Tuesday, 10 August 2010

1908 - A Very Fine Lady - Louis Feuillade




Today, Louis Feuillade is primarily remembered for his pioneering work on the serial thrillers Fantomas (1913) and Les Vampires (1915). However, the scope of Feuillade’s influence was broader and deeper than is currently remembered.



In 1905, Feuillade started to sell screenplays to Gaumont, who at the time were the second largest film company in France after Pathé. He was recruited by Alice Guy, the pioneering film maker who was responsible for Gaumont’s growth during its formative years.  



Given that by 1910, two-thirds of worldwide film production was produced by French companies, this was a remarkably influential position to hold, the likes of which there is no modern equivalent of today. The likes of Abel Gance, Romeo Bosetti and Marcel L’Herbier worked at Gaumont while he was creative director at Gaumont. Feuillade was also a prolific director; before his death in 1925, he made close to 700 films.



A Very Fine Lady demonstrates Feuillade’s versatility and will surprise those who only know Feuillade through Fantomas and Les Vampires. The film is a simple comedy that owes a significant debt to the early work of Max Linder. Linder’s growing popularity meant that there was demand for more comedy films, but they needed to combine slapstick with a sense of adventure. A Very Fine Lady is as humorous as any of Linder's early films, successfully structuring its comedy around a single conceit. If the film has a weakness, it is that it tails off slightly as it reaches is its climax. But overall, it is a highly amusing film that should have the ability to win over any silent film sceptics that you know.  



A Very Fine Lady follows a beautiful young woman and traces the trouble and fuss she creates among the male population. What makes the film enjoyable is the manner in which the scenarios on display become both increasingly absurd and funny; starting with a shop keeper pouring a bucket water the wrong way (see image above) and reaching its comic peak with a man taking out another gentleman with a large plank of wood, as his sight is distracted by the pretty lady as she walks by (see image below).



We also have one of cinema’s first allusions to an earlier film. As the young lady walks past a gardener watering a public park, you are reminded of one of the Lumiere Brothers’ first films, Le Jardinier (l'Arroseur Arrosé) (1895), where a similar gag is played with a hose pipe (see image below).  



The film is also the first example that we have of the ‘male voyeur's gaze’. In her landmark 1975 essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema ,  Laura Mulvey stated that:
The image of woman as (passive) raw material for the (active) gaze of man takes the argument a step further into the structure of representation, adding a further layer demanded by the ideology of the patriarchal order as it is worked out in its favorite cinematic form - illusionistic narrative film. The argument returns again to the psychoanalytic background in that woman as representation signifies castration, inducing voyeuristic or fetishistic mechanisms to circumvent her threat. None of these interacting layers is intrinsic to film, but it is only in the film form that they can reach a perfect and beautiful contradiction, thanks to the possibility in the cinema of shifting the emphasis of the look. It is the place of the look that defines cinema, the possibility of varying it and exposing it. This is what makes cinema quite different in its voyeuristic potential from, say, strip-tease, theatre, shows, etc. Going far beyond highlighting a woman's to-be-looked-at-ness, cinema builds the way she is to be looked at into the spectacle itself.
I have always felt that Mulvey’s argument is over-exaggerated and slightly dated, but she certainly raises an interesting debate which I think is well worthwhile pursuing. And although A Very Fine Lady is a straightforward comedy, there is no denying that if we were to apply Mulvey’s reading to film, the genealogy of the ‘male voyeur's gaze’ can be traced back to this film.



For example, returning to the hosepipe scene, the sexual innuendo of the gardener’s hosepipe ushering a fountain of water as the lady walks by (see image below) could be interpreted as adding weight to Mulvey’s assertion.



Film: Ab Initio will return to her argument and the above quote in more detail, when the idea of the ‘male voyeur's gaze’ is found in later films, and it will be interesting to see how well Mulvey’s hypothesis holds (particularly in relation to the Hitchcock films, Vertigo and Rear Window, that Mulvey's argument is predominantly aimed at).

A Very Fine Lady is a fine foray into the world of film making by Feuillade, and it will be interesting to observe the genesis of his directorial skills over the next ten years or so.



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