Musidora, like many of her female colleagues, is remembered primarily as an actress rather than a filmmaker. A producer and screenwriter, she was also director or codirector of four silent films, and some have credited her with an additional three. Her fame as Irma Vep, the anti-heroine of Louis Feuillade’s serial Les Vampires (1915–16) has eclipsed the output of Société des Films Musidora, the production company she organized in 1918. Yet behind Irma Vep was a renaissance woman, “a designer, caricaturist, painter, costumer, poet, writer,” historian Rachel Guyon notes, “and above all, the third woman in France to become a director.”
Born Jeanne Rocques in 1889 to a gifted Parisian family—her mother was a feminist journalist, her father a composer—Musidora studied art before switching to theater. She began performing in 1908, adopting Musidora (the heroine of a Théophile Gautier novel) as her stage name and playing music halls like the Bataclan and Folies Bergère. She sang, danced, and did imitations, sometimes all in the same show. Director Feuillade and producer Léon Gaumont spotted Musidora at the Folies Bergère one evening and invited her to come to the studio. The night they saw her, Musidora was in “Tableau d’excuse,” a music-hall act that was a pretext for scantily-clad female performers to display their charms for the spectator’s delectation. She recalled later that her costume was composed of “three embroidered leaves” and “fifteen wide blades of grass.” When Musidora later donned Irma Vep’s iconic—and revealing—black leotard, it was an already old gimmick made new by celluloid.
It’s difficult to overstate Musidora’s impact as Irma Vep. The androgynous, rule- and role-breaking character she created became France’s favorite bad girl, and Musidora was the toast of Paris. The public flocked to watch her steal, murder, scamper across rooftops, and wriggle out of captivity. Surrealist poet Louis Aragon lauded her as “that magnificent beast of the shadows” and, in 1928, his fellow surrealist Robert Desnos ended an article decrying the sad state of French cinema with the plaintive wail, “Give us back Musidora!” Yet while the actress enjoyed (and used) her renown as Irma Vep, she actually appeared in a wide variety of roles. Before Feuillade “discovered” her, Musidora had made her film debut as a suicidal seamstress in the 1913 agit-prop melodrama Miseries of the Needle, produced by the Cinéma du Peuple film cooperative, and, after the Vampires serial concluded, she happily spoofed her persona in the Jacques Feyder-directed Le Pied Qui Étreint (The Foot That Clutches, 1916).
With Films Musidora the actress moved behind the camera, assuming increasing creative control with each of the company’s five productions. The transition was not without challenges: during the production of 1919’s Vicenta, the first (or possibly fourth) film Musidora directed, the camera operator was reluctant to let her look through the viewfinder; “one had to ask very nicely,” she later wrote. Composing her shots with a cardboard rectangle, she described what she wanted and let him take over. “It never occurred to me to ask to learn, to study the lenses, handle the camera, much less turn the crank. That was wrong.” Musidora shared directing credit with a male codirector for her next two films. Guyon suggests that financial backers distrusted a lone female in charge and required directorial guardianship.
Films Musidora’s last three productions—Pour Don Carlos, Soleil et Ombre, and La Terre des Taureaux (Land of the Bulls)—coincided with the director’s love affair with both Spain and bullfighter Antonio Cañero. She played the lead in all three films, complicating her bad girl persona with portrayals of a cross-dressing Spanish insurgent and a vengeful peasant girl. She gradually toned down the broad acting style of the serials and concentrated as much on landscape as character, favoring location shoots and nonprofessional actors as she attempted to capture her cinematic ideal: “Life itself, surprised and recorded by an intelligent eye.”
Soleil et Ombre (“Sun and Shadow”) is a starkly shot, bleak little fable of sex and death, an account of a doomed triangle between a bullfighter, a peasant girl, and a “foreign woman.” It was filmed in 1922 around Castile and Andalusiawith only two professional actors (Musidora and Paul Vermoyal) and the same crew from her previous film Pour Don Carlos, another Spanish-themed literary adaptation. Franck Daniau-Johnston, who’d been a newsreel cameraman, shot the film, offscreen lover Cañero played the bullfighter, and Jacques Lasseyne came along again as codirector. (Lasseyne’s real name was Jaime de Bourbon and he was a Spanish aristocrat who may have invested in Pour Don Carlos and was probably helpful as a local guide.)
Musidora later called Soleil et Ombre a “romanticized documentary” along the lines of Nanook of the North, and among its enduring charms are the documentary-like shots of the landscapes and people of rural Spain. The film belongs to a particularly French subgenre, “film Espagnol,” evidence of the romantic allure Spain had for its neighbor and the French impulse to exoticize the land and its people. Through her relationship with Cañero, Musidora had become a bullfight fan, and the film captures the blood sport in all its gore and cruelty (it is treated by bullfighting historians as a historical document). Musidora wrote of her infatuation with el toreo, “It is a passion which begins with abomination, abhorrence, anxiety, and which results in enthusiasm and the most immense excitement.”
Musidora plays both the peasant girl Juana and her rival, a clever bit of casting that collapses the usual virgin vs. whore trope, implying that a single woman might contain this duality. The film anticipates Hemingway’s 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises, which also features a sexually aggressive foreign woman who seduces a Spanish bullfighter; but where Hemingway has Lady Brett do the “decent” thing and renounce her toreador lover, Musidora’s less sentimental version has her trio locked in struggle until the bullfighting ring is littered with corpses. The tormented romantic triangle pops up in almost all Musidora’s self-produced films, but in Soleil et Ombre it’s curiously self-reflexive. In the world within the film, Musidora plays a sophisticated, modern woman who falls for a Spanish bullfighter and becomes embroiled in a deadly rivalry with another version of herself; in the world outside the film, Musidora is a sophisticated, modern woman who has fallen for a Spanish bullfighter. Soleil et Ombre is a slippery film with no easy or obvious moral; even the points of the triangle shift with every sequence, from the initial woman-man-woman, to bull-man-woman, to woman-bull-woman.
Land of the Bulls, Musidora’s final production, took this self-reflexivity even further. A mix of film and live performance it portrays not only the filmmaker’s relationship with Cañero (who by that time had left her for a Russian princess) but her own role in cinema, satirizing stardom, the press, and moviemaking itself. It was her adieu to the world she had explored for more than a decade. She returned to the theater, wrote, and sculpted, making only one more film (likely lost), Le Magique Image in 1950. She also made a substantive contribution as an archivist at the Cinémathèque Française in the 1940s and ’50s, not only depositing the material that has made possible her recent reemergence but also collecting oral histories from her silent-era peers. That documentation is the bedrock of the scholarship of Annette Forster, Rachel Guyon, Emilie Cauquy, and others invaluable to researching this piece.
The Soleil et Ombre restoration is the product of a very specific moment: after decades of neglect, cinema has rediscovered its women, Musidora among them. Whether she and her sister filmmakers will be fully incorporated into the narrative of film’s evolution or jettisoned again remains to be seen. While they are in the zeitgeist, their works are flickering on screens, prompting additional discoveries, restorations, and re-evaluations. The knotty issue of Musidora’s director credits reminds us that behind-the-camera roles were more fluid in early cinema and calls into question auteur-minded biases that have so far dominated film histories. Now with more works getting restored we can look beyond the mere existence of women directors to watch the variety of films they made; and to begin—slowly, creakily—to adjust our ideas of what filmmaking was and can be.
Presented online in 2020 with musical accompaniment by Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius