(7/10) A hallucinatory explosion of art deco and visual experimentation, Marcel L’Herbier’s 1924 film L’Inhumaine has divided critics and audiences for decades. Its bold design and innovative editing inspired a generation of directors, but many find its script thin and its characters one-dimensional and uninspiring.
The Inhuman Woman (L’Inhumaine). 1924, France. Directed by Marcel L’Herbier. Written by Pierre Dumarchais, Marcel L’Herbier, Georgette Leblanc. Starring: Jaque Catelain, Georgette Leblanc, Philippe Hériat. Produced for Cinégraphic. IMDb score: 7.4. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A.
This surrealistic tour de force of visual experimentalism is a prime example of French inventive cinema and one of the few French sci-fi films made between Georges Méliès’ 1912 film The Conquest of the Pole (review) and the New Wave of French cinema in the 1960’s. Director Marcel L’Herbier set out to test the boundaries between the narrative film and the art exhibition in order to expand on the idea of what film could be. His dream was to make film a smörgåsbord of all art forms — design, visual art, music, sound, dance. Instead L’Inhumaine became both the crowning achievement and the beginning of the end of the movement of French impressionism in cinema. While the movement continued to flourish into the thirties, few ventured near the line in the sand drawn by L’Inhumaine, out of fear of audience rejection. Just as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) was the crowning achievement of German Expressionism and Dogville (2003) took Brechtian Verfremdung in cinema to its logical conclusion, L’Inhumaine became a cul-de-sac.
Now, there’s your daily dose of hi-fly European film lingo. En marche!
The Inhuman Woman (1924), or L’Inhumaine (“the inhuman”) is more art project than film, or an art exhibition made through the means of film, if you like. L’Inhumaine is part of the – not connected – triage of films that director Marcel L’Herbier is best known for outside France, alongside El Dorado (1921) and L’Argent (1928). A filmmaker and art theorist, L’Herbier made a huge impact in 1921 with his sixth film El Dorado, a dark melodrama about a Spanish exotic dancer whose son gets taken away from her. L’Herbier’s aptly named cinematographer Georges Lucas combined stunning images from inside the Alhambra temple and the Holy Week processions with revolutionary imagery created in France. He was one of the first filmmakers to rely heavily on partly blurred images and grotesque distortion of the film to portray emotions and the psychology of his characters, making this one of the first examples of the subjective camera. As with his later films, he was exacting to a degree about how the music of the film was to be composed and edited. El Dorado was a major success, suddenly making L’Herbier the poster child for the new French cinema, at a time when the overall feeling was that American movies were too dominant on the French market.
As in most of his career, critical and commercial successes were soon followed by disasters, and by 1923 his film Ressurection collapsed during principal photography. His company was ruined and he himself got typhoid. He then decided to take up the offer of his old friend, opera diva Georgette Leblanc, who offered to finance half of a movie of his, if he cast her in the lead. Said and done.
The plot of L’Inhumaine is not very elaborate. Singer Claire Lescot (Leblanc), known for her wealth and her icy manners, is holding a party for suitors in her luxurious mansion. One of the them is the maharajah Djorah de Nopur (Philippe Hériat) and another the young Swedish inventor Einar Norsen (Jaque Catellain). At the party she is courted by a host of men, but remains aloof and disregards them all. Because of this snubbing, the romantic Norsen, decked out in gorgeous leather motorist gear, takes his sports car and runs it over the edge of a cliff in his despair. Upon the news of Norsen’s death, Lescot appears to show little remorse, and decides to go through with a planned concert nonetheless. This coldness results in her getting booed and taunted at the concert. Afterwards she is visited by a policeman who asks her to identify the body, which is being kept at Norsen’s lab. Here, finally, in a highly expressionistic moment, she confesses her horror, remorse and grief over her actions, and finally expresses her love for the body, covered in sheets flapping in the wind. At this moment Norsen appears at the stairs: it had all been a ruse. Norsen had jumped out of his car at the last moment, and arranged the while thing in order for Lescot to admit to herself that she, too, has feelings.
The couple now live happily for a while, and in his lab, Norsen shows Lescot all the miracles of the new technology of live broadcast radio and video calls. However, the jealous maharaja Djorah doesn’t approve of this new romance, and while posing as Lescot’s driver, has her killed with a poisonous snake. But Norsen is something of a Dr. Frankenstein, it turns out, as he rushes her to his lab, and in a wild montage scene with gears turning, electricity flashing, assistants turning wheels and levers and Norsen shouting commands, Lescot is resurrected.
Apart from the Frankenstein twist at the end, nothing really happen for the longest time in this film. Half of its running time is taken up by the dinner party in the beginning, which is indeed eye candy, with the bizarre interiors of Lescot’s mansion: surrealist jungles made of plywood, a dinner area surrounded by a moat, servants with creepy smiley-face masks… We’re treated to a long juggling performance and see how different men try to court Lescot, without success, and at some point it just gets rather tedious. The pace does pick up after Norsen’s “death”, but still the plot seems a bit stale.
But the plot isn’t really the point. L’Herbier’s motive was to merge film with other art forms, and hired some of the biggest stars of the modern French art movement to collaborate on the film with sets, costumes, animations, dance and music. He used a wide variety of camera tricks and film editing to create an expressionistic explosion of of sight and sound. In a sense, the film acted as a canvas for the art to be displayed on. He wanted the film, that was released in 1924, to provide a prologue or introduction to the major exhibition Exposition des Arts Décoratifs which was due to open in Paris in 1925. But at the same time it was an exploration of the art form of film itself.
When some filmmakers were still getting to grips with how to use editing as something more than simply a tool for moving the plot along, L’Herbier created a surreal painting using editing and camera placement. There are innovative split screens, dizzying camera angles, intimate close-ups juxtaposed with wide shots, and much of the film lingers on the thoughts, hopes and dreams of the characters – shown on screen as they see it with their mind’s eye. L’Herbier also used comic book-like thought bubbles in some cases, as opposed to the traditional intertitles. The Frankenstein sequence is mind-boggling, where three and sometimes four different images are merged, creating a frenzy of movement, geometrics, light, shadow and energy on screen. There is a scene that still to this day throws the viewer off kilter in its simplicity. Basically it is just a shot of Norsen taking off in his sports car, beside himself after having been snubbed by Lescot. Two cameras follow him, one in front of the car, one behind it, and one image is merged on top of the other with a dissolve. But it is simply disturbing to see the car take off in both directions at the same time. There is a reason as to why these images aren’t used in conventional films – the human mind simply is too simple to cope with the concept.
The film was met with outrage in France. Critics lauded L’Herbier’s technical prowess, but thought the the experimental aspects were too prominent at the cost of the plot. Some critics found the plot old-fashioned, dated and conventional, and asked why L’Herbier had used such a dusty story for his innovative experiment. At French cinemas some customers were demanding a refund on their tickets, while others were enthralled by the spectacle. There were even reports of fistfights outside cinemas as defenders and attackers of the film clashed. It was better received at art festivals outside France. The film was largely forgotten for decades, but was dug up again by the fans of the French new wave in the sixties, and in 1987 it was shown outside of competition at the Cannes Film Festival. Today it is considered by many as a pioneering work of French avant-garde.
The sci-fi element is not introduced until quite late in L’Inhumaine, with the resurrection machine in Einar Norsen’s lab. It is, as far as I can tell, the first example of scientific resurrection on film, rather than creation of new life — it’s also one of the very first examples of the trope of the mad scientist on film, even if Norsen doesn’t quite fall into the traditional category, as he is a rather sane scientist, who also happens to be the hero of the film. But still, it’s impossible not to look at the final scene and not think of the creation scenes in Metropolis (1927, review) or Frankenstein (1931).
In the scene where Lescot is heckled at her concert, L’Herbier asked many of France’s most prominent artists and celebrities to show up as extras in the audience to heckle the opera singer. Apparently among in the crowd one can spot people like Pablo Picasso, Erik Satie, Man Ray, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and the Prince of Monaco. It has never been verified exactly who were there, and it has been suggested that some of the celebrities named might have stated that they were there even if they weren’t, so they wouldn’t seem like the one that didn’t get an invitation. But we do know that invitations went out around 2 000 or the creme de la creme of Paris’, many of who were personal friends of L’Herbier’s.
Marcel L’Herbier was part of a loosely tied group of filmmakers that have since been bundled together under the umbrella of “French impressionism”, even if film scholars have been hard pressed find a unifying style ore credo between them. L’Herbier himself stated: “None of us – Dulac, Epstein, Delluc or myself – had the same aesthetic outlook. But we had a common interest, which was the investigation of that famous cinematic specificity. On this we agreed completely”. The over-arching theory behind this movement was, according to film scholar David Bordwell “an extension of Symbolist poetics that posit a realm beyond matter and our immediate sense experience that art and the artist attempt to reveal and express”. It has been suggested that the “filmmakers sought to portray the internal state of the character”, which is actually closer related to German expressionism than what we would call impressionism in the arts. The influence of German expressionism is also quite clear in L’Inhumaine, especially in the scenes involving Lescot visiting Norsen’s body and the resurrection scene. There’s the sharp contrasts between light and shade, the Gothic influence of tall, towering walls and winding staircases. However, unlike films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) or Nosferatu (1922), there’s not really a distortion of reality through skewed angles and impossible architecture, but rather a skewed sense of reality through the use of camera and editing.
L’Inhumaine is a prime example of how ideas in film exchanged over geographical boundaries even in the twenties. We often like to categorise a style or custom as a national trait — German expressionism, French impressionism, Italian realism, Soviet montage or American action film. But films were of course imported and exported just as they are today, and filmmakers built upon the work of others. In 1924 Lev Kuleshov had still done rather little in terms of filmmaking, and his theories of montage were still not widely known outside of the film circles of the Soviet Union. However, some of the same ideas that informed Kuleshov’s montage theory, also informed other art movements in Europe, such as symbolism and expressionism, and these in turn also informed L’Herbier. The second half of L’Inhumaine is a tour de force of montage and rapid editing, which was partly inspired by American low-brow action movies and serials. L’Herbier and the impressionists, like Kuleshov and directors like Boris Barnet and Fyodor Otsep, directors of the action serial Miss Mend (1925, review), loved American action movies, with their fast-paced editing, car chases and gunfights. L’Inhumaine, in turn, became an inspiration for Kuleshov and other Soviet filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein, who released Battleship Potemkin in 1928, often seen as the prime example of Soviet Montage Theory.
But much of the visual style of L’Inhumaine was derived from German expressionism and from the modernist art scene. Renowned modernist artist Fernand Leger designed Norsen’s lab, and a host of other artists and designers took part in creating the surrealist world of the movie. In the Soviet Union director Yakov Protazanov was heading a very similar project, inviting artists and designers to create the surrealist, constructivist world of Mars in Aelita (review), it as well highly inspired by both US pop culture and German expressionism. Both films premiered in 1924. These two films, on the other hand, inspired a director like Fritz Lang to create his futuristic world of Metropolis (1927, review), marking what is often described as the last great triumph of German expressionism. The creation scene in Metropolis, where the mad scientist Rotwang gives life to Maschinenmensch, the robot, is clearly inspired by the resurrection scene in L’Inhumaine. The scene in Metropolis then inspired James Whale’s creation scene in Frankenstein (1931), and the rest, as they say, is history.
Marcel L’Herbier, although perhaps not a household name today internationally, is a titan in French cinema. Born into a wealthy family in 1888, he showed a huge interest and talent in many different areas, such as sports, dancing, debating and the arts. He proceeded to get a law degree, but then continued to study literature, and in his spare time devoted himself to music in hope of becoming a composer. By the 1910s he moved about the culture circles of Paris, and a turning point for him was his friendship with famous opera singer Georgette Leblanc, the co-producer and lead actress of L’Inhumaine. She encouraged his artistic leanings, and introduced him to the elites of France. Before he ever touched a film camera, L’Herbier had already published a poetry collection and a stage play. During WWI L’Herbier had an epiphany when he saw Cecil B. DeMille’s 1915 film The Cheat, which made him realise the potential of the film medium to surpass all other mediums. Its innovative use of light, shadows, symbolism and editing left a lasting impression with L’Herbier. In fact, much of this is on display in L’Inhumaine. Both films deal with a socialite woman who deceive men in a triangle drama, in which one of the men is a shady foreigner. There is also another man who is willing to sacrifice himself for her, and a chance for her to redeem herself in the end. Both films also contain a dupe involving a supposed suicide. But more than the story, L’Herbier was impressed with DeMille’s visuals, some of which are directly replicated in L’Inhumaine. When we at one point in the film see the silhouettes of people moving behind screens, it’s a direct reference to scenes in The Cheat where DeMille uses Japanese rice paper walls to create the same effect. L’Herbier even remade The Cheat in 1937 as Forfaiture.
L’Herbier enlisted in the army in WWI and was assigned to the propaganda department, where he first got practical experience with filmmaking. His first feature film was made for Gaumont in 1918, still during the war, and was a propaganda film about France. Already his innovative camera work set him apart from many of the directors working in France. L’Herbier’s golden age lasted throughout the silent era, and he is best remembered today for his films El Dorado (1921), L’Inhumaine (1924) and L’Argent (1928). While his experimental nature meant that he had no serious trouble transitioning to sound. But at least to later audiences and critics, particularly abroad, his sound films haven’t struck the same chord as his silent movies. And also, film tastes were changing in France.
However, L’Herbier continued to write and direct films into his nineties — he made is last documentary as late as 1975, which meant his directorial career spanned across an astounding seven decades, from WWI past the Vietnam war. And if his directorial output wasn’t always as revered as it was back in the day, he became a formidable figure in the French film industry. Starting from the twenties, he was among those first wave impressionists who are said to given birth to film critique in France. During his life L’Herbier wrote over 500 articles on film for newspapers and magazines, many of which have been compiled into books. He was also a figurehead for promoting a national French film strategy and cooperation in a time when Hollywood movies were taking over the market. He co-founded the Cinémathèque française, still one of the world’s leading film archives and libraries, as well as the Film Institute in Paris, one of the world’s leading film schools. L’Herbier was also a champion of movie makers’ rights to their intellectual property, and took film company Gaumont to court in the thirties, in order to establish the director’s authorship over his work. He won the case, which meant that directors could now profit from a film’s success, rather than giving all the money to the film company. An ardent socialist, L’Herbier also championed the rights of other professions within the film business, setting up unions for movie workers, and managed to raise wages and improve safety and working conditions for people working in the movie business.
L’Inhumaine is a hallucinatory experience. The structure is oddly off-kilter. The first 45 minutes of the movie take place at Lescot’s mansion during a dinner party, with very little action. It’s slow going, but the viewer is still dazzled by the fantastic design and the experimental photography. The edits are often long and uninterrupted, in stark contrast with the second half of the film, starting with Norsen’s insane drive through the mountains, ending with his car going off the cliff. Suddenly the film comes to life, with one episode quickly substituting another — the editing becomes frantic and kinetic, there’s the odd plays with shadow and light, we visit Norsen’s surrealist laboratory with its art deco design, its strange machines and all its science fiction gadgetry. It’s all wonderful to look at.
The film’s perhaps biggest pitfall is Georgette Leblanc. While I don’t want to seem insensitive, the first thought that popped into my head when watching the film was: Why are all these men fawning over this woman? Leblanc was at the time 43, but looked closer to 53, not your average ingénue. Of course, this wouldn’t have been a problem, if Leblanc would have had a strong cinematic charisma or a photogenic appearance, but she has neither. There’s nothing wrong with her appearance as such, but her stiff and inexpressive performance does nothing to convince the audience that this is a woman that all the most successful men of Paris are fawning over. Some critics have gone as far as calling her performance “off-putting”, and unfortunately that’s not entirely inaccurate. L’Herbier later stated that he was unhappy with Leblanc’s performance, that she didn’t act and move like he wanted her to, and was bad at taking direction. This isn’t surprising, as she had no film experience. But she paid for the film, so he was stuck with her.
There’s also a sense that L’Herbier loses track of the story in between all the artsy-fartsy design and editing. It’s a magnificent piece of visual art, but as a narrative film it leaves a lot to be desired. Nevertheless, it’s a groundbreaking slice of cinema history, a film that became highly visually influential and holds up as a breathtaking experience even to this day. It’s mysterious and surreal atmosphere helps overcome its narrative flaws, much like Jean-Luc Godard’s later science fiction experiment Alphaville (1965). Anyone who wants to study some of the earliest trendsetters in science fiction films should put this on their watchlist.
My shoutout this time goes to literature scholar and film writer Trygve Söderling, who gave me a copy of the film when I couldn’t find it online.
The Inhuman Woman (L’Inhumaine). 1924, France. Directed by: Marcel L’Herbier. Written by: Marcel L’Herbier, Pierre Mac Orlan (Pierre Dumarchais), Georgette Leblanc. Starring: Georgete Leblanc, Jaque Catelain, Philippe Hériat, Léonid Walter de Malte, Fred Kellerman, Marcelle Pradot, Prince Tokio (circus group). Cinematography: Georges Specht, Roche. Art direction: Claude Autant-Lara, Alberto Cavalcanti. Costumes: Claude Autant-Lara, Paul Poiret. Art department: Pierre Chareaut, Michel Dufel, Fernand Léger, Robert Mallet-Stevens. Music: Malesha Moravioff. Produced by Marcel L’Herbier and Georgette Leblanc for Cínegraphic.