In 1920, when Musidora, beloved worldwide as the villainous Irma Vep, announced her plans to adapt the popular novel Pour Don Carlos and play its heroine Allegria, she took pains to assure her fans that she would deliver the thrills they’d come to expect. “I promise you that Allegria will kill at least one person and cause the suffering of quite a few others.” The actress-turned-director was embarking on her biggest film production yet and cannily aligned her starring role with the fictional character that had made her famous. At the same time, she downplayed her role as the film’s writer-producer-director; on its release its direction was credited to Jacques Lasseyne, an ex-soldier with no film experience who had been imposed on her as part of the production deal. This counterpoint of flaunting then minimizing her power was a persistent rhythm in Musidora’s career, illustrating both the strength of her acting persona and its limitations. For a long time, Musidora’s reputation as an actress has overshadowed her achievements as a director, visual artist, author, satirist, and, later, film archivist. Pour Don Carlos, initially believed lost and now restored, opens our eyes to the full range of Musidora’s significance to silent-era film.
Musidora’s appearance in Feuillade’s Les Vampires made her rich and famous, adored by the Surrealists, and forever remembered as cinema’s first vamp. But this stratospheric success was a double-edged sword that freed her to pursue her many creative ambitions while simultaneously constricting her as surely as the scandalously snug black bodysuit she wore in her iconic role. Exactly when the actress moved behind the camera and the extent of her directorial contributions is still being deciphered. She was credited as director for only two films initially, but scholars have speculated that she began directing as early as 1918’s La Flamme Cachée (believed lost), a collaboration with her longtime friend, the writer Colette. Later in life Musidora said that the film with Colette led her to make Pour Don Carlos, whose scenario “took a year of work and 500,000 francs.” Musidora acquired the rights to Pierre Benoît’s novel before it was even published. Her production came hot on the heels of Jacques Feyder’s adaptation of Benoît’s first novel, the colonial fantasia L’Atlantide; Feyder reputedly wanted to cast Musidora as L’Atlantide’s femme fatale but she was busy making her own film.
Benoît’s exotic adventure stories typically featured titillating man-eaters and Pour Don Carlos is no exception. Critics agreed that the role of Allegria was made for Musidora—her character, whose fate is foretold in the opening credits, kidnaps, blackmails, and murders her way to a violent death. Allegria Petchart is a fervent Spanish Carlist, a supporter of the pretender to the Spanish throne, Don Carlos. The story begins when Allegria entangles an unsuspecting French couple in the Carlist cause. Olivier de Préneste (Stephen Weber) is initially charged by the foreign minister with pushing the rebels back over the border into Spain, an effort Allegria quickly short circuits. Her strategy is to abduct, befriend, then convert his fiancée Lucile (Chrysias) to the Carlist cause, and in so doing gain the upper hand over Olivier. Her plan works like a charm and before audiences can say “what’s a Carlist?” Olivier has abandoned his safe bureaucratic job to fight shoulder to shoulder with the insurgents. Meanwhile, Allegria watches over ingenue Lucile whose ruffles and flounces are a telling contrast to Allegria’s mannish garb.
The irony of “Captain” Allegria’s prominent role in the Carlist army is that Carlism was essentially a conservative movement whose origins lie in the rejection of female royal succession in general and Queen Isabella II (who ascended the throne at age three in 1833) in particular. The movement persisted as a rural, reactionary force against liberal attempts to modernize Spain throughout the 19th and 20th centuries; the Don Carlos of this film (who appears in a brief, wordless flashback) was actually the fourth in a series of pretenders who hung around Europe waiting for the next uprising. Even before the book and film, Carlism had a history as entertainment for Spain’s bemused French neighbor. In a 1921 article on the film, Benoît recounts how French Basque families in the 1870s rewarded their children’s good behavior by taking them to the Spanish border to watch the Carlist skirmishes. Jacques Lasseyne, the film’s titular director, was actually Jaime de Lasuen, Italian-born scion of a distinguished Carlist family who had made France his home. After he helped Benoît with the novel’s historical background, Benoît insisted Musidora hire him, although his actual role seems limited to location scout and history consultant.
Viewers are advised to let the Carlism blur into soft focus; the war functions primarily as a tense background for the adventures of Allegria, Olivier, and Lucile. Instead, audiences can drink up the stunning use of the Basque locations and Musidora’s powerhouse performance as Allegria. We first meet the character in male drag, tough and unflinching as she confronts her prisoner Olivier; next she is cheek to cheek with Lucile, both of them in Grecian style gowns. By the end, she is a fugitive, her costume now a shabby skirt and tunic with a borrowed shawl that keeps slipping off her shoulders. “Ladies don’t run around without socks,” a Spanish general sneers at her. He soon learns that shod or sockless, Allegria is still calling the shots. He is her prey, as she flirts and flashes a little skin, embarking on a deadly seduction in the bloody tradition of Biblical heroine Judith.
The film’s style evolves as well, from interior scenes heavy with exposition to stunning battles, retreats, and escapes, which pull the viewer into a narrative that seems to diverge from the tale told by the intertitles. Although we’re informed that Allegria is torn between her love for Olivier and her friendship with Lucile, what we see is a woman who embraces danger while ensuring her French friends make it to safety. The final scenes intercut Olivier and Lucile now reunited in Biarritz with Allegria hiding out on a cliff overlooking the sea as the soldiers close in. While they lounge in a rose garden, Allegria grabs a rifle and points it at her pursuers, a slight smile playing over her face. Her energetic defiance in the face of death seems somehow preferable to the idleness of the pallid pair she’s saved.
This is a drastic change from the novel, which ends with Olivier waiting for the uncertain return of Allegria and Lucile, last seen sailing away together to an unknown future. Musidora explained in a 1948 interview that this ending was “too Parisian,” strongly hinting at Allegria’s bisexuality. She also wanted a showstopper to rival Feyder’s L’Atlantide, which beat Musi’s film to theaters by a few months and features a fabulous death scene for its star Stacia Napierkowska. Musidora described filming Allegria’s burial in a letter to Pierre Benoît, which shows her enthusiasm for this acting-directing tour de force: “I wanted my face to be covered like my body, so that the impression of getting buried would be genuine. I took another deep breath, and searched for total immobility. And I gave the sign: ‘Action …’ The first scoop of ground fell on my chin and cheeks … The second covered my eyes. The third left only the tip of my nose free. The ultimate, heavy one, hid my face completely.”
Critics universally praised Musidora’s performance, but Pour Don Carlos left Films Musidora in a financial hole; she had not skimped on the production costs and she was forced to shorten her three-hour film for its Paris and Madrid premieres in December of 1921, more than a year after the shooting had wrapped. But even truncated, and with the last close-up on Musi’s buried face sadly lost to us, Pour Don Carlos is a triumph. With it Musidora stretched both her acting and directing chops, creating a more complex character than her earlier bad girls, completing Allegria’s transformation from villainess to heroine by the time of the powerful burial scene. Friend and critic Colette enthused in 1921, “You are absolutely remarkable in it; the final part, which belongs to you, is truly, as far as you’re concerned, faultless … did you hear the spontaneous applause at your death?”
Presented at A Day of Silents 2022 with live musical accompaniment by the Sascha Jacobsen Ensemble