“At each screening, spectators insulted each other, and there were as many frenzied partisans of the film as there were furious opponents. It was amid genuine uproar that, at every performance, there passed across the screen the multicoloured and syncopated images with which the film ends. Women, with hats askew, demanded their money back; men, with their faces screwed up, tumbled out on to the pavement where sometimes fist-fights continued.”–Jaque Catelain, in his biography of Maurice L’Herbier
FEATURING: Georgette Leblanc, Jaque Catelain, Philippe Hériat
PLOT: Claire Lescot, a celebrity opera singer, hosts a soirée at her modernist mansion for her many male admirers and suitors. Among these is the young engineer Einar, whom she toys with and eventually scorns. When Einar commits suicide, it causes a scandal and Claire is castigated for her callousness; but is there more to his mysterious death than meets the eye?
- Maurice L’Herbier started his career as a writer; his fascination for cinema partly developed when he was assigned to the French Army’s Cinematographic Service, where it was his job to document the horrors of WWI.
- Star Georgette Leblanc, an opera singer, put up 50% of the production cost. L’Herbier offered her a script which she deemed too noncommercial, and he had it rewritten according to her suggestions.
- The production design was divided among several leading international avant-garde artists, each of whom was responsible for creating a different set. These artists were all featured in the influential 1925 Exhibition of Decorative and Industrial Modern Art, for which L’Herbier was also a member of the jury.
- Extras in the 2,000-strong audience that boos Claire included Pablo Picasso, Erik Satie, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound. To set the mood, dissonant composer George Antheil played piano as the opening act.
- The original score by Darius Milhaud is lost, although he may have recycled some of the themes for use in later compositions.
- As was typical for avant-garde performances of the period, fights erupted at the screening.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are so many crazed sets to choose from—Claire’s dining room isthmus, her spiky green “winter garden,” Einar’s disorienting Cubist laboratory—that we were totally confounded at picking just one. Fortunately, we can go with a bizarre costuming choice instead: the masked butlers in short pants with smiles (literally) plastered on their faces.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Perma-grin waiters; backwards television; riotous resurrection montage
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Too weird for 1924, when screenings prompted fistfights between its few admirers and its many detractors, this interbellum mashup of silent melodrama, heedlessly optimistic science fiction, and bizarre set design is even more singular when viewed through contemporary eyes. This is a case where a film’s advanced age enhances its weirdness—but when watching it you’ll think that it came from not just another time, but another planet.
Blu-ray trailer forL’Inhumaine
COMMENTS: It’s fitting that L’Inhumaine stars an opera star (playing an opera star) and has an operatic plot. In the 19th century Richard Wagner proposed that opera was “Gesamtkunstwerk,” or “total art,” a comprehensive blend of all the arts: music, theater, dance, the visual arts as seen in the sets and costumes, and narrative. Maurice L’Herbier had similar ideas about cinema as a fusion of all the arts, which he termed cinéma total. L’Inhumaine would be his most ambitious attempt to realize his ideal. L’Herbier would handle the purely filmic elements (cinematography and editing) and assemble the best collaborators possible: actors (though here’s where the project was weakest); a score by Darius Milhuad; sets by Claude Autant-Lara, Alberto Cavalcanti, and Cubist painter Fernand Léger (who also designed the intertitles and posters); architectural designs by Robert Mallet-Stevens; costumes by legendary designer Paul Poiret; and modernist sculptures, furniture and objets d’art from various luminaries scattered around on the lavish sets. He even brought in circus performers to twirl barrels with their feet and breathe fire. French esthetes of the time still considered cinema a novelty, mere entertainment, which is why 1920s art films tried so damn hard to impress and overwhelm the skeptics. L’Inhumaine became a kind of living, moving manifesto for then-contemporary French art, showcasing various loosely-allied styles like Cubism, Furturism and Art Deco, German Expressionism (filtered through French Impressionism), and even a bit of proto-Surrealism; it’s a riot of voguish Euro-chic preoccupations. Composed in a pre-auteur era, when there was a sense of film as a collaborative effort rather than the work of a single visionary, L’Herbier’s role was almost that of an orchestra conductor, coordinating the instruments that blend together to make the “music” of the film.
It’s no surprise that, with all this clutter, the plot (and acting) were the elements that got short shrift. L’Herbier subtitled L’Inhumaine an “historie féerique,” literally a “fairy tale,” a term with overtones suggesting a fantasia or work of the fantastique. Today we would consider it a melodrama, with typical overwrought elements like romantic suicides, car crashes, exotic scheming foreigners, and unapologetic foregrounding of deus ex machinas. We also call the narrative style “operatic,” dealing in grandiose themes of love, death, and resurrection in a mythic style, with only the slightest of nods to realism. The only thing more bizarrely contrived than the villain’s plot to kill the singer with an asp is Einar’s dangerous and convoluted plan to make Claire declare her love for him. Star/financier Georgette Leblanc‘s opera background led the project in this direction; she vetoed L’Herbier’s original script as too abstract, and had it rewritten to her tastes, affording her opportunities for grand gestures of coquettishness, grief, shame, and delirium. L’Herbier ran with the thin but ridiculous plot and confined his experimentation to the visuals, where he went wild with irises, tinted footage denoting different moods and locales, double images, words appearing in mid-air, and lightning-fast Soviet-style editing. The simple story allows us to focus on the visuals without becoming bored. The result, a hybrid of experimental and narrative film, is surely weirder than either choice would have been alone.
A long opening scene sets the experimental mood. The camera begins on a model of Claire’s blocky mansion, with toy cars driving up to drop off the dinner guests. The shot then moves to live action, with a closer view of the front door façade. The long shot is almost convincing, and the sequence may have been intended as a seamless illusion; but when reality hits, it reinforces the uncanny nature of the earlier shot. It sets up an expectation of alternation between reality and artificiality that we will carry with us throughout the film. As the guests enter the room, a blurry filter over the camera lens slides aside like a curtain to reveal the interior, as stiff butlers bow. The same blur effect is used to transition between shots of the “notable personalities” milling about. Intertitles introduce us to Claire’s suitors: “the businessman,” “the Apostle,” “the Maharajah” (a “practitioner of despotism”), each of whom gets a closeup framed inside a geometric cutout. Flanked by four eerie masked servants, Claire makes her theatrical entrance, with three ostrich feather pinned to her cloche. So far we’ve only seen the elegant drawing-room, but the camera now pulls back to reveal Claire’s dinner table, set in the middle of a pool accessed by bridges, with a flock of swans swimming around the perimeter. A jazz band enters. We briefly leave the scene to watch engineer Einar rushing to his late arrival in his race car; his journey is tinted blue, and L’Herbier indulges himself with obscuring camera tricks along the journey that prefigure the wilder death ride Einar will take later in the movie. After dinner, each of the suitors tries to seduce the Inhuman Woman into leaving with him, which leads to short fantasy excursions into a red Mongolia and a purple India. She laughingly rejects the temptations of money, humanitarianism, and political power as insufficient, and retires to her bright green “winter garden” where, among the giant fern and painted flowers, Einar promises her only love. She scoffs at this offering the most scornfully, actively encouraging him to follow through in his threat of suicide, sending the bereft beau scurrying into the night. It’s a simple scenario, but played out in such a strange environment, with so many odd embellishments, that you’ll conclude they must have been serving something much stronger than mere cocktails at this decadent dinner.
That first act lasts more than a half hour, setting a mood of unreality that carries throughout a slightly draggy middle section focusing on the Inhuman Woman’s disgrace and regret. But the film picks up for the finale, where L’Herbier, intoxicated by Léger’s mad lab design that makes Dr. Frankenstein’s future digs look subtle and restrained, spins out a feverish finale. Einar has a secular altar in his lab, three cinder blocks tall and flanked by neon lightning bolts. The corpse is laid there while lab assistants wearing giant monocular goggles scurry about inside a room that looks like a giant Cubist machine, with multiple tiers and cones, circles, and arcs scattered about randomly. A pendulum swings pointlessly in the air. Red lights flicker, and a scientist attends to bent tubing. The dead will return to life! The altar turns from dead grey to lavender. It’s working! Impractical wheels spin. Assistants in black body suits pull levers, watch dials spin, pour liquids into vials. The mechanics defy comprehension. Sparks fly, steam bursts from the floorboards. The editing picks up its pace; each shot is held for only a second, then for a fraction of a second, then they pile on top of each other. Workers fly to the ceiling, hauled by ropes. The camera pans across the pandemonium, a bewildered observer. The screen flashes yellow, blue, green. Machinery whirls too fast for the eye to follow. A bosom heaves. Success! Humanity is restored. The miracles of science! What times!
L’Inhumaine is a triumph of the decorative arts, a treasured time capsule for art historians. Every detail is so heavily artificed that even the real sets look like painted cardboard backdrops. The acting is theatrical and old-fashioned even for 1924 (watch as the evil maharaja narrows his eyes when introduced to signal his untrustworthiness), but still appropriate for melodrama. The film’s biggest detriment, and the thing that holds it back from unqualified classic status, is the miscasting of matronly opera star Georgette Leblanc as the fabulous beauty who enchants the hearts of the world’s most eminent men. Leblanc put up half the money for the production, essentially buying the role; but I don’t care how well she sings or how glittery the tiara, no man is going to commit suicide for a woman who compares only slightly favorably to your Aunt Martha. Imagine how effective L’Inhumaine might have been if they’d cast an actress who looked more like Maria in Metropolis! Still, watching L’Inhumaine‘s restless experiments and shoot-for-the-moon ambitions, you’ll understand why fell in love with the 1920s (I wonder if “The Heart of the World“‘s competing suitors explicitly nod to L’Inhumaine). Soundless environments spur visual imagination, accidentally (?) recalling the weird landscapes of dreams. Silent films can never be strictly realistic. They do best when they put themselves at the service of fantasy and the subconscious, realms of uncensored emotions and mysterious visions. Though not a Surrealist by trade (the first Surrealist manifesto had not yet been published when L’Herbier began the project), this director, and his distinguished collaborators, breathed the same air.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…the Alloy Orchestra accompanied a screening that left hundreds of us wondering who slipped the hallucinogens into the popcorn… it’s so completely what it is, so fervent in its devotion to then-fashionable notions of modernism, it’s hard to adjust your eyes to the real world again.”–Michael Phillips, The Chicago Tribune (2016 screening)
L’Inhumaine – Flicker Alley’s L’Inhumaine page has info on the film and the Blu-ray, stills and a trailer
IMDB LINK: The Inhuman Woman (1924)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Maurice L’Herbier: Dossier – From “Fashion in Film,” an extensive article about costuming in L’Herbier’s 1920s and 1930s films, with background information scattered throughout
LIST CANDIDATE: L’INHUMAINE (1924) – This site’s original list candidate review of the movie
DVD INFO: The immaculately restored Blu-ray (buy), a co-production between France’s Lobster Films and the United States’ Flicker Alley, restores the tinted frames that had not been seen since the movie’s original run. It offers the viewer the choice of either French or English subtitles, as well as a choice of music. The Alloy Orchestra’s percussion-heavy, mechanistic performance is perhaps closer to the score’s original intent—you can hear a touch of George Antheil in it—but drummer Aidje Tafial’s progressive jazz accompaniment is superior. He leads an ensemble featuring percussion, accordion, vibes and trumpet, and the abstract spaces the group explores suggest an agreeable affinity between the old and new avant-gardes. Extras include a fifteen-minute mini-doc exploring the film’s background and eighteen minutes of behind-the-scenes footage of Tafial’s ensemble creating their score.
The film is also available with a Fandor streaming subscription.