So many Feuillade films remain unseen that generalizations about his work are risky. Yet the available films indicate that during the 1910s he moved to adapt many tactics of Hollywood continuity editing. True, his shot/reverse-shots are often miscalculated, and his camera positions don’t always lend themselves to American-style clarity in the matching of movements across cuts. Still, he largely gave up his staging-based techniques in the late 1910s. His films move from Average Shot Lengths of 10 to 17 seconds in the period 1915–1918 to single-digit averages, usually around seven seconds, in the years immediately following. The eight 1920s films I have been able to study consistently average four to seven seconds per shot, the sort of cutting pace we would expect in Hollywood films of the period.
Just as important, however, is his evident realization that quick cutting allows him to present action in exciting bursts. The packed prologue of Barrabas (1919), which crams a family gathering, a high-society party, a roadside robbery, and a dance into eighteen minutes, allots about three seconds per shot. Even more striking are montage-based passages in L’Orpheline (1921). The auto accident which befalls Jeanette and Pierre (a very young René Clair) is rendered in seven staccato shots. After a shot showing the couple driving toward the camera we see:
Extreme long shot: Another car approaches (18 frames).
Long shot: Pierre and Jeannette continue in their car (31 frames).
Long shot: A curve above a cliff: The couple’s car comes around it (20 frames).
Extreme long shot, as 1: The approaching car races out of the frame (14 frames).
Long shot, as 3: The car swings toward them, they swerve (10 frames).
Long shot: The couple’s car crashes up onto bushes (7 frames).
Long shot: The car rolls over (12 frames).
A final shot shows Pierre and Jeannette, thrown free, lying next to the wrecked car.
Although an American film of this period would probably have included more close views (tighter framings of the cars, hands wrenching the steering wheel), this passage indicates that Feuillade understood the power of rapid editing. Since L’Orpheline was meant to run at about 20 frames per second, the longest shot in the series lasts scarcely more than a second, and the shortest is a mere third of a second. In addition, Feuillade employs cutting to accelerate the rhythm. After shot 2, the shots get increasingly brief until shot 7, moving from 31 frames to a mere seven frames.
Esteban rushes to the window on the right.
In medium close-up, he shouts to his chauffeur below before starting to leap (6 frames).
An extreme long shot shows him dropping into the car (23 frames).
From a skewed high angle: his movement is completed, as he lands in the back seat (24 frames).
Pierre and the priest watch from above (5 frames).
The car drives off, with the priest and Pierre visible at the window (15 frames).
Another scene is even more vigorous. The villainous Esteban visits Jeannette in the hospital, but she and her friends charge him with being a catspaw for another villain, Sakounine. Esteban flees by jumping out the window, dropping to his car and then speeding off. The Feuillade of Les Vampires would have handled this fairly sedately: a shot in the hospital room showing Esteban’s defenestration, then a full shot from outside showing his descent and escape. But here we get a more dynamic rendition of his maneuver, backed by rhythmic editing.
Again, Feuillade uses fast cutting to accentuate rapid movement, but here the shortest shots are close, simple compositions, designed to be grasped at a glance. More remarkably, the cutting slightly overlaps Esteban’s descent from the right-angled extreme long-shot to the high-angled view, underscoring the stunt in a manner reminiscent of action cutting in Douglas Fairbanks films like Wild and Woolly (1917). The high angle of Figure 2A.4 is also cleverly justified in retrospect as Pierre’s and the priest’s point of view. The rising generation of French filmmakers was eager to dismiss Feuillade as hidebound and out-of-date, but this passage’s rhythmic cutting is a step toward the more pervasive and prolonged accelerating editing in the Impressionist masterpieces of 1923, Abel Gance’s La Roue and Jean Epstein’s Coeur Fidèle.
There seems little doubt that Feuillade deserves far more study. And if his hundreds of films ever become available for close analysis, scholars won’t be the only ones to benefit. Audiences will particularly enjoy his comedies, which, to judge from L’hôtel de la gare (1913), Les millions de la bonne (1913), and other shorts from his prime years, are consistently clever and often hilarious.
Feuillade in Two Dimensions
At the Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna in June of this year, I was watching Tih Minh again, and I noticed another tactic Feuillade employs as part of his overall balancing-and-symmetry approach to composition. When several characters gather in the frame, their heads are commonly arranged more or less along a horizontal line—the isocephaly spoken of by art historians, particularly in Renaissance painting. But in Tih Minh, often the story requires one character to be sitting in a chair or on a couch while others bend over him or her—out of curiosity, solicitude, or whatever. How to arrange these heads?
Fig. 2A.7Feuillade tends not to string the heads out in a perfect horizontal but rather to present a graceful curve framing the seated figure. In Fig. 2A.7 (left), the corrupt maid has been put to sleep by the drug she supplied, and the men of the Villa Luciola stand around her in a pattern reminiscent of a question mark tipped over leftward: three-headed arch on the left, an extra head on the right—with the maid Rosette’s face peeping out as a sort of dot.
Fig. 2A.8Or consider Fig. 2A.8. Jacques is on the phone getting news of the abducted Tih Minh. The other players are arranged on a smooth slope around him. The giveaway here is the stance of Jeanne, on the end of the line; she has half-risen and supports her head in an awkward half-crouch. The image of an alert group is sustained by the abstract geometry of the layout.
Fig. 2A.9An equally striking arrangement is shown in Fig. 2A.9 as the men question the Marquise Dolores. Their heads form a smooth wave along a line driving our gaze toward her, with her face, more frontal, abruptly stopping the pictorial flow—somewhat reminiscent of the Yeames painting shown in Fig. 2.98 on p. 81 of Figures.
Fig. 2A.11These arrays of curious heads can yield movements as well. Once more, a group of concerned people at the Villa Luciola assemble around Tih Minh, back from another brush with death (2A.10). The heads cluster around her tightly. But when she revives and embraces Jacques, the onlookers all simultaneously straighten up (2A.11). Even though the changes in position are slight, the fact that everyone moves as a single unit creates the impression of a slow burst in the shot’s center, like a flower opening. Such gentle geometries of movement hard to find in today’s cinema, and observing them in Feuillade reminds us that long ago some directors crafted their images as two-dimensional patterns of bodies in space.