L’orgie romaine (aka Héliogabale)
R: Louis Feuillade. D: Jean Aymé, Louise Lagrange, Luitz-Morat, Léonce Perret. P: Société des Etablissements L. Gaumont. Fr. 1911
“Varius Avitus Bassianus – a 14-year-old high priest of the Syrian sun god Elagabal won the throne of the Roman Empire in the third century A.D. As Heliogabalus (Eliogabalo) he turned his reign in such an scandalous outrage that he was murdered by his own body guards, after just three years in office. Historians throughout the ages have been united to condemn this embodiment of sin and misconduct in the most terrible kind of words. With ‘… the most cruel and infamous wretch that ever disgraced humanity and polluted a throne …’ (the 19th-century American historian S. W. Stevenson) and the unsurpassed ‘Not only the filthiest of all who walk on two legs but even of all who walk on four legs’ (Historia Augusta, a Roman collection of fourth-century imperial biographies) Eliogabalo defies all description and triggers the imagination. No wonder that this rotten apple of a human being is endowed with books, a movie and an opera.
(…) Most likely apocryphal is the story about the banquet in which the sun child buried his guests in violets and other flowers, so that some of them actually choked to death, being unable to crawl out to the top. The scene inspired Lawrence Adema-Tadema to his most famous painting (The Roses of Heliogabalo) and Louis ‘Fantomas’ Feuillade to his film The Roman Orgy.”
Wagner & Heavy Metal
“Feuillade’s Roman emporer exhibits attractions (including his dismembered self) to his on-screen and off-screen audiences and directly solicits visual curiosity. He performs like the showmen who exhibited films in French fairgrounds and café-concerts in the earliest years of moving images, when filmmakers were less concerned with telling stories than showing a series of views (Gunning 1990). His lion acts are deprived of the solemnities of Christian martyrdom and its promise of spititual renewal, and thus resemble the vulgar amusements of the circus which lay at cinema’s origins and which historical dramas such as this were supposed to transcend. The emperor-showman embraces the highbrow and the lowbrow, historical fiction and circus shows, narrative continuity and spectacle attraction, moral uplift and profitable entertainment. At a time when French writers were debating ‘whether the cinema acts as a significant force of moral reform or as an immoral temptation’ (Abel 1994), he presses on the limits of what bourgeois cinemagoers might tolerate.”
Maria Wyke: The Pleasures and Punishments of Roman Error. In: Basil Dufallo: Roman Error: Classical Reception and the Problem of Rome’s Flaws. Oxford University Press 2018. p. 230-31
>>> LOUIS FEUILLADE