The Inhuman Woman

Not rated due to not seen the whole film

In a nutshell: Marcel L’Herbier wanted to merge art and film with this 1924 experimental movie. Hated by the contemporary French audience, it has found its defenders over the years, despite the fact that the plot was thin and dated even when it was released.

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. Produced by Marcel L’Herbier and Georgette Leblanc for Cínegraphic. IMDb score: 7.2

Claire Lescot's dining room in L'Inhumaine.

Claire Lescot’s dining room in L’Inhumaine.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to get my hands on a complete copy of this film, but I nevertheless want to give it a mention, as it is a prime example of French inventive cinema and one of the few French sci-fi films made between Georges Méliès’ 1907 film 20.000 Leagues Beneath the Seas and the New Wave of French cinema in the 1960’s.

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.

Opera diva Georgette Leblanc put up half of the film's budget in exchange for getting to play the lead.

Opera diva Georgette Leblanc put up half of the film’s budget in exchange for getting to play the lead.

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 a fan, opera diva Georgette Leblanc, who offered to finance half of a movie of his, if he cast her in the lead. Said and done.

Swedish inventor and sports car driver Einar Norsen.

Swedish inventor and sports car driver Einar Norsen.

The plot – in a broad sense – 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 killed himself after the party, she is told, but shows no emotion. This coldness results in her getting booed and taunted at her next concert. Upset, she visits the vault where Norsen’s body is supposed to be lying, and confesses her love for the cold body covered by sheets. At this point Norsen emerges, alive and well. It was all a trick, and they become a couple. The jealous Djorah kills Lescot with a poisonous snake, but Norsen takes her body to a machine he invented, where he resurrects her.

But the plot really is not 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. There are sequences, for example one showing some sort of factory (I’m not sure, since I’ve only seen it as a short clip), where three and sometimes four different images are merged, creating a frenzy of movement,asp 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. Two cameras follow him, one angularly in front of the camera, 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.

Architect Robert Mallet-Stevens among the sets for the film.

Architect Robert Mallet-Stevens among the sets for the film.

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 the film, 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.
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.

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.

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