When film historians sketch the genesis of Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Inhumaine (The Inhuman Woman), readers are typically treated to a familiar show biz story: brilliant young director attempts ambitious, boundary-pushing film, which is botched by the egotistic star (Georgette Leblanc) who controls the purse strings. The film bombs at the box office and is thenceforward dismissed as an interesting failure. Jean Mitry called the film “nothing short of ridiculous,” in his Histoire du Cinema. Richard Abel, in French Cinema: The First Wave, chimed in, “as outdated as it is avant-garde.”
So the standard-issue summary; the full story, of course, is more complex.
In 1922 Marcel L’Herbier, one of avant-garde cinema’s most energetic promoters, left Gaumont to found his own studio, Cinégraphic. There he nurtured the budding talents of future directors Claude Autant-Lara and Alberto Cavalcanti and produced Louis Delluc’s last film, Inondation (1924), all the while working to get an ambitious slate of projects off the ground—everything from adaptations of Racine’s Phèdre to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. L’Herbier, who blended artistic idealism with a businesslike pragmatism during the course of his long career, had set his sights on breaking into the American market. He thought he’d done the trick when Paramount agreed to distribute his partially shot adaptation of Tolstoy’s Resurrection. Then Universal announced its own version of the Tolstoy novel and Paramount reneged on the deal.
Out of the ashes of Resurrection rose La Femme de glace (The Ice Woman), as The Inhuman Woman was originally called. L’Herbier’s new ticket to America was Georgette Leblanc, internationally famous as a singer and equally notorious as the companion of playwright Maurice Maeterlinck. Under the terms of their deal Leblanc provided half the financing, took charge of the film’s American distribution, and also played the lead role. L’Herbier and coscenarist Pierre Mac Orlan adjusted the script to fit their star, creating a character who in many respects mirrors Leblanc. In this futurist fantasy Claire Lescot is a famous singer pursued by a host of suitors whom she treats with imperious disdain. The utter opposite of the virginal innocents who usually occupied the screen, Claire revels in her power, defies public opinion, and is more intrigued by her inventor-suitor’s sci-fi “television” invention than by his masculine charm.
Autant-Lara, who worked as a set decorator on the film, sneered at Leblanc as “la dame aux dollars,” but she was much more than that. Leblanc and L’Herbier were old friends whose ideas about art, music, and cinema coincided in many respects. The pair had first met in 1912 when L’Herbier was eighteen and Leblanc almost forty. L’Herbier was then a young aesthete and self-described “Wildean,” an aspiring poet who was dazzled by the sophisticated singer. Leblanc was a veteran of the opera and theater, a friend to Oscar Wilde in his exile and, as Maeterlinck’s companion, a frequent hostess to the artistic and literary names of her day. Both were fascinated by the new medium of film, particularly its ability to capture “life.” One of Cinégraphic’s first proposed projects was Un Garden-party chez Maeterlinck (never produced).
When the director and singer joined forces for The Inhuman Woman in 1923 circumstances had changed. L’Herbier’s star was rising while Leblanc’s career was in flux. Now fifty-one, the singer’s diva days were dwindling to a close. She had recently broken with Maeterlinck, her creative partner as well as lover, and embarked on an even more scandalous relationship with Margaret Anderson, cofounder of The Little Review. According to film historian Maureen Shanahan, Leblanc looked to filmmaking as a possible second act and had already explored projects with Abel Gance when she approached L’Herbier about working together.
Why then, given this mutually beneficial partnership, did Leblanc end up bearing much of the blame for the film’s problems? Shanahan writes that L’Herbier’s other collaborators resented Leblanc’s influence. Costar Jaque Catelain called her “a superwoman” whose power over L’Herbier led to “a disaster.” Autant-Lara also considered the director a victim of “the woman who pays” and ridiculed Leblanc as “an old doll playing a femme fatale.” One contemporary critic wrote of her performance that Leblanc “has authority—too much. Authority should not be so evident.” Certainly the unabashed misogyny of the time fueled much of the discomfort with Leblanc and Claire. Both were too powerful and too old for the era’s ideas of how an actress and her character should look and behave. When coscenarist Pierre Mac Orlan rewrote the story as a novel the following year he turned Claire into a flirtatious ingénue. Gone is the woman who declares, “I am only interested in what I can conquer!”
Interviewed in 1968, L’Herbier had a more nuanced take on the film’s production. On the question of story development he says, “I wasn’t totally free to the extent that Georgette Leblanc was a big international star who was opening doors for us in America,” then adds that the story was “pure pretext” for what really interested him: playing with the film medium. “I used [the scenario] as composers use the bass clef. On this bass clef I constructed chords … what was important to me was not the horizontal parade of events but the vertical plastic harmonies.” When the interviewer cites the oft-repeated complaint that Leblanc was too old for her role, L’Herbier defends his choice: “She was a remarkable woman, quite intelligent. And it is not outside the realm of possibility that a woman like her, even having passed the age of fifty, could play the role of a femme fatale.” In the end The Inhuman Woman was Leblanc’s only role. After the film’s poor reception Leblanc seems to have cut her losses and turned to other occupations—immersing herself in the teachings of Gurdjieff and writing several volumes of memoirs.
Much of the negative reaction to The Inhuman Woman seems to stem from disappointed expectations. A ball-busting heroine and a plot that mixes old-fashioned melodrama with science-fiction settings were not blockbuster material, even in 1924. Yet it is this wacky combination, especially when decked out with L’Herbier’s avant-garde pyrotechnics, that makes the film such a pleasure, once we brush away the cobwebs of past biases that cling to it. It has everything—spurned lovers, suicide, and poisonous snakes; speeding cars and a fantastical lab (designed by painter Fernand Léger) with incomprehensible equipment labeled “Danger of Death!”
L’Herbier strikes his “chords” with frenetic cutting, inventive framing, and a series of spectacular modern decors by not only Léger and Autant-Lara but also architects Robert Mallet-Stevens and Alberto Cavalcanti. Claire’s living room is worthy of a James Bond villain and her guests are served by footmen wearing pumpkin-sized fake heads with painted smiles. Leblanc makes her entrance in a Poiret gown, bristling with black ostrich feathers as if warning her suitors, “stand back!” David Cairns provided a nice corrective to earlier critical dismissals when he wrote in Sight and Sound in 2013, “L’Herbier created unmatched worlds of elegance and passion, co-mingling High Seriousness and High Camp in an ecstatic personal vision.”
At its Paris premiere the audience greeted the film with a near riot, destroying theater seats to express their displeasure. It fared somewhat better in its American release (as The New Enchantment) in 1926. Leblanc organized a gala screening at New York’s Klaw Theatre, attended by, wrote L’Herbier, the crème de la crème, with seats going for $2. Margaret Anderson, not surprisingly, gave it a plug in The Little Review, calling it “the most important contribution France has made to the seventh art.” In Motion Picture, Matthew Johnson, a presumably less biased reviewer, described it as “a fake on a detective thriller and built along the crazy lines of Dr. Caligari.” He found it inferior to German films but concluded, “American directors … can derive some new ideas for their own work.”
Presented at A Day of Silents 2015 with live music by Alloy Orchestra