Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Musidora, la dixième muse / [Musidora, the Tenth Muse]

Photo: Films du Horla / Musidora archivs.

MUSIDORA, LA DIXIÈME MUSE (Les Films du Horla / CinéCinéma Classic, FR 2013) D, SC: Patrick Cazals; DP: Jacques Malnou, Frank Gautier; ED: Eric Beaufils; mixing: Eric Lesachet / Yellow Cab; asst: Pierre- Édouard Clamour, Robert Horvath; featuring (interviewees): Jacques Champreux, Marie Claude Cherqui, Meyriem Balensi, Léa Vicens, Étienne-André Hubert, Jean-Paul Goujon, Aurora Cañero, Monique Vuong, Françoise Flamant, Françoise Oukrate, Hélène Fleckinger; archive material: Cinémathèque Française, Pathé-Gaumont, Radio Suisse Romande, Cinémathèque d’Andalousie, the families Cherqui, Brétecher, Vuong, Balensi, Cazals; Digital Betacam, 65', col.; source: Les Films du Horla, Paris. French dialogue and intertitles, with English subtitles. Teatro Verdi (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone), with e-titles in English and Italian, 8 Oct 2013

Patrick Cazals: "It was just a century ago, in 1913, that Musidora first made her bow to the public, with the rise of a curtain at the start of a film, as was the frequent custom of the time: the film was a militant short, Raphaël Clamour’s Les Misères de l’aiguille. Not until 65 years later did the book Musidora – la dixième muse (1978), which I wrote with the precious aid of the actress’s son Clément Marot and the kindness of Francis Lacassin, set out definitively to transform the traditional view of Musidora simply as the legendary screen icon that she had created with the figures of Irma Vep and Diana Monti in two of Louis Feuillade’s most famous serials, Les Vampires and Judex. This new film aims to reaffirm her total achievement as pioneer of cinema, actress, director, feminist, woman of letters, and activist in establishing the history of cinema."

"Born Jeanne Roques – “on February 23rd 1889, the same year as Charlie Chaplin and the Eiffel Tower!”, as Musidora liked to say – she came from an independent and politically conscious household. Her mother was a militant feminist who ran a newspaper, Le Vengeur, and was a candidate in the Paris legislative elections of May 1898. Her father, a classical composer reduced to writing popular songs in order to survive, was also a philosopher and the descendant of a family of Spanish anarchists; in 1895 he published a work, L’Idéal social, which Clémenceau was fond of quoting in private."

"Jeanne had a classical education and while very young discovered her vocation as actress. For her two earliest stage appearances, in male guise as a little pastry chef in a farce, La Nuit de Noces, and then as a loose woman, in the title role of Môme Liquette, she had already adopted the pseudonym Musidora, taken from a character in Théophile Gautier’s 1838 novel Fortunio. She went on to learn her craft in revues and on provincial tours, and by April 1912 she was at the Bataclan, alongside the future writer Colette in the revue Ça grise!, cementing a friendship that would bear fruit in several film collaborations."

"In April 1913, performing in the risqué show La Revue Galante at the Folies-Bergère, Musidora met her destiny in the person of Louis Feuillade, the new production chief of Gaumont, who had come there on the recommendation of Henri Fescourt. She instantly captivated the director of Fantômas, who was looking for a Virgin Mary! Immediately summoned to Gaumont’s studios in the Rue de la Villette, Musidora finally made her true cinema début as the courtesan Portia in Feuillade’s Severo Torelli (1914). She went on to appear in 28 ciné-vaudevilles, a genre that, though minor, was then very much in vogue. Then, fatefully, in early December 1915, Musidora donned the black tights of Irma Vep in the third episode of Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires, entitled Le Cryptogramme rouge. Her assured eroticism created a sensation, sparking the fantasies of audiences, and creating an indelible cinema icon. Musidora imposed her image of revolt and emancipation upon a whole generation seeking equilibrium in a turbulent era. She fascinated the Surrealists: André Breton and Louis Aragon even gave characters in their 1928 one-act play Le Trésor des Jésuites names that were anagrams of “Musidora” (Mario Sud, Mad Souri, le chevalier Doramusi)."

"In 1917 she made her last film for Louis Feuillade – a ciné-vaudeville with the ironic title Débrouille-toi! (literally, “Sort yourself out!”) – and signed with André Hugon for three independent films, which allowed her to escape Gaumont but added nothing to her gifts as an actress: Les Chacals, Mam’zelle Chiffon, and Johannès, fils de Johannès (1917-1919)."

"Following in the steps of Alice Guy and Germaine Dulac, Musidora embarked on direction and production, starring in two adaptations of works by Colette, the novella Minne (1916) and La Vagabonde (1917). In search of financial independence she created her own production company, La Société des Films Musidora, for which she wrote, directed, and starred in Vincenta (1919), and then invited Colette to write the scenario for La Flamme cachée. Neither of these films (now lost) was successful when released by Eclair in the spring of 1920, but Musidora persisted, persuading the eminent novelist Pierre Benoît to entrust her with the adaptation of his book Don Carlos. That summer, while shooting the film version, retitled Pour Don Carlos, she met the torero rejoneador Antonio Cañero, with whom she was to live in Córdoba for the next four years. Three films were born from this passionate affair: a short (Une aventure de Musidora en Espagne, 1922, now lost) and two medium-length films, Sol y sombra (1922) and La tierra de los toros (1924). When her bullfighter was swept off by a Russian princess, Musidora tried to re-establish her acting career, but she no longer had the former impact on the public; her final screen appearance was as Dalilah in Le Berceau de Dieu (1926), an overblown biblical concoction by Fred Leroy Granville."

"On 20 April 1927 Musidora married a childhood friend, Dr. Clément Marot, by whom she had a son, Clément. Living in Champagne, at Châtillon-sur-Marne, she embarked on a prolific writing career, from 1929 publishing a novella, En amour tout est possible, novels, songs, a dozen plays, and in 1939 an autobiographical novel, Paroxysmes – de l’amour à la mort, as well as a collection of poems, Auréoles. Other work included articles and lectures about her career as an actress, outlines for books on the cinema, and an unpublished novel, La Maison démolie. After her divorce in 1944, she found refuge with her son in the suburb of Bois-le-Roi, close to the forest of Fontainebleau."

"Henri Langlois recognized that as a living memory of the early cinema Musidora was essential to his project of the Cinémathèque française. She worked with him from 1943, and in 1946 became head of documentation and press relations at the Cinémathèque, animating its project of collecting the testimonies of cinema pioneers. Sadly, the 16 mm short La magique image, which she directed in 1950, seems not to survive. Musidora died in Paris in December 1957, and is buried near her son and parents in the cemetery of Bois-le-Roi."

"In 1974, the image of Musidora reappeared on walls throughout France, when the militant cineastes of the feminist film collective “Musidora – Cinéma en mouvement” featured it on their banner. Loud and strong, they asserted their place as creators with their own distinctive place in the cinema industry, as Musidora had done almost 60 years before…" – Patrick Cazals

AA: A splendid non-fiction portrait of a fascinating artist, Musidora, made by the best connoisseur, Patrick Cazals. We remember Musidora best as the agile, acrobatic Irma Vep with the piercing look. Cazals has interviewed relatives and connoisseurs and created a multi-perspective view of  the artist who was "the queen of the cinema" for the Surrealists, une femme de lettres, a poet (Paroxysmes), an author, a film director (of Sol y sombra et al), a painter, a cabaret performer, an actress, and a dancer.

This documentary is fascinating for those interested in the origins of fantasy cinema, crime fiction in the cinema, film serials, surrealism (André Breton, Louis Aragon, Louis Desnos), French poetry, Andalusian culture, Colette ("I taught Colette to swim"), Pierre Louÿs, Moulin Rouge, and the French cabaret tradition. Musidora, "La Torpillomane", was inspired by her own sensuality, and there are voluptuous displays of her ample, nude beauty in the movie. Sensual cabaret dancing was "deep in her", and Louis Feuillade based the character of Irma Vep on Musidora.

Musidora and Irma Vep belong to the lasting, timeless characters of the cinema, but Irma Vep was not the first cat woman of the cinema. That distinction belongs to Protéa, incorporated by Josette Andriot.

Later on Henri Langlois employed Musidora at La Cinémathèque française where she worked for the historical committee of the film museum. That work was "vital for her", testifies Laurent Mannoni. There is a connection with Louise Brooks here: both were unforgettable presences in the silent cinema and at a later stage of their lives intelligent historians of the art they had been creating.

Visual quality: video quality.

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