Essay by Christel Tsilibaris Marcel Fabre’s Amor Pedestre

Christel Tsilibaris

Amor Pedestre (1914), produced by the studio Ambrosio of Turin in Italy, was part of a series of comic films directed by and starring Marcel Fabre as the protagonist, Robinet. Fabre, whose real name is Marcel Fernadez Perez, was originally a circus clown. He appeared in several Pathé short comic tableaux in France before relocating to Italy where he created the character of Robinet. He then emigrated to the United States in 1915 and, renaming Robinet ‘Tweedledum’, adapted for American audiences the character that brought him success in Italy.

In Amor Pedestre, Robinet sets out on his morning walk and encounters a young lady he immediately attempts to woo. Despite her initial rejections, Robinet persists by slipping a note into her delicate shoe, imploring her to meet him later that day. However, back at home the woman takes off her shoes to change into slippers and the note falls to the attention of her husband. The latter, offended by the indecent proposal made to his wife, meets Robinet and challenges him into a duel.

While the plot of Marcel Fabre’s silent film is a typical bourgeois story of an illicit love affair and subsequent revenge, what makes it unique is the angle in which the film was shot. The director’s decision to capture on celluloid the legs and feet of his actors, rather than their entire bodies (and faces) is a coup-de-génie. Clearly experimenting with the possibilities that the new invention of cinema was offering, almost a hundred years later Fabre’s film remains a fresh vision.

By shifting the centre of attention to the lower part of the body Fabre incites the actors to drop the pronounced facial expressions that commonly served as a vehicle for emotions in silent film and experiment with previously overlooked parts of the body. Consequently, the viewer, confronted with an alternative cinematic grammar, is obliged to search for new ways to approach the characters. Two elements are offered to the viewer in order to do so: the playfulness of the characters’ movements and, more importantly, the clothing – especially the shoes – which function as a marker of social class and an expression of personality.

The lady’s shoe holds a very special position within the film. It is not only a sign of the wearer’s gender and social class, it is also the central element of the plot, the very reason for which passions are ignited. When Robinet slips his amorous note into the young lady’s shoe, it is her feet that he is praising. And since the bare foot of the female character is not visible, the seductive powers are transferred to the footwear. Her shoe hence becomes a powerful object of attraction that pushes Robinet into acts of erotic demonstration that were quite audacious at the time.

Amor Pedestre is often cited as a possible influence on the new visual rules dictated by Futurism, even though Fabre himself was not a member of the Italian avant-garde movement and his film was directed some time before the publication of The Futurist Cinema manifesto (September 1916). In 1915 Filippo Tommaso Marinetti was clearly influenced by Fabre’s film when he staged a theatre play titled Le Basi in which, surprisingly enough, only the actors’ feet were visible to the audience. As in Amor Pedestre, the feet assumed the role of the actors and consequently had to express a variety of modes and expressions.

By opting to obscure the parts of the body that usually characterise a person, both Fabre and Marinetti portrayed an abstracted image of the human body. When The Futurist Cinema manifesto appeared in 1916, it called for a cinema detached from reality, a cinema where the anti-graceful, the dynamic, the impressionistic and the wordless would take over. (1) It declared that the structure and the plot of futurist film ought to break from the traditional narrative mold and opt for abstraction. With its clear and discernable plot and the presence of informative captions, Amor Pedestre may be rooted in traditional story-telling modes. Nevertheless, Fabre’s decision to let the legs and feet “speak” gives the film a radical twist.
(1) Peter Bondanella, Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present (New York: Continuum, 1983), p. 9-10.

© Christel Tsilibaris

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