Fantômas: Revenge of the Image. Directed by Travis Preston and co-created by Tom Gunning. Set design by Christopher Barreca and Drew Foster, costume design by EB Brooks, lighting design by Jesse Fryery and Alexander Freer, video design by Keith Skretch, soundscape collage by Ellen Reid, sound design by Harlow Price and choreography by Mira Kingsley. Produced by CalArts Center for New Performance. Premiere October 19, at the 2017 Wuzhen Theatre Festival in China.
Fantômas: Revenge of the Image is a journey through time and space that arrives at an almost perfect intersection of several art forms, including film, theatre, performance art, fine arts exhibition and, what the heck, the amusement ride.
The last is surely not an art form, but hailing from southern California, the birthplace of the modern theme park, this production from the CalArts Center for New Performance offers at once the exalting sublimity of high arts and the sensory enjoyment of entertainment.
Not many Chinese viewers for the cumulative eighteen shows were familiar with the tale of the fictional but legendary character Fantômas, let alone the serial literature and film popular in early twentieth century France. The absence of dialogue or explanatory title projection made it even less accessible. The narrative elements seemed tantalizingly beyond their grasp, which could be frustrating for those accustomed to storytelling.
This is ironic, because the popularity of avant-garde theatre in China, championed by theatre director Meng Jinghui and constantly driven home by touring productions from Germany and East European countries, has almost given narrative emphasis a bad name. But that is usually built on familiar subjects from contemporary China or classic plays whose plots are no longer inscrutable.
The bilingual recitation of lines from ancient texts of literature has parallels in many Chinese plays, especially those created by the younger generation. They provided food for thought, but, just like the plot, they functioned more as a variation on ritual or meditation, rather than expounding a storyline.
However, Fantômas can be experienced and enjoyed without prior knowledge of all the source materials that went into it. It should better be approached without a firm conviction of the man-made boundaries that separate the art forms. Those with an attempt to define it as pure film or theatre will be maddeningly baffled, even for someone with as much exposure to multimedia projection or film shooting as live theatre.
The physical movements of the actors in Fantômas are eerily reminiscent of voguing, the stylized modern dance originated in New York’s Harlem and made famous by Madonna. But the pacing is much more deliberate and carries a grandness similar to that of operatic performances in many parts of the world. One can be mesmerized by the piece in the same way as a foreigner can be fascinated with Kabuki, even without understanding the Japanese language or style.
Some people may brush it aside as another experiment in immersive theatre. But that is to ignore a subtle but key difference: Fantômas does not put the audience in the middle of the action; instead, it places them in a black box where they are confined and pushed around. They cannot walk around and circle the actors. They are constrained by the size and the angle of the window in front of them. It is intended to simulate the aperture of a camera—a camera on a dolly that is beyond the viewers’ control.
While most people think of the image projection as the film component in the piece, a more fundamental feature is this aperture or window, which blocks the viewer’s peripheral vision. Filmgoers have taken it for granted that even a wide screen, except for those shown in science museums, does not fill up your peripheral vision. That presents great opportunities for visual surprises, which are vulgarized in horror films. In Fantômas, it is not surprises so much as tableaux that come into view. The movements of the box, which accommodates fifty people, have no roller-coaster suddenness, but are by no means cruising on a track with an “It’s a Small World” gentleness. They have a sneakiness that echoes the sinister prowling of the title character.
One can read into Fantômas as many interpretations as one would like. But with plotting toned down, the actors and their actions tend to become targets of symbolic suggestions. The theme of violence and evil, which may be self-evident to a French audience, is swallowed up by an enveloping shroud of ambience. It is fear and terror. But, more often, it is unpredictability.
The most striking image could well be Fantômas, played by Fernando Belo, using strips of celluloid to strangle Lady Beltham, an aristocratic-looking woman, played by Mirjana Jokovic. The symbolic meaning is obvious even without knowing anything about the old silent films. Lady Beltham may represent the elegance of the old society and the ancient tradition of live theatre that goes with it, and she is attacked by a criminal who resorts to the then-emerging technology of film.
Film took many years to evolve into a narrative tool, but its affordability quickly made it the most popular platform for mass entertainment, overtaking live performance at least in the size of attendance. Today, digital movies have done away with celluloid, with Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino as the few examples of vestiges holding on to the fast vanishing medium of recording visual images. Tarantino, who used a heap of celluloid to set ablaze a cinema full of Nazis in Inglourious Basterds, would have chuckled if he saw the film stock taking the place of a rope in this piece.
But is live theatre being threatened again? This time presumably by the ubiquitous use of moving images on various parts of the stage. Voices at the Wuzhen forums suggest that theatre artists seem to have embraced it more than ever. And technologies for recording and transmitting images are developing at such a breakneck pace that the two forms seem to be rushing into a new coalescence.
Maybe Fantômas carries undercurrents of the creators’ subconscious in regard to their attitudes towards film and theatre, or possibly their fusion. The subtitle Revenge of the Image could be a hint of what is to come in the future when any live performance can be transmitted instantly around the world. Well, it is not the future, but rather the present since anyone with a cellphone and a wireless connection with sufficient bandwidth is already capable of doing that. In that sense, it is not a repeat of the film-theatre rivalry a hundred years ago, but a more heightened and complex symbiosis.
In a sense, the fixation on image can be misleading. One can well call it “Revenge of the Body” as the actors’ physicality is accentuated rather than drowned by the images. Even the “close-ups” are made possible by actors standing on the ledge of the window and hence appearing larger and even moving with the audience. The actors, all nine of them with two narrators, have such a strong presence that whether they appear near or afar they can register on your radar and turn the engulfing images into a companion rather than competition.
Fantômas may not please everyone who expects to appreciate a specific art form. It may not even be cutting edge for each of these forms. But, combined, it offers a new experience that is not only innovative in conception but also seamless in its blending of diverse elements. While image is singled out as the subject of revenge, its object may well be those who insist on drawing lines around each art form at a time when technology has turned the landscape of creativity into shifting sands.
*Raymond Zhou is a Beijing-based bilingual (Chinese and English) writer, director and critic, active in film and theatre. He is the author of 20 published books, including three in English, and is the host of a weekly national television program on the Movie Channel. He has served on the jury of a dozen national and international film festivals and awards and has been a juror for the Young Artists’ Competition of the Wuzhen Theatre Festival for the past five years. For the stage, he has directed Chinese productions of The Sound of Music and The Importance of Being Earnest, and he is the writer-director of several plays, including The Ring Road.