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The Eyes That Fascinate

The Eyes That Fascinate

Louis Feuillade, born in 1873 in the Camargue, near Montpellier, was no one’s idea of a radical, although he ended up making some of the most radical movies—formally and politically, at least by implication—of the early silent era. He was a royalist Catholic with a military background; an ardent follower and defender of bullfighting, a specialty of his region; a fervent partisan of Karl Wilhelm Naundorff, one of the many people claiming to be the “lost dauphin,” Louis XVII. One of his cousins married a princeling, which made him kin to the House of Bourbon. He wrote poems all his life in the style of an academician of the 1880s. When, in 1898, he went “up” to Paris, like a Balzac character from the provinces, he found work as an accountant for a Catholic publishing house. He wrote for royalist and bullfighting journals until, in 1905, he was hired as a screenwriter by the fledgling cinematic production company Gaumont.

Gaumont then was ruled artistically by the world’s first woman director, Alice Guy (if financially by the tyrannical Léon Gaumont), and was housed in what looked like a giant greenhouse—a succession of buildings with glass walls and roofs. As was the case everywhere in those early, exploratory years of cinema, daily practice was a matter of constant improvisation and incessant production; every employee worked in nearly every capacity, as needed. Feuillade wrote his first comedy, Le coup de vent (The Gust of Wind), the year he was hired. The next year, in 1906, he wrote seven pictures, one in collaboration with Alice Guy, and directed six of them; in 1909, he made eighteen; thirty-two, including his first serial, in 1911; fifty-two in 1912; more than 600 of them (he claimed 800) by 1924. Many of these were comic shorts, but there were also biblical pictures, historical tableaux, moral fables, rustic farces, adventure tales, and even realist dramas.

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