Marcel L’Herbier was a French filmmaker who made several films during his long career but mostly silent films. His most celebrated work is the 1928 L’Argent which occasionally makes it on the odd greatest film list. But L’Herbier’s innovative 1924 L’Inhumaine aka The Inhuman Woman is today’s Sunday Matinee.
L’Herbier had been trying to make Résurrection in 1923 – an adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel but the film was besieged with set backs and L’Herbier himself became critically ill. When he recovered his film company was in bad shape and he was broke. Georgette Leblanc was a famous opera singer and wanted to make a movie. She contacted L’Herbier and told him that she would finance a movie with him and she would pay for 50% of it and distribute it in the U.S. L’Herbier came up with a story for her, a simple sci-fi drama but he also decided that the film needed to be created with “a miscellany of modern art”.
The story follows Leblanc who plays a rich singer who is courted by several men. Einar Norsen (Jaque Catelain) is a scientist and car enthusiast and is among her admirers. Norsen demands that Leblanc love him or he’ll kill himself and she rejects him. Soon news reaches her and her admirers that Norsen seems to have killed himself in a car accident. When Leblanc hears the news she seems heartless which enrages everyone around her and the news of her heartlessness soon spreads. At her next concert she is booed because of this. The concert is actually filled with 2000 people from the film, art and fashion circles at the time. Apparently people like Erik Satie, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Léon Blum, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and the Prince of Monaco filled the theatre but you can’t tell by watching the film.
Eventually Leblanc visits Norsen’s body and discovers that he’s alive and he faked his death. This leads Leblanc to realizing that she really loves him much to the chagrin of another suitor named Djorah (Philippe Hériat). Djorah plots to poisons Leblanc and it’s up to Norsen to save the day.
The film itself is a tribute to modern art. The art deco and cubist set designs were by Fernand Leger and architects Robert Mallet-Stevens and Alberto Cavalcanti, among others. It’s a visual wonder – every scene is a one form or another of art deco or cubism. The sets are amazing as is the cinematography. The film was polarizing when it came out. People either loved it or hated it, actually fist fights were reported breaking out at the end of screenings.
L’Inhumaine has been recently restored although sadly the original score for the film has been lost. Still Flicker Alley has released the restored movie on Blu-ray and it looks amazing. While the story is a little weak it’s not really a film that you watch for the human drama, it’s a film for the visual spectacle.