Those sensitive to spoilers may not wish to read beyond the first two paragraphs.
Originally the expression film maudit (literally ‘cursed film’), coined by Jean Cocteau for a 1949 Biarritz festival devoted to recuperating misunderstood and marginalised movies, was used to designate any film that has been criminally overlooked, if not confined to oblivion. The rarely seen 1897 short film La Rage du Démon certainly conforms to the definition of film maudit – but it is also perhaps ‘cursed’ in a more literal sense. For Fabien Delage’s Fury of the Demon documents the lost (and occasionally refound) film’s strange and disturbing history. All three of its recorded screenings – the Parisian première in 1897, a New York showing in 1939, and a special invitation-only exhibition in a Parisian wax museum in 2012 – gave rise to riotous behaviour ending in violence, injuries and death.
Through a mix of authoritative voice-over narration, talking heads and file footage, Delage uses all the tools of the documentarian’s trade to reconstruct the film’s incredible story. Along the way, he takes in the biography and pioneering film work of Georges Méliès (to whom La Rage du Démon has been ascribed), the sinister and tragic parallel life of Méliès’ sometime colleague the ‘spiritist’ photographer Victor Sicarius (argued to be a more likely candidate for the film’s authorship), a brief history of preservation and editing, and several possible explanations for the film’s bizarre effects on its audiences (ranging from mass hysteria to ergotism to a genuinely supernatural phenomenon encoded in celluloid’s chemistry). What emerges is an account of a lost film that should perhaps stay lost – in the best interests of anyone inclined to watch it. La Rage du Démon may, once again, have disappeared from public view, but it has left a weird and destructive ripple through over a century of film history, and serves as a reminder that this most passive-seeming of media can come with real risk for the viewer.
“Ladies and gentlemen, what you’re about to see is all smoke and mirrors!” With these words, according to Pauline Méliès, who is one of the interviewees in Fury of the Demon, her great-great-grandfather would introduce public screenings of his films.
“Méliès didn’t enjoy lying to his audience,” she explains, “He wanted to tell the truth so people would feel safe and not tricked into something, so they’d know it was just a show, all about dreams and poetry.” No wonder, then, that the lost film with which this ‘documentary’ shares its title is ultimately attributed to someone other than Méliès – for both La Rage du Démon and its supposed director Sicarius are in fact fabrications, conjured as illusions before Delage’s credulous (or at least belief-suspending) audience. When interviewee Suzanne Simonet suggests, of Sicarius’ work in photography, “Nobody could tell if the spirits he captured on film were real or a montage,” she might as well be describing Delage’s own special blurring of the boundaries between film history and fantasy. Simonet herself, needless to say, far from being a ‘spiritist literature specialist’, is a character played by an actor, as are several (though not all) of the other interviewees.
Delage never quite drops the mask or gives his game away, although there are plenty of tells. First there is the fact that the (invented) ‘American film collector’ said to have screened the film in 2012 – curiously AWOL in the film even though his testimony could easily solve the puzzle of what happened to the lost reel – shares his forename and surname with none other than Edgar Wallace, the prolific writer of mysteries. Secondly there is the assertion that in 1939 La Rage du Démon was screened just before the première of Tod Browning’s final feature Miracles For Sale – a real film whose protagonist, a professional illusionist, in his spare time exposes the skullduggery of spiritualists.
Fury of the Demon is the F for Fake of early film history, mixing truth and pure fiction in its pseudo-documentary form to reveal something essential about both cinema’s artifice, and the audience’s perverse desire to give themselves over to belief – regardless of the potential impact such surrender might have on their state of mind.
© Anton Bitel