Film — as an Avant Garde art form?
That is essentially what the director, Marcel L’Herbier, is doing here. This film was made at the height of the Paris Avant Garde of the Twenties, with a handful of Marcel’s friends from the world of art providing the mise en scène — including Fernand Leger, René Lalique, and the famed Bauhaus architect, Robert Mallet-Stevens — and a collection of various legendary figures of the era filling in as extras (at least, that’s the official story).
As you’d expect, we are talking about a film with a lot of extravagant and surreal visuals, with bizarre, heavily stylized sets and highly experimental editing.
Perhaps, however, we should not be too terribly surprised that the story and basic plot are somewhat less impressive.
The legendary singer Claire Lescot (played by the real-life singer, Georgette Leblanc, who also put up most of the money for this production. Which should not come as much of a surprise once you’ve seen the film) holds court over her throngs of admirers in her bizarre and sumptuous mansion. She is notorious for her lack of feelings for anyone or anything and has been dubbed “the inhuman woman” because of it.
A strange collection of men surround her, vying for her favor, but none of them offer her anything she really wants — not the wealthy promoter, who owns theaters throughout the world; not the leader of a religious group, who offers her the chance to serve mankind; and not the Maharajah who promises to make her his queen.
But, after a bizarre (and, frankly, absurd) series of melodramatic plot twists, she finally sees the incredible ultra-surreal 1920s-modern laboratory of one of the suitors she had previously scorned: the Engineer, Einar Norsen.
And we all know that women go all gooey when it comes to modern science.
There’s more to it, but not much more, except for a remarkable reanimation scene at the end that inspired Fritz Lang’s creation of the false Maria in Metropolis.
L’inhumaine starts out a bit on the slow side, although the details are persistently strange, from the plywood cut-out jungle in the house, to the moat with swans around Claire’s dining room table. What stands out most, however are the ultra-creepy masks her servants wear, which are supposed to keep them from overhearing anything — and give them that wide, permanent smile every perfect servant should have.
The lab itself is memorable, but it is far more surrealist than mechanical. One really doesn’t buy the notion that any of the machines there have any purpose — or are actually machines, which have to follow certain physical laws. But the dazzling reanimation sequence is an incredible, epic montage with a lot of impressive editing tricks and effects building to a dramatic climax (followed by an anti-climactic final clinch).
It’s a little hard to buy Georgette as the ultimate in feminine desirability, particularly as she is clearly fairly old (43, in fact) and Claire’s impassive nature gives a perfect excuse for wooden acting. Supposedly, L’Herbier found that she wouldn’t follow his directions — although, considering that she wasn’t a professional actress, it’s possible she simply wasn’t capable of following them.
Is this a lost classic, finally located and restored? That’s hard to say. While it wasn’t a commercial success, it did influence a number of other contemporary directors (including Lang). It is obvious that its so-called “Impressionist” style owes a lot to German Expressionism, and you can see echoes of L’inhumaine in many of the Expressionist films that followed. It is, however, a fascinating experiment, a wild visual treat, and (for those who stick it out through the early sections) a moderately entertaining bit of melodrama.
It is definitely worth a look for those who love silent film — and those fascinated by the early history of film.
It does however, seem a shame that we rarely see such a forceful display of radical film editing anymore. It seems like a lost art nowadays.
However, I think this much needs said: I find it very hard to believe that science works as an aphrodisiac.
(My thanks, once again, to Janne Waas for introducing me to this once long lost film!)
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