The Inhuman Woman
DIRECTED BY: Marcel L’Herbier
FEATURING: Georgette Leblanc, Jaque Catelain, Philippe Hériat
PLOT: A celebrity singer feels responsible for the suicide of a young suitor.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Too weird for 1924, when screenings reportedly prompted fistfights between its few admirers and its numerous 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.
COMMENTS: L’inhumaine is a riot of Futurist preoccupations, with sets and themes evoking then-current Euro-chic: Cubism, Art Deco, German Expressionism (filtered through French Impressionism), and even a bit of Surrealism. Director Marcel L’Herbier’s intent was partly to showcase all the new movements in the art world for 1925’s Exposition des Arts Décoratifs. To this end he invited artists like painter Fernand Léger and architect Robert Mallet-Stevens to put their individual stamps on the various sets. The extrerior of singer Claire Lescot’s mansion is Cubist, and model cars pull up in front to drop off attendees for her soirees. She takes her meals in a grand geometric hall; the dinner table is on an interior peninsula surrounded by a pool in with swimming swans, and butlers in eerie smiling masks serve hors d’oeuvres. Claire has an indoor “winter garden” with giant ferns, and Einar’s laboratory, lined with neon and filled with strange machinery, makes Dr. Frankenstein’s digs look subtle and restrained. Every detail is so heavily artificed that even the real sets look like painted cardboard backdrops.
L’Herbier uses every camera trick in the silent arsenal: irises, tinted footage to denote different moods and locales, double images, words appearing in mid-air, lightning-fast Soviet-style montage (which reaches a fevered peak in the still-awesome final “resurrection” sequence with its spinning dials and rocking pendulums overlaid on a veering camera and certain-to-cause-seizures strobe effects). Watching this, you’ll understand why The Heart of the World“‘s competing suitors explicitly nod to L’Inhumaine). The acting is theatrical and possibly old-fashioned even for 1924 (watch as the evil maharajah narrows his eyes when introduced to signal his untrustworthiness), but still appropriate for melodrama. But 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!fell in love with the 1920s (I wonder if “
The Blu-ray, a co-production between France’s Lobster Films and the United States’ Flicker Alley, 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 Anthiel 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. Sadly, composer Darius Milhaud’s original score is thought to be lost.
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)