An early work by renowned director Maurice Tourneur, Figures de Cire is a horror film that presages German Expressionism in its use of light and shadow. It’s a prototypical haunted-house film: out carousing with his friends, Pierre boasts that he is totally without fear (“la peur [..] cette sensation m’est inconnue”), and takes a bet that he can spend the night in the most sinister of places without batting an eyelid.
While searching for an appropriately creepy place, Pierre and his friend Jacques stop in at the local off-licence, where they encounter the morose proprietor of a wax museum.
Problem solved! They check out the wax museum and Pierre gets locked in for some bonding time with waxy clowns, murderers, and dead women.
Pierre is just fine … at first. But eventually his nerves start to fray – and the outcome is not what you might expect …
Figures de Cire is only a one-reeler (11 minutes), so it’s a slight story, but one that is well-realized. The script was written by André de Lorde, the main writer for the Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol. Tantalizingly, Tourneur also directed another Grand Guignol film penned by de Lorde, Le système du docteur Goudron et du professeur Plume (The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether, 1913; after the story by Edgar Allan Poe). The stage production of the story was apparently considered a “peculiarly revolting spectacle”. The film was released in the US as The Lunatics, and the American distributor took out full-page ads in Moving Picture World:
A full review of Le système, with a detailed synopsis, was published in the 20 June 1914 edition of Moving Picture World; the reviewer found it to be “the kind of picture that will put immediate quietus on any buzz of conversation in the auditorium and will be called a ‘terrible, powerful’ picture. It is artistic, real, and gripping”.
But back to Figures de Cire. There is some beautiful use of shadow, such as here:
Another point of interest is the memento effect in the introductory ‘credit sequence’ shot of Monsieur Henri Gouget (aka the wax museum proprietor).
Keen-eyed viewers may also note the Éclair logo featured on one of the sets. Such ‘bugs‘ were common practice in early cinema as an anti-piracy device – so that companies could not just get hold of a rival company’s film, slap a new title on, and market it as their own. One notices them particularly in Pathé films. Here, see how the Éclair logo is incorporated into the set of the wax museum.
I have a fascination with intertitles, and those of Figures de Cire are pleasing visually as well as containing some great phrases.
This film was considered lost for many years before Lobster rediscovered a tinted print in 2007. It is partially damaged, yet it is one of those cases where the nitrate damage parallels the story almost fortuitously, appearing right as Pierre is starting to lose it.
I have to confess that I am not very familiar with Maurice Tourneur, never having seen any of his most renowned films: The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917, with Mary Pickford), The Blue Bird (1918; after the play by Maeterlinck), or The Last of the Mohicans (1920). His reputation is that of an outstanding pictorialist, and from Figures de Cire, it’s clear that even this early in his career, he had a keen grasp of storytelling and composition. (Also of note: Maurice Tourneur’s son Jacques became a filmmaker too, directing the great 1942 film Cat People). If anyone has a favourite Tourneur, please let me know and I’ll start there!
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Figures de Cire. Dir. Maurice Tourneur. Paris: Éclair, 1913. Date is given as 1914 in several books, but I’ll go with Lobster Films’ stated date of 1913. Available to watch here on YouTube. The film was apparently rereleased in 1918 as L’homme aux figures de cire, which may explain the clumsy English title.