Monday, 18 April 2016

The late Einar Norsen … L’Inhumaine (1923)

"I hear the light! The final images of L’Inhumaine surpass the imagination. As you emerge from seeing it, you have the impression of having lived through the moment of birth of a new art.” Adolf Loos

This film was Marcel L'Herbier’s boldest attempt yet to combine his broad cultural interests in film and, as it was co-financed by the star, opera-singer Georgette Leblanc, it perhaps contained even more than he expected. The gosh and wow over his audacious mise-en-scene, haute-couture and superhuman cutting would have been magnified many times as the film’s release when audiences may have been confused by Miss Leblanc’s operatic style and the ultra-modern concepts such as the thing called a “television”.

Still, they used to walk out on Mahler’s early symphonies… you can’t break moulds without omelettes being made…

Miss Lescot entertains
This film still feels modern even after 93 years of development but the Future’s never quite what it used to be no matter how visionary the concepts. Here the architecture and design fare better than the automobiles and the laboratories. But that’s hardly the point as L’Herbier takes us on a trip involving enduring human tension – jealously, desire, power and ambition.

There’s an age gap between the leading couple with Georgette Leblanc being 54 and doe-eyed Jaque Catelain being less than half her age at 26 but again that’s part of the point: money and power bridge those years and as we see throughout, Leblanc’s character Claire Lescot is formidable indeed.

Jaque and Georgette
From the start we see the impact she has on even the most powerful of men as the great and the good gather at her impressive modern house to pay their respects and to try and win favour. The interior is more traditional… well a moated dining table with swans a swimming and servants wearing papier mache masks to make sure that they don’t reveal emotion and only appear to smile.

The men admire posters of their host, Claire Lescot the famous opera singer and prepare to jostle for her affection: American industrialist Frank Mahler (Fred Kellerman), Russian post-revolutionary power-player Wladimir Kranine (Léonid Walter de Malte) and Indian mystic millionaire Djorah de Nopur (Philippe Hériat). Mahler wants to do the decent American thing and make her a star whilst  Kranine has a vivid fantasy about Claire joining him in leading the workers and Djorah has more focused desires… wanting her to become his queen.

Claire's suitors
The men try and impress the singer but she dismisses them all – not one is quite right… unless… One man is very late and he might just have the “quelque chose” she is looking for.

Jaque Catelain
Enter youthful scientist and appalling time-keeper Einar Norsen (Jaque Catelain) who leaps from his hi-tech house into a powerful sports car and speeds away along the high hillside of Rouen to Claire’s house. L’Herbier creates an impression of speed and Norsen’s state of mind by double and sometimes triple exposing his journey in the car… he’s travelling so fast and living dangerously a man at the bleeding edge…  and you shall know him by his velocity.

Feel the speed
He arrives very late and is singled out by Claire for special teasing: she all nut ignores him as she listens to her other suitors and when finally they are alone in the Winter Garden, he fails to connect with his youthful hyperbole. Confronted by her disappointment, Norsen threatens to take his own life which, far from impressing, leads her to say that he must not value it much if he is willing to end it so cheaply. Claire returns to her party and send s bitter message to him in the form of a small knife from her jewellery…

The young man can take no more and leaves the house determined to make his point. As he drives away at full pelt Claire sings to her guests and is oblivious that he has not only left the house but has also left her a message.  By the time she stops to read it, we have seen Norsen’s car go over the cliff and dive deep into the River Seine – it runs through Rouen too.

News of the driver’s death is bought by a peasant girl (played by L’Herbier’s wife, Marcelle Pradot) who cowers in front of these powerful people. Claire is devastated and some of her would be conquerors decide to exact revenge all the same.

At her first concert after the death, Kranine arranges a group to shout accusations of manslaughter at the stage. But Claire is too strong and silences the calls as she steadfastly sings and sins over the massive audience. L’Herbier got permission to film in Paris’ Théâtre des Champs-Élysées and invited over 2000 people from the art world to provide the audience. Ten cameras captured their reactions and if you look very carefully you may spot James Joyce, Erik Satie, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Ezra Pound and other leading lights.

The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées
After the show Claire is approached by an older man who says that Norsen’s body has been found and asks her to come and identify the body…

Spoilers ahead – go back now! Run, run as fast as you can!

Surprise, surprise!
To the surprise of not many amongst modern audiences, the corpse is far from stiff and Norsen arrives to reveal how he constructed a plan to show Claire how much he loves her. She wanted a reason to stay in France and Norsen offers her one. Intrigued she returns the next day for a demonstration of something called a “television”, a device that allows her to broadcast her voice around the World whilst at the same time seeing the reactions of the listeners…

Imagine if such a thing were possible?!

Claire travels without leaving..
But having finally caught Claire’s imagination, Norsen is about to face one final, seemingly insurmountable challenge as the maleficus Maharishi returns for revenge…

Everything culminates in a breath-taking blur of close-cut montage with L' Herbier even adding blank coloured screens of blue, red and yellow to add to the confusion of effort as Norsen and his men work to their limits.

The Maharishi puts the frighteners on Claire
L’Inhumaine still impresses with it speed and invention. The camerawork is dramatic and inventive throughout showing the full range of Gallic montage, blur, double to triple exposure and hand-held, dolly and trolley-mounted shots from cinematographer Georges Specht.

The zest for experimental elaboration drove L’Herbier to recruit as many multi-media experts as he could from across the arts.  Architect Robert Mallet-Stevens – often ranked alongside Le Corbusier  - did all of the exteriors and it was one of the first times that modern architecture was seen in films whilst Brazilian Alberto Cavalcanti was in charge of most of the set design with the exception of a strange green conservatory designed by Claude Autant-Lara.

Critic Léon Moussinac moaned that "There are many inventions, but they count too much for themselves and not enough for the film" but it’s the omelette again.  To counter that architect Adolf Loos described the result as "…a brilliant song on the greatness of modern technique…” and this included the fashion with Paul Poiret’s design studio dressing Georgette Leblanc’s character in style and numerous works of modern art scattered around the sets. Painter Fernand Leger, designed Einar’s laboratory including installations and paintings to create one of the most striking features of the film.

Claire's house is modern on the outside and traditional inside
The film became a true manifesto for modern art and what would later be called Art Deco with a visual harmony that pre-figured the 1925 International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts in Paris. L’Inhumaine was part of the exhibition and finally found its audience and we haven’t stopped watching.

The film is now available on crystal clear Blu-ray and DVD from Lobster films complete with extras including a making of featurette and a choice of soundtracks from the more traditional Mont Alloy Orchestra and modern jazz and electronica experimentation from Aidje Tafial who discusses his score in the extras.

It’s available direct or through Amazon.

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