The three surviving reels of Le Masque Blanchâtre reside in a vault of the Cinémathèque Française, and with good reason. The film has been lost, found, dropped, stolen, set on fire, eaten, and buried underground. The fact that any of the highly flammable nitrocellulose stock remains is nothing short of a miracle. But why is this film so frequently targeted for demolition?
Because it holds the dubious honor of being the only known film adaptation of The King in Yellow.
The film itself is not the only “lost” element. The director Louis André disappeared in Vichy France in a suspected political assassination. Greta Ors, at one time set to be the European Louise Brooks, made only one other film before dying of a morphine overdose. Jean Fleuret, cinematographer on every single André production, was one of the film’s first detractors when he kidnapped the reels just before the aborted premiere. Similar tales of woe afflict the assorted cast and crew; if a film can indeed be cursed then you could find no better candidate than Le Masque Blanchâtre.
The production itself was no stranger to misfortune. Plagued by setbacks, mishaps, and funding troubles, the fact that the film was even finished is a testament to the sheer doggedness of its director. Even before reading the infamous play, André was a man possessed by his own ambition. Yvette Andréyor called him “a nightmare of a man” after contracting pneumonia on the set of his historical biopic Alexandre. But once he laid hands on the mythic text, he was a man bewitched.
Little remains of the shooting script, but a vague summary can be pieced together from scraps and secondhand references. The film expands the role of a nameless courtier who delivers news to Cassilda towards the end of the first act that causes her to run shrieking into the empty streets. Filmed entirely from his perspective, all the established beats of the first act are there, from the return of Cassio from battle to the preparation for the bal masqué. Other, murkier elements from the second act are hinted at. One screen direction calls for Cassilda being shot “[…] through a kaleidoscope of mirrors, her hollow-eyed image retreating in all directions until there is nothing left but the empty face of the glass.” From costume orders we can infer that the bal masqué took cues from Rococo design with a sleek modernist flair. Of note is a single edict, two words dashed off in André’s increasingly manic handwriting: “no yellow!” Greta complained that her role(which combined elements of Cassilda and Camilla) required hours on end of “lying…beneath a great fish tank as they filmed me through the water.”
These snippets do two things. One: they paint the picture of an ambitious shoot filled with offbeat techniques.
Two: they make almost no mention of the plot at all.
The play itself is quite infamous for its disjointed format; the banality of the first act almost farcically belying its infamous (but never summarized) second half. André took it one step further, eliminating nearly all spoken dialogue from the script save for a single exchange near the end, the famous “mask” dialogue shifted from the first act to the final.
Had it survived its own premiere, it most certainly would have been revered as a masterpiece. But alas, dissent built even as early on as the editing suite. Fleuret wrote in his journal “[the film] has changed him. He is no longer my beloved Louis but a beast with wide, staring eyes and no heart. I fear his ambition may doom us all.” These two cryptic statements are the only clue as to what led Fleuret to kidnap the film and attempt to incinerate it. He succeeded only in destroying the final reel and was taken to jail laughing that he had “lessened that monstrosity’s taint on the world.” Indeed, without its final reel, Le Masque Blanchâtre could never be screened for the general public. André would attempt smaller private screenings, leading to the incidents listed in the opening paragraph.
André was a man broken in the years after. He never attempted to film another movie, but spent his remaining days carting the surviving reels around, screening for whomever he could. It is rumored that this is what led to his disappearance in occupied France, lugging around canisters of “entartete kunst” was practically signing his own death warrant.
The film eventually resurfaced after the war. André did not.
The film was available for private screening up until 1988, when a film critic ate 23 feet of the second reel. Time and wear will diminish the remaining film, as no attempts to preserve it have gotten past the fundraising stage. Le Masque Blanchâtre languishes in the safe, the greatest unseen masterpiece in the world.