Sight and Sound: 'L'Inhumaine' Mixes Sci-Fi & Sex + Fernand Léger Sets

Sight and sound: L'Inhumaine Marcel L'Herbier uses Fernand Léger sets sci-fi sex melodrama
Sight and Sound: Directed by Marcel L'Herbier, L'Inhumaine features Jaque Catelain and Georgette Leblanc in a great-looking (Fernand Léger sets) mix of science-fiction and sex melodrama.

Marcel L'Herbier silent 'L'Inhumaine': Sight and sound integration

For me, the real 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 Marcel L'Herbier's L'Inhumaine / The Inhuman Woman (1924). The screening of this mix of desire and seduction with science fiction turned out to be an intense sensory integration of sight and sound.

First, the sight. I had not seen any other films directed by L'Herbier (e.g., L'Argent, La Comédie du bonheur), so L'Inhumaine, with its spectacular visuals, came as a big surprise to me. For instance, the film features a stand-out scene of a car racing down a wooded highway from the driver's point of view, while in a party sequence I really liked the effect of the serving staff wearing sardonic face masks, thus putting a subversive spin on the proceedings.

Several designers were given credit for the imaginative 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 settings, from the decadent interiors of the opening high-society party to a scientific laboratory in the later scenes.

L'Inhumaine veteran operatic soprano too old for femme fatale'L'Inhumaine' a.k.a. 'The Inhuman Woman': veteran operatic soprano Georgette Leblanc (with Philippe Hériat on the right) was 'a bit too old' to play the Theda Bara-like femme fatale.

Silent singing star on wireless radio: Courtesy of the Alloy Orchestra

Curiously, L'Inhumaine's story of a singer making an impact on the public by using wireless radio lacks a good “translation” for a silent film. I won't be so cruel as to comment that the star, veteran operatic soprano Georgette Leblanc, was a bit too old to play the part of a seductive femme fatale; yet I should remark that her performance did seem wooden, as she did much more posing in her frippery and finery than emoting. In the opening scene at a gala party, the vamping Leblanc covered much of the same territory as Theda Bara a decade earlier.

Now, for the best part of the evening, ladies and gentleman: 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 Leblanc'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.

L'Inhumaine Jaque Catelain Frequent Marcel L'Herbier collaborator races down road'L'Inhumaine': Frequent Marcel L'Herbier collaborator Jaque Catelain races down the road.

'L'Inhumaine': Flaky French pastry

But sumptuous sets, fabulous fashions, and marvelous music do not make a sensible story. 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 frustrated suitor (Philippe Hériat). Not to mention that Marcel L'Herbier does 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)

Dir.: Marcel L'Herbier.
Scr.: Marcel L'Herbier and Pierre Dumarchais (as Pierre MacOrlan).
Cast: Georgette Leblanc. Jaque Catelain. Philippe Hériat. Léonid Walter de Malte. Fred Kellerman. Marcelle Pradot. Prince Tokio.

Beijing Chinese Zeitgeist in Early 20th centuryBeijing 1910: Early 20th century Chinese zeitgeist in the travelogue short 'Modern China.'

'Around China with a Movie Camera': The Chinese zeitgeist in the first half of the 20th century

If the dictionary defines zeitgeist as “the spirit of a time and place,” then “Around China with a Movie Camera: A Journey from Beijing to Shanghai (1900–1948)” is the definition of a vehicle that takes the viewer to that time and place. Along with L'Inhumaine, this zeitgeist vehicle was also presented at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's “A Day of Silents.”

Unlike fiction films, with their artifice and controlled action, these travelogues show life as it really was (in some cases) over 100 years ago. The clips include common outdoor scenes, street theater, and historical monuments like the Great Wall and the Palace of the Forbidden City.

Glimpse into an opium den

One anthropological delight was a sequence showing the Miao people, an ethnic group living in the isolated rural villages of the Yunnan Province in 1948. Additionally, we get to see a city precariously built on stilts, rivers transporting hoards of people and goods for trade, and even a quick glimpse of the insides of an opium den. My personal favorite was the beautiful stencil-colored sequence, sailing down a canal in Hangzhou.

Beijing 1910 Modern ChinaBeijing 1910: 'Modern China.'

All of the films screened were of people going about their daily business. Some of them were obviously fascinated by the movie camera, either staring into the lens or running away out of fear.

My only suggestion about the screening is that the films should have been integrated in chronological order, leading up to the Communist Revolution in 1949. Sequencing them by date would have provided some linear order of events.

'Brook without a source, a tree without a root'

I have long ago stopped asking myself what it is that triggers my fascination with the past, regardless of culture or national origin. To quote an old Chinese proverb: “To forget one's ancestors is to be a brook without a source, a tree without a root.”

Films such as these presented at “Around China with a Movie Camera” are the next best thing to having a time machine.

Images of Philippe Hériat, Jaque Catelain, and Georgette Leblanc in Marcel L'Herbier's L'Inhumaine / The Inhuman Woman: Lobster Films, via the San Francisco Silent Film Festival website.

Modern China images: Courtesy of the British Film Institute, via the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Sight and Sound: 'L'Inhumaine' Mixes Sci-Fi & Sex + Fernand Léger Sets © 2004–2018 Alt Film Guide and/or author(s).
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