Monday, 23 August 2010

Film's first fairytale - 1909 - La fée des grèves (The Fairy of the Surf) - Louis Feuillade

There are certain films that only make a notable impression on their audience after the film has concluded. They do not radiate brilliance throughout as many of the great films do, but their appreciation greatly increases when they considered in their entirety: Louis Feuillade’s The Fairy of the Surf is one of these films.

The film disguises itself as what we would today call a costume drama, but the film invites far more complex readings than its genre may suggest.

Before discussing the various readings the film invites, Feuillade’s developing directorial skills should be discussed. In The Fairy of the Surf, Feuillade pulls of a feat that no film has managed to do so thus far, achieve a smooth transition between a ‘natural’ exterior and an interior.

Although films shot in cities have successfully managed such transitions, films which have been partly shot outside of a city have either failed in portraying the transition, or more often than not, avoided it all together (see The Tempest (1908) and Stenka Razin (1908)). As Prince Sigismond walks the fairy up the stairs of his castle and they enter a large hall (see image above), the shift between the two locations is seamless. We may take for granted what we now considered to be a routine and mundane switch, but it is early directors such as Feuillade who enabled later directors to perform such movement with ease.

The film also contains a sublime shot (see image above), which should be categorised as what Kurosawa termed as ‘pure cinema’. As the Prince and his friend capture the fairy from the river, their boat heads back towards the shore; as their boat shits direction, the entire frame is engulfed by a blaze of light. It is a shot of terrifying beauty that recalls one J.M.V’s dazzling portrayals of sunlight. As Picasso once said, "Some painters transform the sun into a yellow spot; others transform a yellow spot into the sun." Even in his earliest films, Feuillade hints at the flair and control that he will exhibit in his later films.

The colouring of the costumes is done particularly well (see image above). In certain films from this era, colouring can be overdone and diminish a particular film’s visual qualities. Here, however, the colouring of clothing is subtle and enhances certain scenes, such as when the various couples make their way to the wedding, and the colouring of the ladies’ dresses highlights the grandiosity of the occasion (see image below).

The film also manages scenes with large groups of people in a more convincing manner than has been attempted in previous films (this improvement undoubtedly owes a debt to the constant technological innovations of film as well). Each individual’s body is decipherable, as is their movement. Feuillade’s decision to employ the technique of slow motion as each couple leaves the wedding after the fairy and the prince leaves highlights his ability in regards to orchestrating the movement of a group of people (see image below).  

The plot of the film is simple; Prince Sigismond and his friend capture a fairy from the river next to his castle, and the Prince convinces her to marry him. After they marry, she faints as she realises that she cannot live away from the river and collapses (see image below). She begs her new husband to allow her to return to her home. As he begs her to stay, he finally gives up and decides to go with her. The final scene involves them sitting on an underwater throne together.

At a basic level, we have a simple love story. But rather than the fairy forsaking her world for her prince, the opposite happens. Given the combination of the love story with sparing use of visual trickery, The Fairy of the Surf is clearly a loose forerunner for films such as Avatar. However, the film’s aforementioned completeness and retrospective satisfaction lends itself to any number of fairy tales.

Another reading of the film is that it is an allegory for the battle between reality and the imagination. The Prince represents reality and the fairy represents the imagination.  As the Prince captures the fairy and marries her, it appears that reality is harnessing and taking control of the imagination. Yet as the imagination has a violent reaction against reality and realises that it cannot exist on this plain so must return to her river of imagination, reality secedes its attempt to control the imagination and enters the world of the imagination. It is on this plain that the two are able to happily coexist (see image below); the allegory serves as an excellent lesson for any artist, and may also function as Feuillade’s mission statement for what will be an extremely successful decade for him.


  1. I'd have never guessed that 7 minutes of such strangeness and beauty were just sitting there on YouTube. Thanks for bringing this one ashore.

    The two worlds in this film - the land castle, and the sea - are both handled with visual flair, aren't they? I particularly like your suggestion that the former represents 'reality', and the latter 'imagination'. The silver screen itself, I suppose, is a kind of surface separating these two realms... And the glowing 'surf' in this film really does bring this to mind. (Like you, I couldn't help but think of Avatar).

    The blazing light surrounding their little boat is unnerving, too. The strange 'grain' seems almost prophetic of the Trinity test, 36 years later....

  2. This film's brilliance increases each time I return to it. It is as complete and satisfactory a film that was made during this decade. Griffith steals all the credit when it comes to moving characters away from their hyperactivity in the earliest silent film to a more 'realistic' sense of movement - but Feuillade manages to pull such movement off in a fantastical setting.

    The manner in which the couples almost float into the hall as they attend the wedding reminded of the final part of Visconti's The Leopard.

    I love the idea that the silver screen is a surface separating the realms of reality and the imagination...I would argue that the most successful films have a foot in both worlds.

    Your comparison of the blazing light around the boat and the Trinity test is both brilliant and terrifying - both images are sublime.

    And to quote Frances Reynolds on what constitutes 'the true sublime':

    'It is a pinnacle of beatitude, bordering upon horror, deformity, madness! An eminence from whence the mind, that dares to look farther is lost! It seems to stand, or rather to waver, between certainty and uncertainty, between security and destruction. It is the point of terror, of undetermined fear, of undetermined power!'