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'L'Inhumaine': L'Herbier's 1924 film is far fresher than its years

'L'Inhumaine': L'Herbier's 1924 film is far fresher than its years
(Film Still)

You think you've seen it all at the movies, and then you see "L'Inhumaine." Not that the vivid visuals and clever techniques that animate the film are completely unfamiliar—fine-art-inspired sets, avant costuming, liberal monochrome, slick camera moves, and quick cuts edited to a crescendo are all tried and true now. But in 1924, when French director Marcel L'Herbier threw them all into "L'Inhumaine," they were years, even decades, ahead of their time. A new 4K digital restoration of L'Herbier's silent art piece/melodrama has returned to pop eyes and blow minds all over again.

As with many films from the pre-sound era, deft plotting falls near the end of the list of "L'Inhumaine's" recommendable qualities. Claire (opera singer Georgette Leblanc) functions as a distaff forerunner of the Most Interesting Man in the World. She's a renowned diva and bon vivant who hosts decadent parties in her lavish proto-modernist mansion, alternately revving up and icing the many suitors who swarm her. ("L'Inhumaine" translates as "The Inhuman Woman.") One of those suitors, earnest scientist Einar (Jaque Catelain), is so distraught by her hot-and-cold act that he plunges his roadster off a cliff. At first, Claire doesn't care, but asked to identify his body, she discovers her true tender feelings—and (surprise!) Einar reveals that he faked his own death. This leads to hard feelings from romantic rival Djorah (Philippe Hériat, acting in swarthface), assassination by asp, a "Frankenstein" plot bite, and more.

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But L'Herbier surrounded his dotty tale with a wildly ambitious multimedia project created in collaboration with many of the foremost modernists of the young century. Cubist painter Ferdinand Léger designed some of the sets. Les Six composer Darius Milhaud crafted a percussive original score (long since lost). And whenever the actors aren't fumbling around in the foreground, "L'Inhumaine" dazzles: L'Herbier and company not only designed striking intertitles, they animated subtitles; the set for the interior of Claire's mansion looks like it might cover half an acre, with a swan pond and a central platform for dining, or for jugglers and fire eaters; and creepy papier-mâché-masked servants twirl a crude disco ball. At one point, Leblanc models what looks like a cowl made of dust bunnies, while the faceless flunkies that scurry about Einar's hyper-design-y lab sport shiny black vinyl-like ensembles that make them look for all the world like the direct inspiration for the Sardaukar troopers in David Lynch's crazed adaptation of "Dune," filmed 60 years after L'Herbier wrapped.

"L'Inhumaine's" magic extends beyond mere design. L'Herbier's hand with the camera, editing, and relatively crude effects at his disposal leaves the film looking and feeling far fresher than its years. The sheer trouble he went to shows up in every reel. In one scene, Claire delivers a recital to a crowd of concertgoers who nearly riot over her heartlessness at Einar's death. L'Herbier's camera catches what must be literally thousands of people milling and rhubarbing on every tier of a grand Paris opera house—all in formal wear. Amazing.

Screens May 8 at 11 a.m. with a live score by Alloy Orchestra at MICA Brown Center.

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