by Louis Feuillade
We have a theory that crime enhances beauty,” explains Mary Vivian Pearce, decked out like a dime-store Alice Faye, in John Waters’ Female Trouble. “The worse the crime gets, the more ravishing one becomes.”
Artistic head of Gaumont studios in the silent 1910s, Feuillade created fast-paced crime serials that throb with dreamlike decadence. In a paroxysm worthy of Divine herself, Andre Breton and Louis Aragon declared that his salacious and violent works were “Beyond fashion! Beyond taste!” Luis Buñuel rejected the formalist experimental cinema of his contemporaries, touting Feuillade’s serials as his true esthetic model.
This Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 30-31, MOMA is presenting the American premiere of a newly restored print of one of Feuillade’s later serials, the frenetically paranoid Barrabas, from 1919. Feuillade is best remembered for two earlier crime serials, Fantômas and Les Vampires. Based on popular pulp novels of the same name, Fantômas inspired sequels up into the 60s. Les Vampires was recently released on video, and Olivier Assayas’ 1996 Irma Vep took place on the set of a fictional contemporary remake. Barrabas has rarely been screened
in the U.S., and was last shown by MOMA in 1969.
Although Feuillade himself was an ultra-Catholic conservative and monarchist, Les Vampires was temporarily banned by the police for its purported glamorization of crime. Barrabas
evinces a similarly paradoxical fear and delight in the inexorable machinations of evil and disorder. The film is set in the everyday world of overstuffed bourgeois drawing rooms, spotless shops and ritzy chateaux. “Barrabas” is the code word for a global crime syndicate centering on the bearded, long-nosed banker Streilitz. His followers are marked with a Pynchonian glyph tattooed on their forearms. Seemingly normal occurrences begin to reveal themselves as the workings of this secret, power-hungry brotherhood. Letters from loved ones turn out to be forgeries, their purported authors long done away with. A bank, a local health clinic and a luxury hotel serve as the network’s secret bases of operation. An ordinary novel includes messages encrypted within its pages. Innocent citizens are captured, tortured and executed with relentless alacrity. The plot twists repeatedly as the series continues, each new crime
evoking more brutal and convulsive beauty.
Here as in his other serials, Feuillade evokes a quintessentially modern nightmare of urban paranoia and eruptive, random violence. Unlike the villains of Les Vampires, garbed in fetishy
black hoods and led by the glamorous Irma Vep, Barrabas’ network of criminals is far less exotic. An all-male group dressed in the ordinary suits of prosperous businessmen, they play on antique fears of conniving Masons or invisible Elders of Zion. Despite the quotidian setting, there are brief elements of the fantastic, in the tradition of 19th-century melodrama. When one character is murdered, another character miles away awakens in sympathetic anxiety.
Barrabas is one of the least written-about of Feuillade’s serials, which are otherwise praised by French cineastes from the surrealists to the New Wave and beyond. No doubt the creepy anti-Semitic resonances have helped keep this one a footnote in film history books. The serial runs about nine and a half hours, in 12 episodes of varying lengths. Handsomely restored by Gaumont, the print includes the monochromatic tinting that was common for major productions of the silent era, but frequently lost in subsequent duplications over the decades. Scenes of nighttime and darkness are given a deep blue, interiors a golden yellow. The restored intertitles are in the original French, and will be augmented by a live translation. This means that there will probably be no music to accompany the film, in keeping with an unfortunately common curatorial convention.
Parts 1-5 of Barrabas screen Sat., Jan. 30, at 2:30; parts 6-12 screen Sun., Jan. 31, at 2:30, at MOMA, 11 W. 53rd St. (betw. 5th & 6th Aves.), 708-9400.