d. Marcel L’Herbier (1924)
Blu-ray Release Date: February 23, 2016
I first came to know Flicker Alley’s work just last year, and they made a deep impression, immediately shooting up the ranks of my favorite home video distributors. When 2015 was coming to an end, I couldn’t wait to see what was on the docket for 2016. First up, a beautiful surprise! A silent French film that I’d never heard of before — Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Inhumaine — but I was immediately excited because I’ve grown to trust Flicker Alley, and how can you say no to this cover that suggests some elaborate sets and a mysterious plot?
The cover, it turns out, is rather modest because the set, the entire production design, in fact, of L’Inhumaine is gorgeous and thrilling, perfectly capturing the world that has gone off kilter, but in recognizable ways. I was sucked in from the start, not because of the narrative, but because the world was so inviting, in a rather frightening and intriguing way.
This is the world of L’Inhumaine, or, the Inhuman Woman, Claire Lescot, a famous opera singer who is putting on a big show, complete with perpetually grinning servants.
Men from all over, attracted by her art and beauty and certainly a bit by her carnivalesque flare, have come and are doing their best to woo Claire. She has no interest in the men who have ambition to do great things. No, she’s more interested in living the high life. Consequently, she refuses a proposal of marriage from the young Swedish inventor Einar Norsen. Einar himself is a bit off-kilter, but we assume it’s because he is nervous in the presence of the woman he loves. He walks around the gigantic room, peeking around the topiary, his stress actually showing up in words on the screen. He cannot take her refusal and hastily exits the party only to drive his futuristic automobile into the Seine, committing suicide.
Claire is blamed for Einar’s rash reaction. It is said she taunts men but is herself heartless, seeking only to use them. She knew what Einar was capable of, and she drove him to it. If the first act was a beautiful, carnival of a set-piece, the second is a hulking operatic one. To shoot a scene where Claire is ridiculed and rejected by her fans, L’Herbier rented the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées and filled it up with high society. This release repeats the claim that the audience included James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Ezra Pound, Man Ray, and others. Pressured to pay her respects, Claire goes to the Einar’s tomb and finds that not all is as it should be in this natural world.
The restoration — this disc is from a new 4K scan — is superb, and without the typical blemishes that one might find in a film over 90 years old the film is open enough to become all-consuming (I cannot overstate how compelling I found the film; I wanted to enter and walk around each and every set). This is aided by a couple of fantastic, contemporary scores from percussionist Aidje Tafial — this particular score also helped me get sucked in as the film began though the plot itself had not kicked in — and an alternate score by the Alloy Orchestra. The original score, by Darius Milhaud, is sadly lost.
Upon its original release, L’Inhumaine received poor critical attention, apparently mostly due to the experimental technique — like those words that appear on the screen — and the acting. I will say they’re probably right about that last one; Claire, played by Georgette Leblanc, a real opera star, is perhaps too cold if we’re really going to believe she inspires the (overly) fretting Einar, played by director Jaque Catelain, to do all that he does. But I can accept all of that amidst this strange world that remains fresh to these eyes even after 90 years of cinema. And of course the film had its passionate supporters, as well; apparently the two side actually engaged in fist fights after some showings.
I side with the passionate supporters. L’Inhumaine is a striking, over-the-top film about a bizarre world rendered beautiful, tantalizing, and unsettling in L’Herbier’s hands.