I realize, of course, that strictly speaking fictional characters don’t have birthdays, but since since Wikipedai gives the date of November 13, 1915 as the release date for Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires, today is as good a time as any to extend a sort of birthday wish to one of my all-time favorite cinematic characters.

The eponymous Vampires of this extraordinary ten-part silent serial are not the undead bloodsuckers of Nosferatu or Dracula or even Twilight but rather a shadowy criminal order that has infiltrated the bourgeois order of troisième république France, against which it plots and executes crimes of breathtaking audacity and sophistication. With bombs and poisons and anesthetic gas and portable, surprisingly concealable artillery they kidnap and steal and kill. But one man, crusading journalist Phillipe Guérande, fights to expose and destroy the Vampires’ reign of terror. Phillipe is brave and resourceful and moral and patriotic and clean. He also lives with his Mom.

It is really the anti-heroine Irma Vep that is the reason to watch this landmark of world cinema. Created by the actress (as well as pioneering writer and director) Musidora (1889-1957), she sets me a-tingle from the moment she appears in the third episode of the serial as a chanteuse. Even in flickering sepia tones and without a word of dialog of her own, she dazzles with a range of expressions in the first seconds the camera shows her close up.

Irma Vep

Irma Vep is aggressively amoral in her willingness to pursue her ends — one of the movies’ original and still one of their greatest bad girls. That alone would make her intriguing and attractive. But she’s also an unambiguously sexual character as well. Even in France there were pretty strict limits to what Studio Gaumont could put on the screen, but still they managed to suggest rather a lot. Irma Vep’s preferred costume for break-ins and burglary work is something called a maillot de soie, which covers almost everything, but is remarkably revealing.

vampire cat-burgler costume

A remarkable shot, not just for what Irma Vep is daring to wear, but the for the pose she is daring to strike — she has no fear of the man she is confronting. I understand this costume was something of a scandal when it was first put on screen.

It also shows that perhaps Musidora did not look like Hollywood thinks female sex symbol ought to look.

Screw Hollywood. Give me Irma Vep any day.

Irma has quieter erotic moments as well. Look at her here with her lover Moreno (one of perhaps several she takes in the serial).

Irma and Moreno

Fans of erotic mind control fantasies might wish to take note: Moreno is an early practitioner of your kink, it seems.

Kohl-eyed Irma manages to be striking even in moments when fate has her down. Here she is, making an escape under a blanket from her pursuers.

irma vep and blanket

Unfortunately, in the end, the good guys win. Philippe and a squad of French cops capture the Vampires. Philippe’s fiancé manages to kill Irma Vep. But note that at least Irma dies shaking her fist at her enemies.

fist shaking

Quite the antithesis of submissive good womanhood. We could use more anti-heroines like Irma.