Musings on Musidora: The Original Irma Vep

The above is far from a representative photo of Musidora (Jeanne Roques, 1889-1957), but I knew it would appeal to lovers of music hall and drag. History remembers Musidora best as the original Irma Vep in the French silent film serial Les Vampires (1915). All told she made nearly six dozen screen appearances between 1909 and the end of the silent era. After The Vampires came another serial Judex (1916), The Jackals (1917), and numerous others.

The daughter of a painter and a composer, Musidora was essentially bred to be a Parisian artist. She started out performing in cabarets and theatres alongside Colette, who became a close friend and collaborator. Her stage name comes from Théophile Gautier’s novel Fortunio.

Musidora’s more characteristic look was a kind of severe and scary Gothic “vamp” manner of dress and make-up that was influential in its own time and remains so. The name of her iconic character in Feuillade’s Les Vampires, “Irma Vep” is an anagram for the creature in the title. There are at least two latter-day homages to the films: Charles Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep (1984), one of his most successful plays, and the 1996 Olivier Assayas film Irma Vep, about a neurotic director’s attempt to remake the serial starring the famous Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung.

Feuillade, who also directed the Fantomas serial, encouraged Musidora in the directing, producing and writing end of film-making, as well. One of the more notable of these projects was a screen adaptation of Colette’s The Vagabond, created in collaboration with the author. Musidora retired from screen acting in 1927 after marrying Dr. Clément Marot. The pair divorced in 1944 and Musidora returned to make La Magique Image, an homage to Feuillade, in 1950.

Musidora also wrote numerous novels, non-fiction books and articles throughout her life. She frequently wrote about her own process, about admired literary figures such as George Sand, and about her own life. Many of her writings first saw publication long after her death.

Musidora is well represented on Youtube. I highly recommend spending a little time. One of the things I love best about 19th and 20th century European culture is that there is no unnatural line between pop culture and the avant-garde, as there is the United States, where the average person recoils from the word “art” like a demon being doused with Holy Water. I’m not sure if the distinction holds as much in the 21st century, which is unfortunate. But how I love to put my head in the cabarets of Paris a century ago. Back then they gave you your centime‘s worth.

For more on variety entertainment, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.