Looking for the future without a plot
directed by Marcel L’Herbier
Trinity College’s Cinestudio opened its seventeenth annual April in Paris retrospective of Francophone cinema from around the world. This year’s theme is Portrait de l’Artiste, and each film examines the character or body of work of a fictional or real artist. The festival concludes next Saturday evening with a screening of the Sengalese film Sambène! with director Samba Gadjigo in attendance.
Today a new 4K restoration of Marcel L’Herbier’s 1924 silent film L’Inhumaine (first seen in the United States under the title New Enchantment in 1926) was screened. Supposedly many of the screenings which took place in France after its premiere in December 1924 ended in fracases or physical dustups, but ever since the example of The Rite of Spring in 1913 riotous audiences have been used as badges of approval for avant-garde works, so I would take that assertion with a grain of salt; it is perhaps more metaphorically than factually true. Either that or Parisian audiences exercise a more pugilistic approach to arts criticism than I have ever personally experienced. (I did back in the 1970s see a well-heeled New Yorker stand on his seat in the orchestra section of the New York Philharmonic to loudly boo Pierre Boulez for having the temerity to conduct a Ligeti piece. The gentleman, however, was polite enough to wait until the conclusion of the piece to voice his opinion and didn’t seem to engage anyone else in fisticuffs, but perhaps that’s because everyone in the orchestra section agreed with him.)
Leaving the theater after L’Inhumaine, I didn’t want to punch anyone but I did wrestle with myself. But before getting into the weeds with this film, there is one thing that I don’t think anyone will disagree about. The 4K restoration of the film (supervised by Lobster Films with the support of a number of French cinema preservation organizations) is absolutely superb, and I suspect the film now looks better than it did when first theatrically shown, for it is entirely free of scratches, particles and (except for one time that I could notice) skips. It even restores at least some of the experimental color washes and tints that, surprisingly, audiences of the day saw. It now is possible to appreciate the beautiful sets of Fernand Léger and the architectural designs of Robert Mallet-Stevens as well as the elegant costumes and intricate garden design of Claude Autant-Laran. The restoration also makes some of the experimental techniques like the double exposures more clear (even if it does nothing to explain their significance). It also makes plain why some of the things must have been stunning to see on screen for the first time, such as the view of the forest with streaking sunlight as seen from a speeding car or the aerial view of the car on the serpentine roadway. The art direction and cinematography (by Georges Specht in one of his last efforts) produce stunning still photos. In fact, in light of the problem I am about to highlight, it might have been better if the film had actually been a series of stills, something like La Jetée, nearly forty years later.
The problem with the film is that the story is utterly jejune. This of course is a matter of taste and degree. And yes silent films make intricate plot nearly impossible and character development quite difficult. The absence of sound and the film technology of the 1920s simply would not allow for anything that remotely approached naturalism. That is why the better silent films of the era tended either to be expressionistic (where the exaggerated actions of the characters was consistent with the style of the film) or historical epics (where “what happens” is already known and the film just furnishes the visuals). The problems of the story in L’Inhumaine are of an entirely different level. Above all, it seems that no one was concerned to make a story that was even within the realm of plausibility, whatever narrative assumptions it asked the audience to make. One expects to suspend disbelief when approaching any form of fiction. But once a story establishes a framework one expects everyone to act within those rules and not have the rules change just to get to the end.
In this case the story is about a wealthy and famous diva, Claire Lescot (Georgettte Leblanc), who gives performances of modern music (the “modern” is written in one of the notices for a concert, just so we know she doesn’t sing Bizet or some other tripe—as if her house doesn’t make that clear enough for us) and who attracts a large number of diverse and ardent admirers. She, however, is jaded to the point of disinterest in everything, especially common humanity (hence the title; she says she is interested only in “superior beings”). She entertains the group of men in her house, a monument to post- or neo-cubism, dining at a table in a wading pool with ducks swimming around, at the same time a French version of a jazz quintet frantically plays. They are served by uniformed servants wearing masks with permanent smiles (so affected by ennui Claire requires that everyone constantly smile; she herself smiles to avoid having a genuine feeling about anything). One young man, Einar Norsen (Jaque Catelain), a Swedish scientist, is late for her fete, and although he is the most ardent, she treats him unkindly for his tardiness. He tells her that he will kill himself if she refuses him. (There really is no time in this film to develop emotions, they appear full blown the first time we learn of them, and then they drastically change when the plot or moral requires it.) She replies that his life must be worth little if he can so easily dispose of it. (This quotation is considered by the director so significant that there is a flashback to it later on.) After she walks away, she has a servant deliver him a small pocket knife to taunt him. He leaves in great distress, drives away at high speed in his road car and for all we know drives off a cliff into the river. (Einar’s apparent suicide coincides quite cleverly with the climax of a performance Claire gives back at the party.) When the guests discover that he drove off the cliff, the party breaks up, and Claire tortures herself and after what seems a more than sufficient time, faints.
The next day the news of the suicide is published in the newspaper. We see men throughout the city in great emotion over how “inhuman” the diva was (although the article does not really explain what she supposedly did to drive him to suicide). She must decide whether to appear at her scheduled concert that night. Wladimir Kranine (Léonid Walter de Malte), the Polish “humanitarian” who tried to convince her to join his movement to enlighten members of his cult in Mongolia (you see how it gets harder and harder to suspend disbelief?), decides to show the world how inhuman she is and engages a group to disrupt the performance. She decides she owes it to her audience to go on. She sings. The performance is disrupted, but she holds her head up with dignity, finishes the performance, and as the card says: her triumph is complete. (We nevertheless wonder what is she triumphing over? Common humanity? Ordinary emotions? Parisian audiences who seem to break out into fights any time something “modern” is performed?)
Now, let me stop here to remark on the concert scene because it is another one around which legends have grown. The episode is filmed in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. The story goes that L’Hebier invited fashionable Parisian society to attend, and the following actually were part of the audience (although of course not discernible on viewing): Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Erik Satie, René Clair, Léon Blum, James Joyce and Ezra Pound. I must say I am dubious about the claim. I should also say that this might be a good point for those who worry about “spoilers” to opt out of reading, although even if you read my summary, when you see the film you will still be surprised that I am not joking.
Claire is told that she must look at the “mutilated” body, because the law requires two witnesses. That will take place the next night. (Throughout the film, many things are scheduled for the next day, and then a title card immediately announces that the time has come.) The body is not in a morgue (where an unidentified body would be kept; it doesn’t seem that the requirement of two witnesses to identify a body was strictly enforced or else Parisian custom with unknown dead bodies was extremely lax) but for some reason was taken to a table in his home/laboratory. It turns out, after much emoting by Claire, however, that he really isn’t dead. He just wanted to test her feelings. (She is not offended by this. Perhaps it shows that he is a “superior person.”) Then he shows her his laboratory and tells her that tomorrow night (again a day’s delay) he will show her something that will cause her to give up her planned round-the-world journey. The next night she arrives and is shown a machine that allows her to sing and her voice is carried “wirelessly” around the world (although listeners must use very bulky speakers to hear, and one is left to wonder how the aboriginal woman shown listening to one acquired it). But the amazing part of the machine is that a screen allows her to see the people listening to her. She is so engrossed she loses track of time (depicted by the rapidly hands of a clock) and nearly misses her concert performance scheduled for that very night. After the performance (which Einar did not accompany her to) she leaves the theater and gets into a cab. But her treacherous suitor, Djorah de Mopur (Philippe Hériat), who would rather see her dead that give her up to the rival from Sweden, tricks the driver, puts an Asian snake (!) into the back seat, then drives her off. The snake bites her. He continues driving as she pounds on the window separating them, weakens and then dies. He drops her body off at Einar’s lab, and then drives off (without so much as giving his name or license number).
With Claire’s dead body, Einar now has the opportunity to use one of the two devises he showed her earlier: one a machine labeled Machine de mort (although why he was using a death machine is not explained) and the other a machine that brings things back to life. As for the second machine, he told her he had been afraid to use it before. Now he must. There is a series of rapidly cut shots, including something like the “It’s alive!” exclamation of Frankenstein, and then she revives. The movie concludes with her exclamation that she has come back to serve humanity. (There is no follow up about Djorah de Mopu. Possibly because in these pre-Code days, there was no concern that a criminal might escape justice. Or maybe the snake, which seems to have be left in the car, got him.)
Under ordinary circumstances it is often difficult to discriminate between an avant-garde work destined to point the way to the future and a ridiculous failure. (This must be the question which inspires so many Parisian fist fights.) The brief highlight above makes a pretty good case for the ridiculous. That case is bolstered by the actors, who emote so excessively that one winces to avoid laughing. The musical accompaniment could decide the case one way or other other. If a score by Raymond Scott, for example, accompanied the film, I have no doubt that the audience would be rolling in the aisles, as they say. As it was L’Herbier commissioned Darius Milhaud to write the score, and he used mainly percussion instruments. Unfortunately that score was lost. The movie really needs music, however. It is after all about a singer, includes scenes of a jazz band playing furiously, has a concert episode, and features a futuristic machine that allows Claire’s voice to be heard around the world. In the screening today, there was a piano accompaniment by Professor Patrick Miller of the Hartt School. While Professor Miller’s version kept the action moving and provided the necessary “seriousness” to the movie, I suspect that Milhaud’s version probably revealed something of what L’Herbier was driving at. For instance, it might provide some insight into why some of the shots seem to go beyond the time that even the slowest witted viewer needed to digest them. Perhaps these lingering shots were designed to allow musical commentary.
As it is, I cannot convince myself that the plot has anything that should speak to us, either directly or symbolically. And this faillure really dooms the work as art. The story has so many plot solutions provided by the scientist (machina ex deo rather than deus ex machina) or things that are introduced by convenience (how did Djorah de Mopu happen to have a lethal Asian snake? Didn’t they require those things to be declared at customs in those days?) that the plot fixes including the big science fiction laboratory seem designed explicitly simply to allow modernist imagery. Perhaps L’Herbier was saying that the art of our age (or his age, modernism is a century old after all) doesn’t need to rely on stories of humans interacting in some sort of psychologically believable way. And it certainly may be true that a film can be about things that aren’t driven by human psychology, such as films about animals, or alien creatures, or non-living things, or even random visual stimuli. I think, however, that it is not just me, perhaps it is the result of the evolutionary construction of our brain, but when we see a story of humans, we expect it to comport with our understanding of how humans behave. This is not how L’Inhumaine proceeds.
Yet with the absence of the musical score commissioned for the work and even given (or perhaps because of) a thoroughly hokey plot, many of the images stay with you long after leaving the theater. I’m not sure that it’s enough to expect from a film (although Hollywood has decided that is the most one is going to get these days). And do we really get anything more when we visit an art exhibition? So maybe in a very specific category of films, say those that stimulate our visual cortex in ways that serious visual art movements do, this might be considered a very successful movie. Otherwise this film is of historical interest only.