- L’Inhumaine (1924) movie review: At this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival, picture and sound were beautifully integrated at the screening of Marcel L’Herbier’s unique blend of sex melodrama, revenge thriller, and science fiction.
L’Inhumaine movie review: Memorable SFSFF screening of Marcel L’Herbier’s great-looking (if meandering) silent
The jewel in the crown of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s “A Day of Silents,” held on Dec. 5 at the Castro Theatre, was the presentation of Marcel L’Herbier’s desire, seduction, and science fiction mix L’Inhumaine / The Inhuman Woman (1924), which, by integrating sight and sound, turned out to be a remarkable sensory experience.
First, the sight.
I had not seen any other films directed by L’Herbier (e.g., L’Argent, Le bonheur, La Comédie du bonheur), so L’Inhumaine, with its spectacular visuals, came as a big surprise.
Here are two examples: a) A stand-out scene of a car racing down a wooded highway from the driver’s point of view; b) a party sequence where the serving staff wears sardonic face masks, thus putting a subversive spin on the proceedings.
Several modernistic designers were given credit for the film’s ingenious sets.
Fernand Léger and Robert Mallet-Stevens were assisted by Michel Dufel, Pierre Chareau, and future filmmakers Alberto Cavalcanti (Nicholas Nickleby, Dead of Night) and Claude Autant-Lara (The Game of Love, Love Is My Profession). Each had a hand at creating the different sets, from the decadent interiors of the opening high-society party to a scientific laboratory in the later scenes.
Now, for the best part of the evening, ladies and gentlemen: The sound.
Using mostly percussion, bells, chimes, and keyboards, the Alloy Orchestra filled the theater with excitement.
Seeing musical instruments on the screen, while hearing them live does something to the senses that makes the audience part of the cinematic experience.
I particularly enjoyed whenever the lead female character’s singing voice came out sounding like either a musical saw or a theremin – or whatever wonderful wizardry The Alloys were cooking up in the corner.
What’s it all about?
But sumptuous sets, fabulous fashions (costumes by top designer Paul Poiret), and marvelous live musical accompaniment do not a sensible narrative make. L’Inhumaine offers a strange welding of different elements that thoroughly frustrated me.
As soon as I made up my mind that the film was about a deadly female’s effects on a scientist (frequent L’Herbier collaborator Jaque Catelain), so madly in love with her that he would give up his life, L’Inhumaine became a futuristic fantasy about television. Then a revenge tale about another discontented suitor (Philippe Hériat).
Add to that the fact that a core plot point – a singer makes an impact on the public by using wireless radio – doesn’t quite “translate” in a silent film.
Flaky French pastry
Now, I won’t be so cruel as to comment that veteran operatic soprano Georgette Leblanc, then in her mid-50s, was a bit too old to play the part of a seductive femme fatale.
Yet I must remark that regardless of age her performance did seem wooden, as Leblanc, garbed in all sorts of frippery and finery, did much more posing than emoting. In the opening gala party sequence, for instance, her vamping covered much of the same territory as Theda Bara’s a decade earlier.
And does Marcel L’Herbier take his time unraveling the story.
In sum: L’Inhumaine was just like a flaky French pastry. It looked delicious on the outside, but had no substance on the inside.
L’Inhumaine / The Inhuman Woman (1924)
Director: Marcel L’Herbier.
Screenplay: Marcel L’Herbier & Pierre Dumarchais (as Pierre MacOrlan).
Cast: Georgette Leblanc. Jaque Catelain. Philippe Hériat. Léonid Walter de Malte. Fred Kellerman. Marcelle Pradot. Prince Tokio.
“L’Inhumaine (1924) Movie Review” endnotes
The British Film Institute’s short-movie compilation Around China with a Camera was another “Day of Silents” screening at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
Jaque Catelain L’Inhumaine / The Inhuman Woman movie image: Lobster Films, via the San Francisco Silent Film Festival website.
“L’Inhumaine: Marcel L’Herbier’s Modernistic Science Fiction/Sex Melodrama Mix” last updated in October 2021.