- Zones of Anxiety:Movement, Musidora, and the Crime Serials of Louis Feuillade
An English-language book-length work on Louis Feuillade's films has been long over- due. Although the director's work has un- dergone a sort of renaissance of appreciation marked by a proliferation of articles and festivals, Vicki Callahan's Zones of Anxiety: Movement, Musidora, and the Crime Serials of Louis Feuillade is the first work of its length on Feuillade's serials to appear in the United States, and for this we can all be thankful.
Feuillade is said to have directed more films than he was personally able to count (probably around seven hundred, including his shorts), but he is most famous for serials made between 1914 and his death in 1925. Feuillade's films have been championed alternately as presurrealist masterpieces, reflections of modernity and modernism, and examples of a 1910s European style of direction. Callahan breaks with the recent trend of evaluating Feuillade within a greater European stylistic context and aligns herself more closely with a longer scholarship trend as she chooses to evaluate Feuillade's work from a social perspective, in her case, that of feminism.
Callahan focuses her attention on six of Feuillade's serials—the well-known Fantômas, Les Vampires, and Judex as well as La Nouvelle Mission de Judex,Tih-Minh, and Barrabas (a period that reaches from the prewar period of 1913 through the postwar period and into the new decade). For Callahan, these six films can be logically taken as "one text" because they "share not only a consistency of narrative structure and visual style but also a progressive revelation of the threat posed by the figure of the criminal in the films" (14). Indeed, as the title of her book suggests, Callahan focuses on various threatening "zones" as they are incarnated in Feuillade's work.
In her introduction Callahan positions her work within a greater context of feminist histories exploring the role of female spectatorship during the years of early cinema. Rather than focusing principally on archival texts, though, she chooses to carve out a "feminist poetic history," which she defines simply as "a history with attention to the formal properties of the cinema" (3). Referencing the work of Tom Gunning and Noël Burch on early cinema, Callahan argues that Feuillade's work cannot be easily slotted into any of the extant modes of production. She therefore introduces the "mode of uncertainty," which she understands to be "an unpredictability from frame to frame" (4).
For Callahan, this cinematic mode is a definite alternative to the classical paradigm developing in 1910s America: "The narratives found in Feuillade's serials functioned quite differently and induced dislocation and uncertainty through a method based on nonlinearity, randomness, and, perhaps most important, recursion" (10). She borrows this last concept (rather loosely) from mathematics, using it to "highlight . . . function," where function is understood to be "process, regardless of the content" (10). Finally, Callahan evokes Musidora's crucial place in Feuillade's work as the embodiment (literally) of the "threat of the shifting, unstable subject," offering the equation "Musidora = uncertainty" (11). [End Page 82]
Callahan's first chapter investigates Feuillade's relationship to both early cinema and classical cinema more closely and introduces the "zones of anxiety" charted in the remainder of her book. She applies Feuillade's work to the models proposed by Burch and Gunning at greater length and reconciles the apparent contradictions in the films by differentiating between "declarative" and "subjunctive" filmmakers. Feuillade, like other filmmakers among the latter group, produces films "motivated by an exploration of the possible rather than what is" (18). In this way, his work can be closely tied to the fantastic, "a mode characterized by movement and dislocation" (19). Callahan maps the development of the fantastic genre, suggesting that it can at least in part explain the singularity of Feuillade's work.
A second genre, however, must also intervene—melodrama. Callahan suggests that the two intersect. Feuillade's films oscillate between the fantastic and melodrama, mixing shock...