ART FILM OF THE WEEK
Louis Feuillade’s ten-part, seven-hour serial begins with protagonist Guerande—an ace reporter hot on the trail of constant adventure—recovering the severed head of the infamous Vampires’ (a nefarious street gang, not to be confused with the supernatural blood-sucking monster) first victim in the film.
From episode to episode, Geurande never slows his search for the gang of underground criminals, though he faces many near death experiences and the loss of his friends and loved ones along the way. His partner, Mazamette, brings comic relief to Geurande’s rigidly logical, straight-edge mannerisms in perfect Holmes/Watson style.
The two reporter-cum-detectives are on the trail of the notorious outlaws that follow the lead of their Grand Inquisitor, who throughout the film continues to be a different member of their gang. Seductress Irma Vep (an anagram for “vampire”) is the Inquisitor’s (no matter which Inquisitor it is at the time) only equal in devising the schemes involving theft and murder that are generally aimed at the upper class in Paris. As Geurande deciphers the Vampires’ codebook, he is led into their underworld of crime, and discovers the group to in fact be an unstable organization with a lust for money and death. It is Geurande’s obsession with the masters of disguise that leads him ever closer into their inner circle of hell. Developing in the process is a symbiotic relationship between Geurande and Irma Vep, creating an attraction and repulsion between them that is resolved most tragically in the final episode.
The film is constructed in long takes of which Feuillade often nailed his camera to the ground for a documentary/realist effect in the midst of a surreal environment. The mise-en-scene of Les Vampires has trap doors, holes in the wall, surreal visuals of the gruesome effects of hypnotic powers, and other epistemological devises illustrating the precarious threshold of life and death for all the characters involved. As with any good serial, the film is chock-full of cliff-hangers, near-death escapes, and uncanny disguises that propel the narrative forward in its foreboding overtones. Each episode ups the ante of danger and peril, depicting poisoners, deadly explosives, and even a dance hall converted into a gas chamber. For those viewers lucky enough to catch on to Feuillade’s 1915 masterpiece (later “remade”—more or less—as Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep in 1996), they’ll find therein the devious delight that has profoundly influenced numerous directors, musicians, writers, and artists since the film’s conception almost a century ago.