L’Homme du Large sits near the dawn of Marcel L’Herbier’s career. The director was thirty-one and had completed three films prior, but never with the resources being offered him now. Here was his best chance yet to make a film in the Impressionist mode—testing, redefining the limits of the cinematic medium, liberating it from the old strictures of stagecraft. A film about an uncompromising man, made without compromise. That the man’s path is a frustrated one would be echoed in L’Herbier’s own journey, in which the compromises were many. But all of this was still to come.
L’Herbier had already led an eventful life. He’d been a sportsman, had studied literature, law, and musical composition; written plays, poetry, and criticism. He’d been shot: the consequence of a romance gone sour with dancer Marcelle Rahna. (L’Herbier recovered but lost use of a finger.) He’d served in auxiliary units in the First World War, and it was during this service that he was transferred to the Section Cinématographique de l’Armée, where he began learning the technical side of filmmaking. His first directorial credit is the propaganda piece titled Rose-France, released in 1919 and funded by Léon Gaumont. L’Herbier then made another film that year for Gaumont, Le Bercail, which marked his first collaboration with actress Marcelle Pradot, whom he later married. He began work on Le Carnaval des Vérités in late 1919 and L’Homme du Large (Man of the Sea) the following June.
The film industry in postwar France was short on capital, and competition from Hollywood was a major concern—so much so that the French government imposed a quota requiring one French film to be produced and shown in French theaters for every seven films imported. Yet there remained room for experimentation. Despite its literary source material—a short story by Honoré de Balzac—L’Herbier’s L’Homme du Large is a distinctly cinematic creation, telling its story with a language beholden to no other art form.
The film is set on the Brittany coast. It is the story of Nolff (Roger Karl), a fisherman who lives with his wife, daughter, and son in a secluded home, far from the temptations of the city. Nolff is stiff-necked and devout, more at home on the water than around most people. He worships the ocean for its bounty and purity and sees in his son Marcel (Jaque Catelain) his natural successor. Yet Marcel is a reprobate, drawn to the town and its pleasures. It is Nolff’s daughter, Djenna (Marcelle Pradot), who inherits her father’s rectitude. If only he could see it.
Cinematography, editing, and production design in L’Homme du Large achieve effects that could never exist on the stage or page, serving to sharpen essential qualities and emotional states. An early intertitle describes Nolff in a typeface recalling carved stone. Intertitles concerning Marcel feature a swirling background, while those about Djenna depict tidy gardens. L’Herbier’s dramatic wipes, irises in and out, and masking techniques emphasize certain characters or their actions, or draw from already powerful landscapes something more precise. In one early scene he masks a cliffside into the shape of a cross, surrounding it with words, making it both shot and intertitle. Later he masks the rocks into a “V,” while, at the top of the screen we see a woman strolling. It’s almost as though she’s headed for a steep-sided pit. To see these effects on screen is a reminder that they could be seen nowhere else.
Even L’Homme du Large’s less experimental moments distinguish it from the theater. The film has many scenes in which characters look into the distance—to a windmill, for example, or to other people, strolling by the water far below. In a key moment we see Nolff approaching the gates of a jail, which dwarf him in a way difficult to duplicate in a playhouse. One intertitle features a filmed inset of a character surrounded by the words she’s speaking. In another Nolff’s wife, introverted and unwell, is surrounded by footage of revelers. She really is among them, but by presenting her this way, the director emphasizes her loneliness and isolation. L’Herbier’s mixture of media, time, and space in this shot goes far beyond what can be done onstage—announcing, loudly, the expressive potential of film.
L’Homme du Large was a critical success. It led to four more L’Herbier-Gaumont pairings, among them El Dorado (1921), another silent-era triumph. But the director was ready to chart his own course. He founded his own production company, Cinégraphic, and in 1924 released L’Inhumaine, probably his best-known silent work outside of France. A tenuously plotted, fantastical mishmash of progressive art styles, L’Inhumaine drew upon collaborators from the worlds of architecture and design, composition, dance, and fashion (Pound, Picasso, Nijinsky, and Joyce were among the notable creatives serving as extras.) L’Herbier used his film to elevate new art of all kinds, something few people would have had the ambition, or indeed the connections, to try.
Cinégraphic struggled financially, and neither artistic vision nor a collaborative spirit were enough to save it. The company’s last release was L’Argent (1928), a vast and gripping film about finance and corruption. Though in some respects more conventional than L’Homme du Large or L’Inhumaine, it was also more accessible—a worthy end to the most celebrated phase of L’Herbier’s career.
Cinégraphic’s demise was followed shortly by the arrival of sound. L’Herbier’s L’Enfant de l’Amour (1930), was the first fully talking picture made in a French studio, but he was dissatisfied with it, and, like many silent-era luminaries, his work in the 1930s proved undistinguished. (Arguably, the director’s most significant contribution to film during this time was not an artistic one. During filming of 1934’s Le Bonheur, he was struck by a camera and lost sight in one eye. L’Herbier successfully sued the producer, leading to the first instance in French law of a director being recognized as an author of his own work, rather than simply an employee.)
It was the so-called “Cinema of Paradox” that gave the aging master a chance to shine again. Along with many other French directors (Abel Gance and Henri-Georges Clouzot among them), L’Herbier worked under the Vichy government, directing several features, including the acclaimed La Nuit Fantastique (1942), a movie recalling his 1920s heyday. Reflecting years later on a screening of the film, he wrote: “… I felt rejuvenated. I was certain that my old-time critics would be there. And I was even more certain that I had managed to attract these indulgent connoisseurs who, faced with the artfulness of such a tale, feel their love of cinema begin to blossom.” It was the closest he’d come in years to making the kind of film he loved.
With Liberation came, ironically, a return to the status quo. For L’Herbier there would be no more films like L’Inhumaine or La Nuit Fantastique and, after 1953, no more features at all. He turned instead to television, seeing its potential as a tool for mass education and used his status as an established filmmaker to elevate the medium where he could. He appeared on French TV frequently, often speaking on the subject of film. He also served a lengthy tenure as president of L’Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques (the Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies, now La Fémis), a film school he founded in Paris. He died in 1979, aged ninety-one.
“What the [French Impressionists] had in common was a desire to forge a ‘pure cinema,’” writes English film critic Charles Drazin, “observing its own rules, free from the undermining conventions of the theatre.” L’Herbier’s silent films brought this impulse to life. However, freedom from convention requires freedom of choice, and so it is to this first, sparkling portion of L’Herbier’s long career that movie lovers most often turn. He was at home in those years, like Nolff upon the ocean waves—the city distant, forgettable, but inescapable.
Presented at SFSFF 2019 with live music by Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius
Live narration by Paul McGann