What could Mélies’ first colourised film, the fire at the Grand Bazar de la Charité and the opening night of Cyrano de Bergerac have in common? Who really wrote Edmond Rostand’s play? Is it all related somehow to the death of Italian anarchist and prompter Ildebrando Biribo, found dead in his prompt box on the night of the first performance, on 28 December 1897? The plot is labyrinthine, or rather subterranean. Indeed, the camera takes us through tunnels, cellars, sewers and secret passages that are reminiscent of both the prompter’s hideout and the twists and turns of a case which easily bears comparison with the best 19th century serials, not least Les Mystères de Paris (The Mysteries of Paris). To guide us, there happens to be a prompter, one of those men who cue people up above from below; here, it’s dramatist Edmond Rostand himself, who is out of ideas for plays, and tormented by actress Sarah Bernhardt, played by Clotilde Hesme. Except that this prompter, at once a character in the film and a strange lecturer who recreates the case for us, isn’t hiding himself in the least. On the contrary, he literally invites himself in the film and speaks directly to us and to the characters turned actors, while relating the events that led to his death, which has never been solved. So, does the mystery remain unexplained? Maybe not. Because the prompter’s death marks perhaps the beginning of modernity. Is the file closed, then? Neither is it, because Isabelle Prim proves with this film that the inspiration lives on. Céline Guenot
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