Sunday, October 04, 2015

L'Inhumaine (2015 digital restoration by Lobster Films) with live music by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius

L'Inhumaine. Histoire féerique vue par Marcel L'Herbier / [The film was not released in Finland] / The Inhuman Woman [the English title in the subtitles on the DCP] / (The New Enchantment) (Cinégraphic – FR 1924) D+P+SC: Marcel L’Herbier; DP: Georges Specht; main title design + AN: Fernand Léger; AD: Robert Mallet-Stevens (exteriors of Claire’s villa and Einar’s house, entrance to Claire’s villa, Claire’s bedroom), Alberto Cavalcanti (Claire’s dining room, secondary rooms of Einar’s laboratory), Claude Autant-Lara (indoor garden of Claire’s villa), Fernand Léger (Einar’s laboratory); furniture: Michel Dufet, Jean Lurçat, Pierre Chareau, Martine (furniture and décor atelier of Paul Poiret); sculptures: Joseph Csáky; glass: René Lalique, Jean Luce; silver: Jean Puiforcat; cost for Georgette Leblanc: Paul Poiret; filmed: 1923-24 (Studio Levinsky, Joinville; Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris; Rouen); première: 11.1924; C: Georgette Leblanc (Claire Lescot), Jaque Catelain (Einar Norsen), Philippe Hériat (Djorah de Mopur), Léonid Walter de Malte (Wladimir Kranine), Fred Kellerman (Frank Mahler), Marcelle Pradot (l’Innocente), Jean Börlin, Les Ballets Suédois de Rolf de Maré (ballet, “La Nuit de Saint-Jean”, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées), Kiki de Montparnasse; DCP, 125', col. (tinted & toned); titles: French intertitles in the original film; English subtitles for the DCP by Lenny Borger; print source: Lobster Films, Paris.
    A Lobster Films presentation in association with Marie-Ange L’Herbier and ARTE. This restoration by Lobster Films was made possible thanks to the loan of original nitrate material by the Archives françaises du film du CNC, Bois d’Arcy, and financing by the initiative for aid to digitization and restoration of the French film heritage. Scanned at 4K from the original camera negative. Sponsored by the CNC and Maison Hermès. Historical advisor: Mireille Beaulieu.
    Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (GCM), Pordenone.
    Viewed at Teatro Verdi, with e-subtitles in Italian, live music by: Stephen Horne (digital piano etc.; theremin?) and Frank Bockius (percussions), 4 Oct 2015

Catherine A. Surowiec (GCM catalog and website): "L’Inhumaine is the art film par excellence. Its ambitions are trumpeted by its remarkable list of creative talents, drawn from the Parisian vanguard of art, architecture, and fashion, marshalled by the visionary cinema aesthete Marcel L’Herbier (1888-1979), one of France’s most cultured and innovative directors of the time. The story concerns Claire Lescot, a heartless singer who toys with her admirers, and a romantic young inventor, Einar, who fakes suicide to challenge her love, fascinates her by demonstrating early broadcasting technology, and uses his technical wizardry to save her after she is bitten by a poisonous snake planted by a spurned maharajah. L’Herbier later freely acknowledged that his simple “histoire féerique” was only a framework for the visuals: “I used the scenario, which was admittedly poor, a little like composers would use a basse chiffrée (figured bass), to spin and layer variations and embellishments. For me the important thing was not the parade of events, but the chords, the artistic harmony.” Always striving to take cinema in new directions, L’Herbier wrote and lectured tirelessly about the art and potential of the medium, expounding his views wherever L’Inhumaine was shown on tour, adapting a 1922 lecture he had delivered at the Collège de France, “Le Cinématographe contre l’Art”."

"The extravagant production proved a financial disaster for L’Herbier’s company Cinégraphic. Audiences were polarized; arguments at early screenings reportedly escalated into fistfights, and the film can still generate lively discussion today. The title signals its major problem: a lack of heart. It’s difficult to warm to characters easily subsumed by their surroundings, particularly the “inhumaine” diva herself . Yet as an incredible exercise in visual style, the film still retains a hypnotic power; L’Herbier himself dubbed the results “visual absinthe”."

"Above all L’Inhumaine survives as a precious artistic document of its time, a synthesis of architectural geometry, cubism, and futurism, as well as a preview of the decorative modernism soon to feature in the 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs and Industriels Modernes (the inspiration for the term “Art Deco”). Several of L’Herbier’s design team would contribute to the Exposition: architect Robert Mallet-Stevens, influenced by the Viennese Secession, especially the work of Josef Hoffmann and the Wiener Werkstätte; the artist Fernand Léger, then in his “machine” period, and soon to embark on the film Ballet mécanique; fashion designer Paul Poiret; and Pierre Chareau, later famous as co-designer of the revolutionary “Maison de Verre” (House of Glass). Futurism pokes into the film with its images of inexplicable machinery, spinning wheels, and speeding cars, as well as the unconventional wardrobe worn by leading man Jaque Catelain, L’Herbier’s eternal mascot."

"The opening shots find us speeding high above the Seine river valley, along the bluffs above Rouen. Our destination is a famous Mallet-Stevens quote, “Architecture is an art which is basically geometrical”, brought to life in an architectural fantasy magisterially created through miniatures, models, and studio sets. Alberto Cavalcanti, one of L’Herbier’s talented recruits, designed the dining room of the heartless diva. The table is set on a checkerboard island in the middle of a pool, while servants in ever-smiling masks wait on guests, and entertainment is provided by foot-jugglers, fire-eaters, and a jazz band perched on a balcony. Claude Autant-Lara designed the indoor garden in the style of a Douanier Rousseau jungle."

"The story then takes us on location to the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, where Jean Börlin and Rolf de Maré’s Ballets Suédois (who would also be involved in the making of René Clair’s Entr’acte the following year) are seen performing the 1920 ballet La Nuit de Saint-Jean (frustratingly only in long shot). This is followed by a song recital by the diva, and an audience riot echoing the ruckus sparked during the premiere of Diaghilev and Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring in 1913 in the same theatre. George Antheil, dissonant “bad boy of music”, notes in his autobiography that the audience we see had actually been inflamed by one of his piano recitals; he even cites the exact date: 4 October 1923. But the film’s highlight remains the laboratory sequences, featuring a triumphant three-dimensional ballet mécanique enacted by a set personally constructed by Léger, with staccato editing and flashing lights and colours, during which the heroine is restored to life and a new humanity – a state echoed in the film’s American title, The New Enchantment."

"Whatever the contributing artist, L’Herbier exerts a firm grip on every visual aspect, with staging, camerawork, lighting, editing, set and costume design, tinting, toning, and intertitle design all meticulously planned. His personal interest in new technology is also displayed: radio and television both feature prominently in the story. The one aspect not fully under his control is his formidable leading lady. Georgette Leblanc (1869-1941) was a noted opera singer, and former mistress of Belgian symbolist writer Maurice Maeterlinck. In her 50s at the time of the film, she had recently begun a lasting relationship with the American Margaret Anderson, founder-editor of The Little Review. Leblanc no longer possessed Louis Delluc’s fabled quality of “photogénie”, but she clearly enjoyed charisma in person, and her links with wealthy backers enabled the film to be made; she put up half the money."

"The original score for L’Inhumaine by Darius Milhaud is lost, but recent research by Serge Bromberg suggests that it was mainly assembled from airs by great French composers, including Rameau, Berlioz, Bizet, Debussy, and Satie. Milhaud himself contributed two “percussion interludes”, probably for Einar’s “suicide” by automobile and the final laboratory sequence."

"After the initial screenings, L’Inhumaine went into limbo for decades, a lost avant-garde legend, overshadowed by L’Herbier’s subsequent masterpieces Feu Mathias Pascal (1925) and L’Argent (1928). It finally emerged in the archives in the 1960s. This new restoration by Lobster Films premiered at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on 30 March 2015.

Catherine A. Surowiec

A longer, more detailed version of this film note is available (in English only) on the Giornate del Cinema Muto website.

The Restoration 

Serge Bromberg (GCM catalog and website): "Since the disappearance of the last tinted nitrate print of L’Inhumaine in the late 1960s there have been two previous attempts to reconstruct it – by the CNC in 1972, under the supervision of L’Herbier himself, but without colour; and in 1986 by Jean Dréville, L’Herbier’s assistant on the film, attempting to recreate the tinting from memory, using the inadequate technical resources of the period: the image was also reduced to accommodate a soundtrack. The failure to reproduce the original colouring was a crucial loss. L’Herbier used and combined the techniques of tinting (monochrome printing on pre-tinted stock) and toning (chemically dyeing the printed image) with innovative creativity, culminating in the almost stroboscopic colour montage of the final sequence."

"To print each new copy of L’Inhumaine is thus a technical and aesthetic challenge. Lobster Films have worked from good original nitrate negatives, conserved by the CNC. These were scanned at 4K on Nitroscan by Éclair laboratories, and the subsequent digital restoration was executed at the Lobster Film laboratories in 2014. The restitution of the colours finally permits us to discover L’Inhumaine as Marcel L’Herbier imagined it."

"A major guide was provided by the practice of the time, which was to assemble the film negative according to the colours to be used. Thus all the elements to be tinted in a particular colour – blue, green, yellow, or red – were spooled separately. Further precious information, written in ink on the negative, was absent from the interpositive used for the earlier restorations. Some editing clippings dating from the period provided a further guide to authentic tinting and toning. Finally, new digital restoration technologies have enabled the most precise reproduction of the intensity of the tints, and L’Herbier’s original creative intention – a resurrection.
" – Serge Bromberg

AA: Revisited Marcel L'Herbier's unique experimental film which I last saw when we screened L'Inhumaine at Cinema Orion in 1997 in a fine print from Archives Françaises du Film / CNC (Bois d'Arcy). My remark then: "A classic of production design, the Frenchmen’s riposte to German expressionism, and an obvious influence to Metropolis and Marienbad. Excellent montage sequences. Too bad that all the characters are indifferent."

Upon that first viewing I stumbled upon the usual reaction that the film itself is "inhuman" and could not get over it. This time I knew that no psychological realism was to be expected.

Instead I was looking for a modernist, constructivist, visionary work where the actors are little more than marionettes and the story is hardly more than pulp fiction. L'Inhumaine is a piece of modern visual art, a ballet mécanique, a kinetic work, also displaying mobiles, a futuristic piece concerned about speed and new technology challenging traditional notions of space and time. As a piece of science fiction it is fascinatingly contemporary to Aelita, both preceding Metropolis. Its images are famous in coffee table books about art direction and costume design. It is a brilliant Gesamtkunstwerk, a showcase of top talents from many fields of art collaborating: animation by Fernand Léger, choreography by Les Ballets Suédois, architecture by Robert Mallet-Stevens...

The film is divided in roughly two parts. The first part takes place in the artificial paradise of the singer star Claire Lescot, "l'inhumaine" ("the inhuman woman"). The second part is situated in the artificial paradise of the millionaire inventor Einar Norsen. His rival arranges Claire to be poisoned by a tropical snake, but Einar revives her in his lab which is a precursor to the ones of Rotwang in Metropolis and Frankenstein in Universal's production directed by James Whale.

Claire comes alive, but she has already displayed her humanity by crying having been led to believe that Einar has committed suicide because of her by driving his sport car over the cliff.

The first part of the movie is a vision of an alienated society of snobbish people who are like walking dead. They go through the motions of pretense and lack all conviction. The second part is a technological utopia about a wireless future connecting people via television (écran de télévision is a term that appears in the intertitles). All the world can hear Claire singing; she moves them; and she is moved by their reactions which she is able to witness via the two-way television. This experience already changes her profoundly.

The cinematography by Georges Specht is excellent; the composition is refined; the montages are exciting pieces of experimental cinema.

Colour is essential to this piece of modern visual art. The simulations of toning and tinting are refined and successful.

This is a splendid restoration which helps make full sense of the famous film which has not been available in proper colour for generations.

There is a score on the soundtrack of the DCP, but in Pordenone Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius blasted out their own energetic and inventive score using many instruments which I do not know how to name. The otherworldly science fiction sounds were just right for this film. Marcel L'Herbier and Fernand Léger would have loved this experience.

I have no complaints about the visual quality of the digital screening. There are occasional issues in the quality, doubtlessly due to the condition of the source materials.

Claire Lescot (Georgette Leblanc) has been bitten by a poisonous Brazilian snake, and Einar Norsen (Jaque Catelain) saves her in his lab.
Jaque Catelain as Einar Norsen.
Einar Norsen (Jaque Catelain) commanding his assistants at his lab.
Jaque Catelain (Einar Norsen) and Georgette Leblanc (Claire Lescot).
Photos: Courtesy of Marie-Ange L’Herbier © Lobster Films, Paris. Click to enlarge.

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