Musidora: Who? What? When? Where?

As I talked about Musidora in my Philip French Memorial Lecture last month, here’s a little more about the French filmmaker, in a short piece that first appeared in Sight and Sound magazine two years ago, in September 2019, following the retrospective of her work at Il Cinema Ritrovato.

“It is vital to be photogenic from head to foot. After that you are allowed to display some measure of talent.” Musidora, who wrote those words, is remembered as one of the true icons of silent cinema in her incarnation as Irma Vep in Louis Feuillade’s 1915 serial Les Vampires. However, there was more to her talent than her photogenic features, her white face and kohl-rimmed eyes and that famous slinky figure in a black body-stocking.

As revealed in a retrospective strand at the recent Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, the full range of Musidora’s career was fascinatingly diverse, feminist, ambitious and wittily self-reflexive. She was born Jeanne Roques in Paris on 23 February, 1899, and by the time of her death, aged 68, on 11 December, 1957, she had worked as a stage actor, singer, film star, novelist, journalist, producer, director and archivist, among other jobs. It’s doubtful that many of the cinephiles purchasing tickets at the Cinématheque Française in the 1950s would have recognised the woman who occasionally worked in the ticket booth as Musidora, the original screen vamp, muse to the surrealists and catnip to the moviegoing public in the 1910s.

The strand at Bologna was curated by Émilie Cauquy and Mariann Lewinsky and built on scholarship from researchers including Annette Förster and Patrick Cazals, whose 1978 book and 2013 documentary, both titled Musidora: the Tenth Muse, have done so much to expand our knowledge of Roques’s work. She was a self-made, and self-mythologising star, who made her stage debut (and wrote her first novel) as a teenager and chose her pseudonym, meaning “gift of the muses”, from the pages of Théophile Gautier’s 1838 novel Fortunio: “I borrowed his heroine’s name, Musidora,” she later wrote. “I began to live the dream. I had faith. A stage, a curtain rising, limelight, makeup, sets, make-believe as a creed. I chose to enter into service. And I learnt my craft as craftsmen learn theirs.” Musidora’s curtain rose on some of the most popular music hall stages in Paris, including the Folies Bergère (where she was spotted by Feuillade), Concert Mayol and La Cigale. Her choice of career may have been partly inspired by the novelist Colette: they became friends and worked together for years. For example, Musidora was the author’s choice to star in and co-direct the (now-lost) 1917 film adaptation of La Vagabonde.

Musidora by René Gruau, 1953

Her first film role is disputed, but the first verified appearance of Musidora on film premiered in 1914. In this short, which screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato, she played not a sex symbol but the heroine of a feminist social drama. Les Misères de l’Aiguille was the debut production by Le Cinéma du Peuple, a filmmaking co-operative based in Paris, and was cast entirely from the local theatres and music halls. Musidora plays the lead role of Louise, an exploited worker, specifically an underpaid, sexually harassed and overworked seamstress working for a boutique in Paris. The collective’s mission for the film was explicitly political: “The woman finds herself in the present society in a situation of great inferiority towards the man. It is rightly said that the woman is exploited doubly: exploited as a producer and often exploited in her home … We wanted to emphasise through cinema all the miseries of modern woman, that one who suffers everywhere for starvation wages.” At climax of the film, Louise contemplates suicide but is saved by a group of activists who take her to a workers’ co-operative instead. The film contrasts Louise’s abject situation with the glamour of well-to-do Paris society women, but although her character may be dressed drably, her striking features work to the film’s advantage – the appeal in her dark eyes adds pathos to the film’s polemic.

Soon after, Musidora signed a contract with Gaumont, and the festival screened some of her early work for the studio, from her ironic turn as a tarty revue artiste courted by a married man in Triple Entente (1915) to her appearance in the patriotic short Jeunes Filles d’Hier et d’Aujord’hui (1915), as a young woman who casts aside her faddish belief in sexual equality at the onset of war: she falls to her knees to pray for a soldier and finishes the film by singing ‘La Marseillaise’.

Musidora as Irma Vep in Les Vampires
Musidora as Irma Vep in Les Vampires

It was when playing members of criminal gangs in Feuillade’s mid-teens serials that she secured her fame, though, as the anagrammatic anti-heroine Irma Vep in Les Vampires (1915) and Diana Monti in Judex (1916). When we think of Musidora now it is the image of her in episodes five and six of Les Vampires, in that midnight-black catsuit with the “eyes that fascinate”, which swims into focus – the look that Olivier Assayas and Maggie Cheung paid homage to in 1996’s Irma Vep.

Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep (Olivier Assayas, 1996)

The surrealists called this image “total cinema” and Robert Desnos wrote that the figure “haunted our dreams”. For Louis Aragon, the wartime generation had surrendered to a captive infatuation with Musidora. “We were not lovers as lovers had been before,” he wrote in 1923. “Our idea of voluptuousness was our own and it came to us on a beam of light, a path among images of murder and fraud, while others were sent ruthlessly to their deaths elsewhere and we took not a bit of notice.” But Musidora didn’t necessarily take her iconic role too seriously, sending it up both in stage revues and in Jacques Feyder’s spoof serial Le Pied qui Étreint (1916), in which she appears as Irma Vep in a wedding party full of less-authentic movie lookalikes, from an ersatz Chaplin to a knock-off Theda Bara.

Musidora had a different conception of total cinema, too. In the festival catalogue, Cauquy writes: “Filmmaking, Musi thought, meant doing it all, embodying a part, acting it, walking the high-wire, shooting, producing, understanding the technical issues, joining the corporation and under no circumstances giving up the stage.” In 1919, she established her own production company, Société des Films Musidora, and went on to direct and produce several films, most of which are now sadly lost. Although she didn’t always credit herself as the director at the time, it is now thought that her later claims on this role were correct. The three films from this period that were screened in Bologna revealed Musidora as a bold and often self-reflexive director (in collaboration with investor Jacques Lasseyne), whose favourite location, and subject, was Spain.

Her first films were Colette adaptations, but she first ventured to the Basque country to make Pour Don Carlos (1921), an ambitious period piece set during the Carlist wars, which was originally released in a three-hour cut. During the production, she fell in love with Antonio Cañero, a bullfighter who had worked as a technical adviser on the movie. She moved to Spain, and until 1926, almost exclusively worked there. In Soleil et Ombre (1922), Musidora takes two leading roles, playing both a Spanish farm girl and as an exotic foreigner, competing for the love of a toreador played by Cañero. The film’s tragic story is conveyed via stark compositions of light and shadow, portrait close-ups of Musidora and simple but evocative Spanish iconography: shawls and the bullring. Musidora herself is compelling, especially in one slowly zooming closeup of her troubled face. The Spanish flavour may seem hackneyed now, but at the time King Alfonso XIII approved it as “absolutely Spanish, in the very spirit of Spain”.

Musidora in La Tierra del los Toros (1924)

Far more complex is 1924’s La Tierra del los Toros, Musidora’s self-reflexive, mixed-media tribute/riposte to the cinema, to Spain, to Cañero and her own screen persona. It’s a Russian doll of a film, with Musidora and Cañero both co-starring (as themselves) and co-writing too. Musidora spots caballero en plaza Cañero in a bull race and tries, both in and out of disguise, to persuade him to star in her latest picture. In a dispatch for Cinémagazine, she reported with pride that she had not hired a stunt-double for her own bullfighting scenes. “No one can say I used a stand-in for the scenes that my sex entitles me to turn down,” she wrote, before adding a speculation about a right that would not be granted for two more decades: “Perhaps this will help us obtain, who knows, the right to vote some day.”

It’s enjoyably, even surreally, absurd and often very funny, especially when in the slapstick scenes or when Musidora furiously denies that she is, in fact, Musidora. But it was intended to be more than a film – to be part of a live performance with on-stage “interruptions” from Musidora and Cañero themselves. In Bologna, in the absence of the original stars, the film was screened with new disruptions in the form of puzzles, card-readings, mobile projections and recitations. In a packed screening room at the Cineteca di Bologna in 2019, the film was re-presented as something between a thrilling multi-dimensional collage and a séance hailing a lost deity of the cinema.

Musidora as Irma Vep

Musidora’s idiosyncratic directorial efforts did not make her rich. She later claimed this was more to do with her unfair contract than her lack of box-office success, but nevertheless, she returned to the stage full-time as the silent era declined and began to write more: poems, novels, songs and plays. In 1942, she would join Henri Langlois at the Cinématheque Française and work there as Head Librarian and Head of Press until the end of her life. At the Cinématheque, she collected stories and material from her peers in the silent era and helped to preserve its fleeting history.

Those now-famous posters for Les Vampires, which featured Musidora’s black-swathed face and neck protruding from a question mark, featured four words: “Qui? Quoi? Quand? Ou …” Well might anyone have asked these questions, after encountering Irma Vep’s shadowy and captivating presence on screen. A century on, the answers are finally becoming clearer.

You can read the full transcript of my Philip French Memorial Lecture here, to find out why I think Musidora is so important to film history.

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5 thoughts on “Musidora: Who? What? When? Where?”

  1. The tenth muse of the seventh art, a total ‘femme du cinéma’. I’m not surprised to learn that Musidora was so multi-talented: filmmakers were generally much more adventurous in the silent days, when there were no rules about what could and couldn’t be done. I think the high representation of women in key positions in silent cinema reflects that general spirit of freedom and creativity the filmmakers felt at the birth of a new art form.

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