Welcome to (the now well-misnamed) Diva December! In this series, I look at examples of the Italian diva film, a genre that proliferated in 1910s Italy—for an overview, click here. This first instalment is devoted to a relatively obscure title, Signori giurati … | Gentlemen of the Jury …, starring French actress Fabienne Fabrèges, who also wrote the screenplay.
Signori giurati is a classic femme fatale story, in which Fabrèges plays Julienne Santiago, a woman with her eyes on the prize. Julienne has two main goals: to break as many hearts as possible, and to open a fancy drug den. Well, we all have to make a living, no?
Our story begins at the Cosmopolitan Casino in Paris, where Julienne is spending the money of her paramour, Doctor Nancey (Didaco Chellini). An intertitle tells us that he’s her “passionate lover”, but frankly he seems rather gloomy, and his demeanour isn’t improved by Julienne brandishing bottles of morphine and ether as she proclaims her plans for a secret club: the ‘House of Forgetting’. But evidently the doctor goes along with it; the duo attend a soirée, where the guests all receive a ‘mysterious invitation’ to Julienne’s salon of sin.
Meanwhile, aspiring politician the Marquis of Saint Vallier (Bonaventura Ibáñez) heads to the capital to seek his fortune; seeing him off are his daughter Hélène (Valeria Creti) and her husband, the Baron Georges de Brion (Attilio De Virgiliis). Naturally, the Marquis quickly runs into Julienne at a society event, and an attraction is immediately born—much to the jealousy of Nancey.
Enthralled by Julienne, soon the Marquis ventures to her restorative refuge. And really, the House of Forgetting must rank highly among opium dens. This is no seedy back-alley hovel; rather, chez Fabienne is a fabulous fabrication formulated by a female with a flair for fabulation. It’s a thoroughly elegant place, replete with atmospheric draperies and ornamentation. In the Blue Salon, women wearing Grecian gowns twirl together across the room as others recline in a opium-induced stupor.
Despite the lack of sneakers on the powerlines outside, the police eventually cotton on to Julienne’s operation, and begin investigations. This presents opportunity rather than obstruction to Julienne, by now thoroughly sick of the increasingly jealous and morose Nancey. One anonymous tip-off later, she sneaks out through a trapdoor while the police corner the doctor and march him off to the lock-up.
Back at Vallier Castle, Hélène receives word that her father will shortly arrive with Julienne, “a woman worthy of being my wife”. But Hélène doesn’t warm to this cigarette-smoking city girl, and Julienne’s calculated charm offensive fails to sway her. In a completely unforeseeable turn of events, soon Julienne’s gaze falls on Hélène’s husband Georges. At dusk, she follows him, stalking through the reeds in a shot that reminded me of Il fuoco. They enjoy a passionate clinch, while Fabrèges does that typical ‘embrace me’/‘oh but we mustn’t’ schtick. As they part, Julienne flashes a wicked smile at the camera.
The Julienne-Georges romance is almost as boring as the Julienne-Nancey one, except for a random scene in which Julienne prepares to throw herself off a bridge, leading to a struggle and her collapse in Georges’ arms. A genuine attack of conscience, or just another ploy? In either case, it’s a rather toothless threat, given that the location in question looks to be a low bridge traversing a picturesque woodland stream.
Via Hélène, the Marquis finds out what’s going on, and proceeds to Julienne’s location in the castle grounds, pistol in hand. A shot rings out—and Julienne’s on the ground. “My father, a murderer!” cries the agonized Hélène.
The trial begins. And—plot twist—the Marquis was not the killer at all! Our old friend Doctor Nancey turns up to confess his crime, describing how he found out Julienne’s location, sneaked onto the Vallier estate, and shot her from his hiding place behind a tree. The Marquis is acquitted!
Given Signori giurati …’s otherwise conventional femme fatale plot, the ending was genuinely surprising and well-executed. And while the film is no classic, there is much to like here: in many ways, Signori giurati … is better than it needs to be. The mise en scène is wonderfully elegant and varied, shown to advantage by the lighting and by Giacomo Angelini’s camerawork. Shots are well composed, including some very nice double exposures. Additionally, Signori giurati … features a wide array of tints and tones, including beautiful combinations of the two colour processes. Especially notable is a scene of soirée-goers watching a fireworks display, which is shown with five colour changes.
As Hélène, the smartest character in the movie, I thought Valeria Creti was rather good, but neither Giorgio Chellini as Nancey nor Attilio De Virgiliis as Georges add a great deal to the proceedings. Luckily, the regal Bonaventura Ibáñez has considerable presence as the Marquis. (Elsewhere, Ibáñez plays a minor role in diva classic Tigre reale [Itala-Film, 1916], as well as appearing in two notable Italian films of the 1920s: Augusto Genina’s L’ultimo Lord [Cinès-Pittaluga, 1926] and La grazia [ADIA, 1929], both of which starred Carmen Boni; he also appears in Luis Buñuel’s L’âge d’or [FR 1930]).
And what of Fabrèges herself? Not at all a top-drawer diva, I must report. She has her moments, but in general she self-consciously emotes without the conviction or commitment required to carry off that style of acting.
The stage was Fabrèges’ passion, but she had a prolific film career in the teens, appearing in Gaumont productions in the first half of the decade, including the third Fantômas installment, Le mort qui tue | The Murderous Corpse (1913). In 1916 she relocated to Turin, working primarily for Corona-Film before in 1919 becoming prima attrice for Alfonso De Giglio, who may have underwritten her eponymous production company. Unfortunately, Signori giurati … is Fabrèges’ only surviving Italian film.
Fabrèges was a well-regarded actress in her time, but the most interesting aspect of her career is the fact that she wrote many of her Italian films, and also directed one title, L’altalena della vita | The See-Saw of Life (Fabrèges-Film, 1919). Elena Nepoti has researched Fabrèges’ career and contributed a very nice article on her to the Woman Film Pioneers Project.
Typology of a diva film
Much like John Woo’s movies habitually contain slow motion shots of men firing guns with both hands while sailing through the air, the Italian diva film customarily includes certain tropes. Through rigorous scientific analysis, I’ve identified several of these components. Let’s see how Signori giurati … stacks up.
What would a diva film be without copious costume changes? I forgot to count the number of ensembles Fabrèges sports in this film, but my reference screenshots put it around ten or so. Respectable. She favours pale dresses with lace and tiered draping. Here are some of her looks:
A necklace of notable length. Present on Hélène, rather than Julienne.
Avant-garde headwear. Julienne sports this chapeau early in the film:
Veils and masks. Hélène is shrouded while testifying at her father’s trial:
While Julienne wears a mask with the House of Forgetting.
Use of mirrors as a compositional device.
Flowers as a conspicuous element of mise-en-scène. Ornamental flowers and/or foliage are frequent in this film. An interesting example is in this shot of Hélène leaving the room; a vase of flowers in the foreground, Hélène framed by the door in the background.
But a special mention goes to this scene, where Julienne ‘coquettishly’ bats Doctor Nancey with one of the flower stems that she is holding.
All in all, Signori giurati … is a very visually stylish film, and one that contains an appropriate amount of divaliciousness.
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Read my past writings on diva films here!
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Signori giurati … [Gentlemen of the Jury …]. Dir. Giuseppe Giusti. Torino, Italy: Corona-Film, 1916. Preserved by EYE Filmmuseum NL and available to watch here on the European Film Gateway. Above I use the names given in the existing print; they differ somewhat in the original Italian.