In 1998, cinephiles were able to enjoy a new print of Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires, a series of films totalling around six and a half hours, made in France during World War I. They were almost lost forever; the quick-thinking head of the Cinémathèque Française, Henri Langlois, literally rescued them from the garbage in the 1930s.
The Vampires films were not only among the first to bring the allure of the undead to the big screen (although “Vampires” in this case was the name given to a band of criminals), they also brought cutting edge cinematic technique and semi-improvised acting to popular entertainment. And in Musidora they boasted one of the great stars of French silent movies.
Born on this day in 1889 as Jeanne Roques, Musidora played Irma Vep (I’m sure you can work out the anagram), a cabaret singer entangled with criminals, given to leaping fearlessly across the rooftops of Paris in a cat suit.
In so doing she created a new cinematic archetype, the “vamp”. In the US, especially, this type would come to challenge the wholesome college sweetheart ideal which typified female characters of the time. A sub-species of femme fatale, the vamp was often of indeterminately foreign extraction, her hallmarks being the dark-ringed eyes and pale skin which spoke of nocturnal pleasures.
Les Vampires was hugely popular with a broad public as well as the avant-garde. The films’ influence would be played out in Luis Buñuel’s works, while André Breton and Louis Aragon were motivated to write a play for Musidora (it went unproduced).
Even in her early stage days Musidora was also writing reviews, and had well-placed literary friends, including Colette, forming a kind of short-lived commune during the war with her and two other women. After her success as Irma Vep, Musidora also wrote, produced, directed and performed in her own films. Being a female director is still no picnic; in Musidora’s day she was more or less unique. Only two of the ten or so films she made has survived; here she is giving the camera evils in a mesmerising fragment from one of them entitled Soleil et Ombre.
In the 1950s Musidora ended up working as a researcher in the Cinémathèque which had ensured her film immortality, before dying in 1957.