The extraordinary destiny of Musidora, star and first vamp of cinema, in comic strip

The extraordinary destiny of Musidora, star and first vamp of cinema, in comic strip

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First there are her large, kohl-rimmed eyes. They suggest dread, indicate a threat or become seductive. It is the time of the cinema without words where the gaze is largely the play of the actors. Musidora will use her eyes but also her body to ignite Paris. Dressed in a black silk jumpsuit following the contours of her figure as closely as possible, she will embody female evil. She will become the hypnotic Irma Vep, an anagram of vampire. Paris trembles in a soap opera with episodes (now we would speak of a series), The vampires, which fills the dark rooms. Cinema, a nascent art, takes its place. We are in 1915, the Poilus are already in the trenches.

Before becoming a vampire, Musidora was born Jeanne Roques in 1889 in Paris, at the same time as the Eiffel Tower. “Dream whatever you want”, his mother tells him in the comic Musidora, once upon a time there was cinema by screenwriter Arnaud Delalande and drawn by Nicolas Puzenat. His family does not know fortune. But Jeanne is determined. She wants to act, she dreams of being an artist. She will become Musidora, a stage name she borrows from a novel by Théophile Gautier. We will see her play comedy at the Odéon and at the Châtelet. She will dance at the Folies Bergère. In costume or sometimes naked, she will perform in the music hall, be a poet, singer, author and painter. Close friend of Colette, she will become a muse of the surrealists. Godmother of war, free woman, Musidora will have had a thousand talents, a thousand lives.

Musidora in her dressing room at the Folies Bergère in 1914. (Les Amis de Musidora)

In the cinema, she will experience her greatest success with this erotic-criminal character of Irma Vep in The vampires. A series of films by Louis Feuillade which will have ten episodes from 1915 to 1916. Sensual and cruel, Irma Vep appears audacious, fierce and disturbing. Musidora will fascinate the French in a period of war where everything is turned upside down. She will continue with another soap opera Judex and will become a producer and then a director. It will begin with adaptations of Colette. And as a romantic wind blows on her destiny, she will be ruined in Spain after falling in love with a bullfighter who will leave her for a Russian star. The transition to sound cinema does not suit him. She will end her career still in the 7th art at the Cinémathèque française in Paris. She will be “responsible for the documentation service and relations with the press” from 1942 until 1957, the year in which she dies.

Musidora will play Irma Vep, mistress of crime, in the ten episodes of Les Vampires directed by Louis Feuillade.  (Delalande & Puzenat / Robinson Editions)

Arnaud Delalande and Nicolas Puzenat accurately place Jeanne Roques in her time. They cleverly parallel the life of the actress with the beginnings of cinema, a period marked by the Great War. Musidora, once upon a time there was cinema is not a chiseled and intimate portrait like the author Catel did in comics with Joséphine Baker, Alice Guy or Olympe de Gouges. The authors have chosen to make it a fresco, the reflection of an astonishing woman in a period that was no less so.

Musidora in the costume of Irma Vep, godmother of war acclaimed by the Poilus.  (Delalande & Puzenat / Robinson Editions)

Musidora continues to haunt the screens today. A TV series by Olivier Assayas, Irma Vep, has been broadcast since June 7 on OCS. Eight episodes originally commissioned by the American platform HBO. A cast of choice with Jeanne Balibar, Hyppolite Girardot, Vincent Lacoste (the actor of Riad Sattouf in The Beautiful Kids), Vincent Macaigne and Alicia Vikander who plays the heroine in a black leotard. The series tells the story of a broken American star who arrives in Paris to star in the remake of the original series, The vampires. A tribute to cinema tinged with humor, full of references, including excerpts interpreted by Musidora. A work which, in its own way, celebrates the liberated actress who has become a legend on the big screen. Long before Catwoman, the DC Comics feline that will become in comics and then in the cinema, the new femme fatale dressed all in black.

Swedish actress Alicia Vikander plays Irma Vep in Olivier Assayas' TV series.  (HBO)

Musidora, Once Upon a Time in Cinema by Arnaud Delalande and Nicolas Puzenat. Robinson Editions. 15 euros.

The website of Friends of Musidorasweet madmen passionate about the actress to learn more about the life of Jeanne Roques.

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