Fantômas (Kino Lorber, NR)

Action, and lots of it, is what audiences came to Fantômas to see.

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One of the most influential characters in the history of crime fiction first appeared in 1911 in the eponymous French crime novel Fantômas, written by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre. The character of Fantômas would appear in an additional 31 novels by Allain and Souvestre, a series of films directed by Louis Feuillade, and numerous works by other authors and directors as well. While the character never really caught on in the United States (word of warning: the 1920 American serial of that name has little to do with the character created by Allain and Souvestre), in France works featuring Fantômas were wildly popular with the general public and also influenced some of the leading creative minds of the day, including the writer Guillaume Apollinaire and the painters René Magritte and Juan Gris.

Feuillade’s Fantômas serials, initially released in 1913 and 1914, are now available from Kino Lorber in a new 4K restoration produced by Gaumont and the Centre National du Cinema in collaboration with the Cinémathèque française (the restorations were first released in 2013, for the 100th anniversary of the Fantômas serials). The images in the restorations are remarkably sharp and clear, the soundtracks are appropriately atmospheric, and the films come and with a number of features that offer the perfect opportunity to get up to speed on Fantômas, if the character is new to you, or revisit an old friend, if you’ve already been a fan for years.

The Fantômas films are episodic melodramas, each made up of several serial segments featuring the criminal activities of the title character (played by René Navarre), a genius sociopath and master of disguise who runs circles around the Parisian police. Action, and lots of it, is what audiences came to Fantômas to see, with plenty of shock revelations (the first law of melodrama: if someone opens a trunk, it must contain a body) and amazing coincidences salted throughout intricate story lines. Don’t come to these films looking for realism—in the world of Fantômas, things happen the way they do because that makes for an exciting film to watch, end of story.

Disguise is a salient theme in Fantômas, and each film is introduced with a montage of Fantômas as the various characters he will assume in that film (this segment is now lost for the fifth film, but did appear when it was first shown in theaters). Two other recurring characters, police inspector Juve (Edmond Bréon) and crime reporter Fandor (Georges Melchior) also use disguises in their efforts to capture Fantômas, and the third episode of the first film includes one of the most improbable (and yet thoroughly enjoyable to watch) disguise-centered plots ever to grace the silver screen.

To make a long story short, Fantômas has murdered Lord Beltham (whose body is discovered in a steamer trunk, of course) and, in his character of Gurn, is romancing Beltham’s wife. Fantômas is arrested and sentenced to death, but Lady Beltham bribes a guard to arrange a meeting between herself and Fantômas, outside the prison walls. Meanwhile, an actor appearing in a celebrated stage version of the Fantômas story (proving there’s nothing new about plots ripped from the headlines) is lauded for his resemblance to the title character. Lady Beltham invites the actor to tea, with the requirement that he wear his Fantômas costume and makeup. The day before his execution, the meeting and the tea both take place at the same location, and you can guess how it all comes out.

Feuillade, who is credited with directing about 800 films, was a master of visual storytelling. In Fantômas, he uses title cards relatively infrequently, often inserting a bit of exposition diegetically by showing a newspaper or a letter on screen. These cut-ins also serve the useful purpose of breaking up long, fixed-camera scenes. While many scenes in Fantômas are shot as if they were sections of a well-furnished stage play (an understandable approach given the conventions and technology of the time), Feuillade also has moments of visual brilliance (a scene of Lady Beltham in a darkened room, her body a silhouette against the cracks of light coming through the shutters, is a good example).

The two Blu-ray discs include five feature films—Fantômas in the Shadow of the Guillotine, Juve vs. Fantômas, The Murderous Corpse, Fantômas vs. Fantômas, and The False Magistrate—which together run about 5.5 hours. Two of the films include audio commentaries by film historian David Kalat, which concentrate on providing historical background for the films and discussing them as a body of work rather than engaging in scene-specific commentary. Other extras include two short films by Feuillade, “The Nativity” (1910) and “The Dwarf” (1912), a gallery of artwork, and a ten-minute documentary on Feuillade’s films. | Sarah Boslaugh

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