REVIEW Musidora qui êtes-vous?

From stage door to stage door, the nightly ride in a clattery eight-horsepower taxi took perhaps twelve minutes. Time was short. The passenger was out of her costume at the Bouffes Parisiens at a quarter past ten, due on stage at the Théâtre du Châtelet at eleven sharp. The cabbies knew her, of course; her picture was everywhere. As they drove, some might have given a thought to the postcard portrait, warm in an inside pocket, that showed her bare-legged in strappy sandals and a short toga cinched under a generous bosom, luxuriant dark hair tumbling over one shoulder: Mademoiselle Musidora, arms stretched above her head like a caryatid minus the Belle Epoque lampshade – or a swimmer in her prime, poised for the dive.

Musidora was only the first of a dizzying multitude of aliases. Unlike Jeanne Roques, bestowed on her 24 years earlier, it was a name she had chosen herself, and by the time she was doing two shows a night in that autumn of 1913, the stage name had supplanted the birth name to the extent that she was signing letters to her parents as Musy. She had been in music hall in Paris for three years, and her heyday was beginning as an era was drawing to an end; ten months later, the eight-horsepower taxis were ferrying troops to the First Battle of the Marne.

The rising star had a lot going for her. She could sing, she could dance, she could do pathos and slapstick. Her face was as lovely as her figure, with hypnotically huge eyes that were the subject of much rhapsodising in the press. She was sweet-natured and sociable, but also steely and ambitious, so conspicuously hard-working that columnists affected to be worried for her health. She knew it all: the body paint and barely-there costumes, the epic productions with ocean liner sets, the venues with two thousand seats and those with two hundred. She was princess, shop girl, page boy, cocotte, Petrushka, Chaplinesque tramp, the personification of champagne and – no less – of the music hall genre itself.

Little if any of this would be of more than niche interest today, however, were it not for a part she landed in 1915. Despite wartime shortages, it was boom time for the film industry, and Musidora had already appeared in several shorts directed by Louis Feuillade, head of production at Gaumont. Feuillade had scored a hit with a serial adaptated from the Fantômas stories, and what he did next is widely reckoned a high water mark of early French cinema. Based not on an existing story but plotted on the hoof, Les Vampires pitched a criminal-cum-terrorist gang against a dogged newspaper reporter (Edouard Mathé, a beguiling ringer for a young TS Eliot) in a ten-episode riot of robberies, murders, abductions andescapes, a seven-hour melodrama with the strange grace and intensity of a dream.

In the starring role as the gang’s number one accomplice, Musidora had enough costume changes to make a music hall wardrobe manager swoon. Irma Vep, so deep in double-dealing that there’s hidden purpose even in the name, has a penchant for dressing up that makes her a female answer to the disguise-happy Fantômas: in one scene she’s a housemaid, in another the son of a bogus aristocrat – and in episode six, momentously, a cat burglar dressed head to toe, ninja fashion,in the villainous black of a skin-tight bodystocking and hood.

Audiences could hardly believe their eyes. Here was something brazenly, disturbingly modern, Eros and Thanatos in a single form, a succubus for an age of apocalypse. The paradoxes were inescapable: the costume gave its wearer almost total cover, yet fitted so closely that she might as well have been naked; looking at Irma Vep, everyone knew they were looking at Musidora. Recalling the impact of Les Vampires seven years later, Louis Aragon was withering about Feuillade but full of praise for his lead, hailing her as “a magnificent shadow creature”, “our Venus and our goddess of reason”, “a great sexual revelation”; “the whole of a young generation fell in love with Musidora”, the Surrealists in particular.

The star had become an icon, and although on screen for just a few minutes, the bodystocking stuck – due in part to Gaumont’s marketing, notably a teaser campaign that peppered Paris with cartoons of an unnamed woman gazing hypnotically from a black hood, collared by a question mark like a shepherd’s crook above the jabbing rubric “Qui? Quoi? Quand? Où?” Pertinently enough, that first line of enquiry has been reopened more than a century later by a substantial new survey of Musidora’s life and legacy, a glossy and copiously illustrated collection of essays that aims to counter theeclipsing shadow of her most famous role with “un éclairage complet”.

Clearly Musidora wasn’t the first or last actress reduced in popular memory to a glamorous caricature at the expense of her other qualities. Sarah Bernhardt, currently undergoing a reappraisal of her own in the form of a major exhibition in Paris, was a gifted sculptor, Hedy Lamarr an inventor who drew up radio-controlled torpedoes. Even so, Musidora qui êtes-vous? is an eye-opener, a map not so much of a hinterland as of an overlooked continent. Here, drawing on a wealthof previously unpublished material from her family’s archive and beyond, is a collectively drawn study of a woman who was something of a collective herself: not just a pretty face, but also director, producer, painter, cartoonist, novelist,dramatist and poet.

That she directed and produced several films, an achievement that puts her in a very select cadre of pioneering women cinéastes that includes Alice Guy and Germaine Dulac, is fairly well known, even if much of that work is now lost. Far less familiar is her talent for art – she’d had years of tuition in her youth – and character studies in particular, ranging from shrewd backstage doodles of friends and colleagues to frequent self-portraits in a variety of styles and media. The face on the famous poster in the serial, below which the letters of IRMA VEP rearrange themselves as VAMPIRE, is her work, and the book includes a middle-age self-portrait in oils that’s uncomplacent verging on stark.

Further illuminating coverage is made of her artistic associates. Aragon and André Breton wrote a play for her, and Colette, a stage veteran herself, was a major source of guidance and support; in 1917, Musidora directed two films based on stories by her, one of which, La Flamme Cachée, was written to order. Were film-maker and famously bisexual author more than friends? There’s no evidence either way, writes one contributor, insisting that their relationship was based on “a connection of a different order”; another alludes to a Musidora drawing of the pair “in an explicit position”, but offers no further detail or conjecture.

A multi-author survey can be thought a good fit for a subject whose activities and identities were so various, the vous of the title a hint at her contained multitudes as much as standard courtesy. But the festschrift format has its drawbacks. There are inconsistencies, as with the cautious suggestion that Musidora may have taken the son of her mentor Pierre Louÿs as a lover, when an earlier contributor has presented as fact that Louÿs père expressly commissioned her to give the younger man an education. Was her choice of stage name – from Théophile Gautier’s novel Fortunio – guided by Louÿs, or was she already in business with it before they met? Both scenarios are given.

More generally, there’s no concerted effort to justify or even define the cover line claim for her as an artiste totale, and not only because the essays on her writing and late-career contribution to research projects at the Cinémathèque Française are distinctly sniffy. Perhaps inevitably, the book is much better at taking the Musidora matryoshka apart than it is at showing how the pieces fit together, but totale or not, the artist dubbed “the tenth muse” by Breton would have enjoyed the attention. Other keepers of her flame include a fan club with its own scholarly publications, the Cahiers de Musidora; last year, director Olivier Assayas reworked his 1996 feature Irma Vep as an eight-part series for HBO (a remake of a film about a remake), and this year’s Créteil International Women’s Film Festival paid its own homage. Who is Musidora? It won’t be the last time the question is answered.

Musidora qui-êtes vous? (Carole Aurouet et al, Editions de Grenelle, 2022, ISBN 9782366773033, 272pp, €35)


A version of this review was published in the 9th June 2023 issue of the Times Literary Supplement, with the headline “Qui? Quoi? Quand? Où?”

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