Neil Bahadur’s review published on Letterboxd:
"The reality of this century. Beyond fashion. Beyond taste." - Andre Breton
The key to the film appears in the fourth episode, where after close to three hours of establishing surrealism and unmasking such as the real disguised, we see a bank clerk who will play an important part in this episode, talk of how he is a total 'film-fanatic!!' and go to the movies - at a Gaumont Palace, the same place this serial would have played. Feuillade, extending the inquiry from Fantomas, almost seems as though wanting to depict the false surrealist horrors as though they are happening in real time, but also formalizing the theatre itself as the social space makes clear a keynote of Feuillade's cinema: already in 1915, just as Griffith has established predominant montage, Feuillade warns us - do not have faith in images, do not trust images: cinema is an inherently deceptive device. This one can say was the principle critique of the prior Fantomas - but here there is an added value: this does not negate cinema's ability as art or social science, but rather is reason to build on it.
It has been noted by historians that Feuillade supposedly rejected more 'artistic' cinematic techniques for a sparse look that approximated documentary - but this approach dangers on ignoring that Feuillade had been making films at breakneck speed for close to a decade now, and had developed his own aesthetic, concurrently to the models being proposed by Griffith. But even this then disregards Feuillade's innate cleverness - the likely answer is both, and it is perhaps this self-awareness which is why Feuillade is really the first true modernist of cinema: the director is aware that cinema is not reality nor even an approximation, yet films as such, tricks the viewer into thinking they are seeing reality, but only for them to unravel/solve that we are seeing that which is not. As such, the entire seven hours of Les Vampires is a play and study in opposites, but not a cat-and-mouse game like Fantomas, but a never-ending shifting value of which power has higher ground. The first episode is yet the least exemplary - but perhaps it is a prologue rather than episode: we only see surreal happenings, until in the final minutes we discover the first 'trick' - it is material: the surreal is constructed, and does not exist. Over the next seven hours we will see this demonstrated as cloak-and-dagger work - and vice versa. The surreal will be unmasked as the real - and so too will reality be used as a ploy. We see with Les Vampires that just because the image is deceptive does not mean it is worth negating - the deceptive and truth go hand in hand, you cannot have one without the other: how do we determine the truth if we do not know what is false?
But the thematic theoretical, while necessary to get to it, does not approximate why this movie is so goddamn thrilling. The entire serial is shot almost exclusively in master: we rarely get more than one close-up per episode: that's 10-11 close-ups in 417 minutes! Actually - I don't think I have the right words....perhaps by our distance granted to use by the successive master shots, we perceive action through observation rather than the amplified phenomena of montage. Yet what Feuillade is doing seems his own expanded montage: rather than juxtapose shots where single ideas unfold and either come into conflict or combine with what comes before or after, we get whole sequences in single shot which are juxtaposed - rather than a single idea, we get an entire story, with a multitude of ideas within each shot, clashing with the next image, forcing the viewer to do their own legwork even as the next sequence unfolds. And so this excitement runs back to the aformentioned cloak-and-dagger: we are constantly having logic and abstraction placed next to each other - one is unmasked as its other and of course vice-versa: the point is that they are one and the same.
What strikes as the oddest of the odd though, in this, the strangest of all great masterpieces - is it's political sophistication, equally remarkable for 2017 as it is mind-blowing it must have been for 1915. Criminals, the vampires themselves, all have alter-egos as figures who are already in positions of power. No surprise there - but what is brilliant is that the populace is acutely aware of this: as this is a play in opposites, the line of cop and criminal, hero and villain is totally transient - the public, the viewers are treated as intelligent as the filmmaker: they are aware of this transience, and one percieves the established order as so corrupt that collaborating with such 'criminals,' is considerably preferable to the order itself. Feuillade is a true documentarian, he presents a surreal vision and is aware that all surreal visions are actually paintings of reality. There is no melodrama in this film: Feuillade is the father of the cinematic through-line. And yet midway through the Moreno's rival gang is introduced, and suddenly we watch a prototype Yojimbo....everything is performance, including the act of creating a film itself.
Watching a film like Dunkirk recently, I was impressed with how the film managed to break down everything into suspense mechanics: Will the characters get out of 'this?' Will they escape the bomb in time? Will they be crushed by the boat while crossing? Yet Les Vampires goes even further, much purer than Hitchcock or Lang - straight to the throughline - you get to the point where all you can say is simply: what will happen next?
With such a work we can presuppose that this has nothing to with with politics and cinema, and everything to do with them. The final sentiment: reality and its opposite is also reality.