The Roman Orgy Is a Visual Feast

THE ROMAN ORGY (1911) — Louis Feuillade

Note: This is the sixty-third in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my third favorite 1911 film, THE ROMAN ORGY, directed by Louis Feuillade.

Louis Feuillade was an incredibly prolific director who, by his own estimation, made about 800 films from 1906 until his death in 1925 at age 52. But Feuillade is best remembered today for three groundbreaking films. Well, I guess 27 films; Feuillade was a pioneer of the serial film format, and the godfather of suspense and thriller techniques often credited to filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock. FANTÔMAS (1913), LES VAMPIRES (1915), and JUDEX (1916) were significant for their form, but they also established a multitude of cliches with their subject matter. The crime dramas/thrillers were pulpy, action packed, and convoluted. Feuillade created a recipe that not only informed the pulp comic books and adventure films of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, but also big budget crime films and spy thrillers throughout the modern day.

LES VAMPIRES (1915) — Louis Feuillade

But the film I’m writing about today was not groundbreaking, as far as I can tell. THE ROMAN ORGY (1911) was released two years before FANTÔMAS, and quite frankly, it’s hard to see any kind of shared DNA. Feuillade, like many other directors in the regimented early studio system, had to be a chameleon depending on the assignment and the financial whims of his bosses. He got his start directing Georges Méliès-esque féerie films, comedies, and high-class dramas. By 1911, the historical epic (as epic as they could be during the reigning days of the short film) was in vogue. Literary adaptations like the pair of 1911 Italian features I’ve written about already (L’INFERNO and L’ODISSEA) were sensationalizing fantasy, but also, simply enough, costumes. THE ROMAN ORGY, as an eight minute film, is nowhere near the scale of those films. But it does indicate that Feuillade’s bosses at Gaumont wanted some ancient history films to capitalize on those kinds of films’ success.

At least, that’s my reading of a film like THE ROMAN ORGY. It just seems to fit into a trend of togas and Greco-Roman architecture that was growing in world cinema at the beginning of the decade. Feuillade may very well have had his own creative control five years into his stint at Gaumont, been influenced by other films, and/or felt that a film about the debauched and sadistic Roman emperor Elagabalus needed to be made. In any event, Feuillade was able to pack a veritable…well, orgy of visually striking moments into such a small span of time, thanks in no small part to the film’s pastel, hand-tinted coloring.

Elagabalus bust

Also called HELIOGABALUS (an alternate spelling of Elagabalus), THE ROMAN ORGY essentially shows the excesses of Roman reign. Elagabalus (203–222) was a homosexual or bisexual emperor who replaced Jupiter as the head of the Roman pantheon with the sun god. His tenure was marked by controversy, sexual deviance, decadence, and the allowance of women in the senate. This would not do, and Elagabalus was assassinated four years into his reign, at age 18. His anger problems and selfish spontaneity reflect the perfect image of the eccentric Roman emperor; Elagabalus is considered by historians to be one of the worst Roman emperors. That’s a high bar to clear!

So Elagabalus was a perfect subject for a film about the excesses and cruelty of a Roman ruler. But don’t go into THE ROMAN ORGY expecting historical accuracy. Other than being assassinated by his own guard by way of political pressure, THE ROMAN ORGY’s emperor isn’t shown to have a relationship with his mother, who reportedly planned the assassination, nor any homosexual relationship. I also don’t think Elagabalus’ release of his lions to terrify his guests and court precipitated his assassination.

The film’s portrayal of the emperor’s court, before the real (!) lions start roaming, is lazy and strangely sensual. The “Roman orgy” itself may have taken place before the film opens, or sometime in between. Everyone seems to basking in some kind of afterglow and their movements are suggestively sexual. At least, until a pedicurist scratches Elagabalus and is sent to his death by lion. As the emperor watches in glee in the upper third of the screen, the lions move to the right side below and clearly get excited about something, implying they are feasting on the unfortunate servant. After his court returns to their relaxing, in mass puddles of consumption, Elagabalus decides to let his lions run loose in the court. Impressively, these real lions share screen time with the actors, but admittedly, not for very long. When the emperor’s guard finally catches up with him and stab him to death, he falls to the left side of the screen. One guard moves off screen and returns with Elagabalus’ head in hand, and impales it on a fellow guard’s spear. The end.

THE ROMAN ORGY is a somewhat silly film with tremendous production value. The scenes of Elagabalus’ court reclining among convincing Roman architecture are frieze-like, edified moments with depth and beauty. Although THE ROMAN ORGY is still presented theatrically, like most films of the time and most unlike Feuillade’s influential masterworks, the shots are composed wonderfully. Feuillade arranged his subjects and sets so as to communicate three dimensions, which, even now, cement the smallest moments in the small film in my mind. The muted, somewhat muddy colors of the hand tinting solidify the decadence of the scenes, and in the moment of the emperor’s death, the guards’ golden armor heightens the drama.

Full film

THE ROMAN ORGY is a pretty film, and its performances and plot fall by the wayside of the architecture, costumes, photography, and color. It was a minor installment in the vast Feuillade legacy, one that doesn’t really resemble his well-known works and one that fell into a pattern rather than break a mold. Nevertheless, THE ROMAN ORGY takes after its name in a way. It’s shallow yet pleasurable, a “genre film.” Feuillade would go on to essentially invent the concept of the genre film as we know it today, albeit with much more acuity, innovation, and depth. Before then, however, his meditation on color and ancient style served up a visual feast to satisfy its decadent subjects.

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