apparent, the film’s key problem nonetheless continues to linger: six hours with a motionless camera is a stultifying, archaic experience for the modern cinephile. But alas, Les vampires just so happens to be an exceedingly modern film. For all the innate darkness within Feuillade’s depiction of a menacing criminal empire, his treatment of the material is defined by an airy lightness of touch and a host of moral ambiguities. Accordingly, whilst the aura of unpredictability hangs over proceedings like a dead weight, the director seeks to counter the discomfort by actualising this threat in its most outlandish forms, thereby diverting his narrative into increasingly preposterous directions; a progressive knotting into if ever there was one. In the space of mere nanoseconds: unsuspecting daydreamers can be lassoed from third-storey windows; enormous cannons can appear as if from nowhere; and sizeable ballrooms can morph into luxurious gas chambers – all to the growing bewilderment of the audience. The last of these cited spectacles is both the most exhilarating and, more importantly, the most emblematic. Les vampires, at its gleeful peaks, is a daringly anti-establishment tirade that lampoons Paris’ ineffectual police force and ridicules its pompous aristocracy. When its supposed villains therefore decide to asphyxiate a group of these clueless buffoons, it’s almost with sadness that we discover that the inhalant which they deploy provokes little more than an extended slumber – so successfully does the director glamorise his merry band of thieves. Still, the deaths that are caused by the outfit are notably almost exclusively reserved to members of the ruling classes, and when at film’s end the Vampires meet an overdue demise, Feuillade appears to intimate that its their own accession to these patricians’ vices which causes their undoing.
If the text is guilty of mild socialist/anarchist leanings, then it’s surely also a progressive pioneer of early cine-feminism. Les vampires‘ most compelling character by far is the notorious ‘Irma Vep’ (a much-noted anagram of “vampire”), perhaps the nascent medium’s first real femme fatale, dependent upon interpretation. Enigmatic yet completely alluring, she assumes a mind-boggling array of disguises throughout the film’s runtime: bank clerk, chemist, hotel receptionist, housemaid, noblewoman, spinster – at one point, she even dons drag in an delightful (though not quite subversive) gender-bending exercise. Of course, her most iconic garb remains the black, skin-tight catsuit worn to scurry across Parisian rooftops by night; a breathtaking injection of identifiable, earthy sexuality (the get-up does an unsurprisingly great job of accentuating her curves). More than any of the film’s purported heroes, it is this bewitching villain who comes to embody its (admittedly limited) emotional core: late into the drama, the instinctive shock that she displays when confronted with an act of genuine benevolence marks the only instance in which Feuillade alludes to a character’s backstory (life has been cruel, to the point where she no longer comprehends what kindness is). Ferocious and independent in spite of the numerous capitulations enforced upon her by male suitors, Irma Vep is a character who honours defiance until the bitter end. After her entire world has crumbled around her, she steadfastly maintains her refusal to submit to the accepted patriarchy – instead, it’s a fellow female (albeit one who’s not half as interesting) who ends up pulling the fatal trigger on her. And even on the verge of death, this anti-heroine finds time to make one final, blazing statement: a clenched fist, raised to the air in fury.
For all its sinister overtones and ideological undercurrents, one needs to remain aware of the director’s primitive, primary goal: to entertain. To this end, Mazamette (one of the film’s two purported ‘good guys’) scampers around the screen like a vaudeville clown, constantly breaking the fourth wall and communicating directly with his audience – primarily by offering a jocular wink every time he senses another triumph/escape. If Irma Vep bestows Les vampires with its substance, Mazamette is designed to comically undermine it at all costs. Wielding a photo of his children and pulling puppy-dog eyes every time he finds himself in trouble, and constantly turning up at opportune moments of crisis in order to save the day, the character’s boisterous pantomime act is very much a product of its time. And yet, although it initially seems outdated, with another lens it’s also quite strikingly ahead of its era. Mazamette can easily be seen as the chief proponent of the film’s meta-narrative, commentating upon on-screen events as they occur whilst simultaneously participating in their development. Moreover, he’s not the only such device in the film – his young son, a juvenile delinquent, turns up in a particularly farcical episode and offers a dastardly imitation of his father (thereby causing a riot as not one but two characters take on this extra-filmic role in close proximity to one another), and even Irma Vep herself offers more than one knowing glare into her audience. Feuillade’s integration of such humour is, if not quite postmodern, then at least somewhat Pirandellian in its design – and he deploys it most brilliantly in an act of self-reflexivity which gets to the very lifeblood of his opus. After an ill-fated bank executive declares that he’s “fanatical about the cinema”, he promptly takes a trip to a theatre called the Gaumont Palace and proceeds to watch newsreel footage of the head Vampires travelling incognito in the forest of Fontainebleau. This simple act at once discloses: an early endorsement of cinephilia; an advertisement of the film’s production company (Gaumont Films – the theatre used was an authentic one); and, crucially, a tribute to a still fledgling medium and its potential to innovate in the field of storytelling. Les vampires may not fully utilise the tools available to it in terms of technical ingenuity, but in its infectious spirit of blissful abandon and unruly escapism it sets an early standard for high-concept cinema – and it’s a standard that’s rarely been equalled in the years since.