Here’s something for hardcore cineastes: an incredible restoration of Marcel L’Herbier’s avant-garde silent feature, which looks unlike any other movie of its time. The weird story is about a Swedish engineer who wins the hand of famous singer by demonstrating a machine that can revive the dead. The film’s designs are by score of famous architects and art notables of the Paris art scene circa 1924.
1924 / Color tints / 1:33 Silent Aperture / min. / Street Date March 1, 2016 / 39.95
Starring Georgette Leblanc, Jacque Catelain, Léonid Walter de Malte, Philippe Hériat, Fred Kellerman, Robert Mallet-Stevens.
Cinematography Roche, Georges Specht
Art Direction, design, costumes, Claude Autant-Lara, Alberto Cavalcanti, Fernand Léger, Paul Poiret,
Original Music Darius Milhaud (originally), Aidje Tafial / Alloy Orchestra
Written by Pierre MacOrlan, Marcel L’Herbier, Georgette Leblanc
Produced and Directed by Marcel L’Herbier
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Followers of art, architecture, literature and French art movies of the early 1920s are going to flip over L’Inhumaine, a 1924 fantasy that carries the subtitle “Histoire féerique”, or ‘fairy story.’ Filmmaker Marcel L’Herbier was at ground zero in the Paris art world, and this elaborate show enlists creative contributions from a who’s who of big names, talent still famous from other work almost a century later. Screenwriter Pierre MacOrlan wrote the novels for Quai des Brumes (filmed by Marcel Carné) and La Bandera (filmed by Julien Duvivier). The composer of the (lost) music score was Darius Milhaud. Future directors Alberto Cavalcanti (Dead of Night, Went the Day Well?) and Claude Autant-Lara (Le diable au corps, En cas de malheur) designed sets. It is also not difficult spotting the distinctive design work by the artist Fernand Léger (Ballet Mécanique).
L’Inhumaine has not been an easy film to see in a good print. Flicker Alley’s fairly amazing restoration is a 4K scan from the original negative (which usually means, from a first-generation dupe of the negative). The title translates as ‘the inhuman woman,’ but the story is almost meaningless, a hook onto which to hang a fantastic detour into science fiction that gives L’Herbier an opportunity to test-drive his theory that film should be an amalgam of all the arts. By focusing top architects, designers and other artists on his picture, he hoped for a synthesis of aesthetic values, to achieve a cinematic critical mass.
A beautiful opera singer named Claire Lescot (Georgette Leblanc) holds an elaborate party at her modernist mansion, for the influential and talented men that love her. The humanist Wladimir Kranine (Léonid Walter de Malte) wants Claire to run away with him to do great works for humanity in Mongolia, but Claire would rather stay with the elites of Paris. Swedish inventor-engineer Einar Norsen (actor-director Jaque Catelain) nervously proposes, and when turned down, leaves with the intent to commit suicide. Claire chooses the Indian Djorah de Nopur (Philippe Hériat), who promises to shower her with luxuries. When news arrives that Einar has killed himself by driving his race car off a cliff into a river, Claire is not fazed. News circulates that she is a heartless creature, which causes an uproar at her next concert. The contentious audience breaks out in an angry riot. The next day Claire chooses to pay her respects to the corpse of Einar Norsen, and gets a big surprise — he has faked his death as a way of getting her full attention. His ‘tomb’ is really part of a fantastic super laboratory, where he says he can raise the dead. Meanwhile, the furious and unforgiving Djorah de Nopur is getting very jealous…
L’Inhumaine is itself something of a super vanity production, in the tradition of flamboyant art films by Frenchmen like Abel Gance. Anyone interested in all at how films look should be riveted by the show’s overall uniqueness. L’Herbier’s direction is so strong that it holds its own against the show’s bizarre sets and costumes. Claire Lescot and Einar Norsen have similar taste, in that the exteriors of their homes are similar cubist constructions, with simple shapes. His is vertically organized, and hers is designed on horizontal lines. Some of the shots are models, with little moving cars. Claire’s great hall has a bizarre patterned floor; dinner is served on an island in a pool, reached by little bridges. Her black servants wear look-alike masks with weird smiles, giving the impression that she’s being waited on by robot toys. Claire’s indoor garden almost looks like a cartoon approximation of a garden; it’s all very strange.
The movie never looks cheap. The second cinematic set piece is Claire’s concert riot, for which L’Herbier rented the Theatre des Champs Elysees and invited 2,000 guests to serve as the audience — reportedly the city’s entire art community. George Antheil played the piano and Leblanc sang. Although we don’t see any of them, it is said that Man Ray, Pablo Picasso and Erik Satie were in the audience, along with James Joyce and Ezra Pound. That’s world-class name-dropping.
The cubist lab that figures in the film’s final act is unmistakably the work of Fernand Léger. Large geometrical shapes dominate, enhanced by odd pendulums and clock faces of no discernable function except to express an unknown science. Einar brings a dead body back to life with the machine, which technically makes L’Inhumaine a science fiction movie. The design use of neon lighting, smoke, bolts of electricity and rows of long, parallel wires pre-date both Lang’s Metropolis and Whale’s Frankenstein. The webs of vertical wires also remind us of the Forms of Things Unknown episode of the TV series The Outer Limits — which has a similar irrational, freaky vibe. Its weird set also functions to restore a dead person to life.
All of this would mean little without Marcel L’Herbier’s impressive direction. His style emphasizes fluidity, and visual variety; the acting means little. The show reminds us a bit of Gance on the exteriors, with dizzying action shots of Einar’s race car, and sequences with odd superimpositions and cutting patterns that don’t fit into any normal ‘montage’ format. A lot of clever camerawork is involved in these dissolves and supers. The film also introduces a television device — which is actually called a television in the inter-titles! Einar’s TV broadcast is a strange inversion of later reality. Claire’s global audience put their ears to speakers to hear her sing, but can’t see her. Instead, Claire can see them from afar on the patterned silvery curtain of Einar’s fantastic TV set. An artistic motto or two are also projected on this set, in much the same way as an inter-title by Jean-Luc Godard.
L’Herbier’s most frenzied montages use the visual overload technique of Abel Gance, but less mechanically. Two-frame flutter cuts are not extended. As this restoration brings back original tinting patterns, yellow flash frames pop through the bright red images during the most active montage moments. L’Herbier said that he wanted to “make the light sing.”
The show was planned to be shown at a giant art exhibit to be held in 1925, the “Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes.” Georgette Leblanc put up half of the money for the movie, and so can be likened to the actress-diva Nazimova, who produced her own art nouveau- inspired vanity film Salomé. The response at L’Inhumaine’s premiere is said to have been violent. These were the years in Paris when art exhibitions, concerts and art movie premieres were an occasion for offended patrons to shout their objections and start fights with equally emotional supporters. Architects and those partial to modern art probably thought the movie a revelation, while a normal audience would find nothing to hang on to amid the tepid acting. We have to take Claire Lescot’s beauty and charm on faith alone, while Einar Norsen’s anxiety at her dinner soirée is embarrassingly overstated.
But L’Inhumaine seems ‘connected,’ like a missing link to future artsy film work. The business of a lover that throws his car off a cliff reminds us of histrionic excess in Albert Lewin’s Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. When L’Herbier films shots of that island dining floor at Claire’s with a camera facing straight down, the effect of the floor pattern and moving people reminds us of the Busby Berkeley musicals. The visuals are so well blocked and composed that we often feel as if we’re watching a modern art canvas come to life. Is L’Inhumaine really a work of art, or an artist-promoter’s attempt to blend a lot of disparate artistic contributions? I have to say that its sheer originality grabbed this viewer immediately, and I couldn’t help but respond with enthusiasm.
Flicker Alley’s Blu-ray of L’Inhumaine is a silent movie revelation – I looked back on the box more than once to see if I got the date wrong. The restoration is really amazing. If the presentation could be bettered, I don’t know how. The images are sharp and rich and the tinting is pleasing to the eye. The framing is never tight, indicating that there was no problem with a cropped original, as often happens. The image is also rock-steady, an added plus. The artistic inter-titles are the French originals, with removable English subtitles.
L’Herbier’s camera has an excellent lens, for parallel lines in all those cubistic compositions never bow. Even through the flash-cut montages, the images remain clean, with no splice marks or gate jumps. We get the idea that this is how the premiere might have looked. It maybe looks better than that. We’re told that L’Herbier’s heirs kept the film (which was self produced) in perfect condition, unmolested. The 4K restoration by Lobster films had input from several other French sources.
An illustrated insert booklet sketches the background on L’Herbier and gives more information on the film itself.
With the original score gone a commission for a new one featuring percussion and odd sound effects came from artist Aidje Tafial. On a second track is an impressive, unusual and loud score-performance by the Alloy Orchestra. When Claire Lescot sings, we hear something akin to the wails of a Theremin or an Ondes Martenot.
A very helpful featurette gives us the odd history of the movie, illustrated with stills and a few outtakes. We catch several shots of Marcel L’Herbier directing, which reveal that he was indeed an impressively natty dresser. I thought that the wide-brimmed hat seemed ostentatious, until I was reminded that L’Herbier might have worn it to find relief from the glare of all those dangerous unfiltered early movie lights.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, L’Inhumaine Blu-ray
Supplements: Featurettes Behind the Scenes of L’Inhumaine (15 minutes); About the Recording of Aidje Tafial’s Music.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Inter-titles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 17, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson