After watching the 1996 Irma Vep, my interest got piqued about the inspiration for it. Olivier Assayas' movie centers around the remake of a 1915-16 French silent film serial, Les Vampires, directed by Louis Feuillade.
Les Vampires is comprised of ten loosely connected episodes that follow the journalist Philippe Guérande and his quest to bring down the ruthless crime gang who calls themselves The Vampires. In total, the films equal about seven hours.
I easily found them on YouTube and started watching...and found them tedious and hard to follow. I was having a terrible time keeping track of who was who, what with low quality video, no dialogue, and various characters being masters of disguise.
I made it through about three episodes and ultimately became frustrated with the quality. But I was fascinated and wanted to go a bit deeper than YouTube. On June 2, I bought the 4K Blu-Rays and started my watch again. With the higher quality and a second viewing, I was able to follow more closely.
I also became very aware of the theatrical staging. Feuillade shot the films at a time when the technology and language of film hadn't progressed to the point of wide-shot, two-shot, close-up, close-up, then back to the wide (and like that...). Les Vampires, in many ways, looks like theatre. And that was the first hook for me.
You can see from these screen caps that everything is filmed from the same perspective that you would find in a proscenium theater, where the audience is all seeing the performance from the same perspective.
The big moment for me, however, came in the third episode, where Feuillade's predilection for weirdness first rears its beautiful and terrifying head. In the scene, Julot, the Grand Vampire, poisons Marfa, whom he believes to be Guérande's fiancé, and she is stricken before an audience, on stage, in a costume that pre-dates Batman by decades.
The scene, without question the most famous from the entire series, is highly theatrical (well, duh, it's theatre), but there was another layer that jumped off the screen at me and hit me like a lightning bolt.
After the Grand Vampire has administered the poison to Marfa in her dressing, he takes his seat in the theater, sitting in a box by himself at the back of the audience. He sits by himself, watching Marfa die before an audience, through opera glasses.
When I saw this image and the scene, I got a flash of layers on a stage. At the back, the film. On the stage, live actors imitating precisely what the actors in the film are doing. That was the hook. I knew that there was a show.
I watched more and more with this idea in mind—a doubling effect. Then I started imaging the live actors speaking the dialogue that we only see the actors on screen mouthing. What if we told this story with both? And music? And a set?
That's the question that always starts everything. It's the match that lights the fire.
And the fire was lit for what was to become Mr. Grieves and The Vampires.