LE FANTÔME DU MOULIN ROUGE (Films René Fernand, FR 1925)
Regia/dir., scen: René Clair; f./ph: Louis Chaix, Jimmy Berliet; scg/des: Robert Gys; cast: Georges Vaultier (Julien Boissel), Sandra Milowanoff (Yvonne Vincent), Maurice Schutz (Victor Vincent), Albert Préjean (reporter), Paul Ollivier (Dr. Window), José Davert (Gauthier), Madeleine Rodrigue (Jacqueline); data uscita/released: 13.3.1925; 35mm, 1957 m., 95’ (18 fps); fonte copia/print source: NFA, London.
Didascalie in inglese / English intertitles.
The chronology of Clair’s first films is complicated, and Clair himself sometimes lost the thread in his own memoirs. Le Fantôme du Moulin Rouge was written shortly after the production of Paris qui dort late in 1923, was filmed in the late summer and early autumn of 1924 (sandwiched between the shooting and editing of Entr’acte), and released in March 1925 – five weeks after the opening of Paris qui dort. (All this and Clair’s journalistic activities, not to mention the writing of his first novel, Adams, which was set in the movie world and was dedicated to Charlie Chaplin!)
Like Paris qui dort, Fantôme was a modern Paris-set fantasy, but its tone was more dour, its gags less spontaneous, and its plotting more mechanically melodramatic. Its hero, Julien Boissel, is a parliamentarian who, believing his fiancée no longer loves him, goes to the Moulin Rouge to drown his sorrow in drink. He is approached by a mysterious doctor who claims he can help him by freeing his soul from his body. Transformed into a disembodied, invisible spirit, he merrily haunts Paris, playing practical jokes on its frightened citizens. Due to his condition – and the parallel investigations of an independent journalist – he learns that his fiancée does still love him, but that her father is being blackmailed into marrying her off to an unscrupulous press magnate. In the meantime, the doctor is arrested and charged with Julien’s “murder”, while the latter’s body is dispatched to the morgue for autopsy. In a climactic Griffith-styled race against the clock, Julien recovers his body and marries his beloved.
In its time, the film impressed critics with its many trick shots and double exposures, used to visualize the hero’s ethereal state as he hovers over traffic on the Grands Boulevards or slips into interiors, private and public. But these special effects now look rudimentary and derivative (inspired, in particular, by Sjöström’s Körkarlen [The Phantom Carriage]). The plot itself seemed a new twist on Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Wells’ The Invisible Man, with Julien finally unable to return to his former self and trapped in his spectral alter ego.
One of the film’s highlights remains the sequence at the Moulin Rouge (recreated in the studio by Robert Gys), when the film suddenly comes to life after some particularly laborious exposition. The virtuosity of the rhythmic montage of chorines and the crescendo of intercutting reflect the influence of the tavern dance in the recently released Alexandre Volkoff film Kean (itself influenced, of course, by Gance’s La Roue).
“Le Fantôme du Moulin Rouge,” wrote American Clair biographer Celia McGerr, “contains some of the best and the worst of Clair during this period. The concessions he makes to melodrama often smack of the very style he desired to get away from, and he is too quick to insert a title where a little acting or simple pantomime is called for. But... when he breaks from the narrative and concentrates on the image, the film awakens and ‘pure cinema’ appears.”