Last updated

Directed by Marcel L'Herbier
Written byMarcel L'Herbier
Pierre Mac Orlan
Georgette Leblanc
Produced byCinégraphic
Starring Georgette Leblanc
Jaque Catelain
Philippe Hériat
Cinematography Georges Specht
Edited byMarcel L'Herbier
Music by Darius Milhaud
Release date
  • November 1924 (1924-11)
Running time
135 minutes
LanguagesSilent film
French intertitles

L'Inhumaine ("the inhuman woman" [1] ) is a 1924 French science fiction drama film directed by Marcel L'Herbier. [2] It has the subtitle histoire féerique ("fairy story", "story of enchantment"). L'Inhumaine is notable for its experimental techniques and for the collaboration of many leading practitioners in the decorative arts, architecture and music. The film caused controversy on its release.



In 1923, while seeking to recover his health after a bout of typhoid, and his fortunes following the collapse of his film adaptation of Résurrection, Marcel L'Herbier received a proposal from his old friend the opera singer Georgette Leblanc to make a film in which she would star and for which she would secure partial funding from American financiers. L'Herbier revived a scenario which he had written under the title La Femme de glace (Woman of Ice); when Leblanc declared this to be too abstract for her liking and for American taste, he enlisted Pierre Mac Orlan to revise it according to Leblanc's suggestions, and in its new form it became L'Inhumaine. [3] The agreement with Leblanc committed her to provide 50% of the costs (envisaged as FF130,000), and she would distribute and promote the film in the United States under the title The New Enchantment. The remainder of the production costs were met by L'Herbier's own production company Cinégraphic. [4]

The plot of the film was a melodrama with strong elements of fantasy, but from the outset L'Herbier's principal interest lay in the style of filming: he wanted to present "a miscellany of modern art" in which many contributors would bring different creative styles into a single aesthetic goal. [5] In this respect L'Herbier was exploring ideas similar to those outlined by the critic and film theorist Ricciotto Canudo who wrote a number of texts about the relationship between cinema and the other arts, proposing that cinema could be seen as "a synthesis of all the arts". [6] L'Herbier also foresaw that his film could provide a prologue or introduction to the major exhibition Exposition des Arts Décoratifs which was due to open in Paris in 1925. With this in mind, L'Herbier invited leading French practitioners in painting, architecture, fashion, dance and music to collaborate with him (see "Production", below). He described the project as "this fairy story of modern decorative art". [7]


Famous singer Claire Lescot, who lives on the outskirts of Paris, is courted by many men, including a maharajah, Djorah de Nopur, and a young Swedish scientist, Einar Norsen. At her lavish parties she enjoys their amorous attentions but she remains emotionally aloof and heartlessly taunts them. She announces her intention to leave on a trip around the world. When she is told that Norsen has killed himself because of her, she shows no feelings. At her next concert she is booed by an audience outraged at her coldness. She visits the vault in which Norsen's body lies, and as she admits her feelings for him she discovers that he is alive; his death was feigned. Norsen demonstrates one of his inventions which allows Claire to broadcast her singing while observing on a television screen the reaction of audiences around the world. Djorah is jealous of their new relationship and causes Claire to be bitten by a poisonous snake. Her body is brought to Norsen's laboratory, where he, by means of his scientific inventions, restores Claire to life.



Filming began in September 1923 at the Joinville studios in Paris and had to be carried on at great speed because Georgette Leblanc was committed to return to America in mid-October for a concert tour. L'Herbier often continued shooting through the night, making intense demands on his cast and crew. [8] In the event, Leblanc had to leave before everything was finished and some scenes could only be completed when she returned to Paris in spring 1924. [9]

One evening of location shooting became famous (4 October 1923). For the scene of Claire Lescot's concert L'Herbier hired the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées and invited over 2000 people from the film world and fashionable society to attend in evening dress and to play the part of an unruly audience. Ten cameras were deployed around the theatre to record their reactions to the concert. [10] This included the American pianist George Antheil performing some of his own dissonant compositions which created a suitably confrontational mood, and when Georgette Leblanc appeared on stage the audience responded with the required tumult of whistles, applause and protests, as well as some scuffles. The audience is said to have included Erik Satie, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Léon Blum, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and the Prince of Monaco. [11] [12]

A wide range of practitioners in different fields of the arts worked on the film, meeting L'Herbier's ambition of creating a film which united many forms of artistic expression. Four designers contributed to the sets. The painter Fernand Léger created the mechanical laboratory of Einar Norsen. [13] The architect Robert Mallet-Stevens designed the exteriors of the houses of Norsen and Claire Lescot, with strong cubist elements. Alberto Cavalcanti and Claude Autant-Lara, soon to be directing their own films, both had a background in design; Autant-Lara was responsible for the winter-garden set and the funeral vault, while Cavalcanti designed the geometric dining hall for Claire's party, with its dining-table set on an island in the middle of a pool. [14] Costumes were designed by Paul Poiret, furniture by Pierre Chareau and Michel Dufet, jewellery by Raymond Templier, and other "objets" by René Lalique and Jean Puiforcat. The choreographed scenes were provided by Jean Börlin and the Ballets Suédois. To bind the whole together L'Herbier commissioned the young Darius Milhaud to write a score with extensive use of percussion, to which the images were to be edited. [5] (This musical score which was central to L'Herbier's conception of the film has not survived. [15] ) The final sequence of the film, in which Claire is 'resurrected', is an elaborate exercise in rapid cutting, whose expressive possibilities had recently been demonstrated in La Roue . In addition to the juxtaposition and rhythmic repetition of images, L'Herbier interspersed frames of bright colours, intending to create counterpoint to the music of Milhaud and "to make the light sing". [16]


L'Inhumaine received its first public screenings in November 1924, and its reception with the public and with critics was largely negative. [9] It also became a financial disaster for L'Herbier's production company Cinégraphic. [17] One of the film's stars drew a vivid picture of the impact which it had among Parisian audiences during its run at the Madeleine-Cinéma:

"At each screening, spectators insulted each other, and there were as many frenzied partisans of the film as there were furious opponents. It was amid genuine uproar that, at every performance, there passed across the screen the multicoloured and syncopated images with which the film ends. Women, with hats askew, demanded their money back; men, with their faces screwed up, tumbled out on to the pavement where sometimes fist-fights continued." [18]

Criticism was levelled at the old-fashioned scenario and at the inexpressive performances of the principal actors, [19] but the most contentious aspects were the film's visual and technical innovations. According to the critic Léon Moussinac, "There are many inventions, but they count too much for themselves and not enough for the film". [20]

Many film historians and critics have ridiculed L'Inhumaine as a misguided attempt to celebrate film as art or to reconcile the popular and the élitist. [17] On the other hand, it was precisely the originality and daring of L'Herbier's concept which won the enthusiasm of the film's admirers, such as the architect Adolf Loos: "It is a brilliant song on the greatness of modern technique. ...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." [21] A modern commentator has echoed this view more concisely in describing the film as "fabulously inventive". [22]

L'Herbier had always wanted the film to provide to the world a showcase for contemporary decorative arts in France (as well as its cinema) and the film was duly presented in a number of cities abroad (New York, Barcelona, Geneva, London, Brussels, Warsaw, Shanghai, Tokyo). It at least succeeded in drawing more measured responses from those audiences. [23] Today the film is often cited as a "manifesto for Art Deco". [24] [25]


After its initial release L'Inhumaine was largely forgotten for many years, until a revival in Paris in 1968 attracted interest from new audiences. A restoration of the film was undertaken in 1972. [26] In 1975 it was successfully shown as the opening event in an exhibition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs. In 1987 it was screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival. [27]

In 2014 a new restoration was undertaken by Lobster Films, scanning the original nitrate negative to produce a 4K digital version (with a running time of 122 minutes). Reconstruction of L'Herbier's scheme of tinting and toning was made by following indications from the original reels, including the brief flashes of pure colour which were interpolated in the sequence of rapid montage in the final scene of the film. [28] The first public performance of this restored version was given at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on 30 March 2015, with a newly composed score by Aidje Tafial. A Blu-ray and DVD edition was published in December 2015; it included the musical accompaniment by Aidje Tafial and an alternative one by the Alloy Orchestra. [29]

Further reading

Related Research Articles

Philippe Hériat French actor and writer

Philippe Hériat was a multi-talented French novelist, playwright and actor.

Marcel LHerbier Film director

Marcel L'Herbier was a French filmmaker who achieved prominence as an avant-garde theorist and imaginative practitioner with a series of silent films in the 1920s. His career as a director continued until the 1950s and he made more than 40 feature films in total. During the 1950s and 1960s, he worked on cultural programmes for French television. He also fulfilled many administrative roles in the French film industry, and he was the founder and the first President of the French film school Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (IDHEC).

Le Carnaval des vérités is a 1920 French silent film written and directed by Marcel L'Herbier.

<i>LHomme du large</i> 1920 film

L' Homme du large is a 1920 French silent film directed by Marcel L'Herbier and based on a short story by Honoré de Balzac. It was filmed on the rugged southern coast of Brittany creating atmosphere in a film about the forces of good and evil that motivate human behaviour.

<i>LArgent</i> (1928 film) 1928 film

L'Argent ("money") is a French silent film directed in 1928 by Marcel L'Herbier. The film was adapted from the 1891 novel L'Argent by Émile Zola, and it portrays the world of banking and the stock market in Paris in the 1920s.

<i>El Dorado</i> (1921 film) 1921 film by Marcel LHerbier

El Dorado is a French silent film directed in 1921 by Marcel L'Herbier. The film was notable for integrating a number of technical innovations into its narrative of a "cinematic melodrama". It achieved considerable success on its release, as a ground-breaking film that was distinctively French at a time when the cinema was felt to be dominated by American productions.

Jaque Catelain French actor

Jaque Catelain was a French actor who came to prominence in silent films of the 1920s, and who continued acting in films and on stage until the 1950s. He also wrote and directed two silent films himself, and he was a capable artist and musician. He had a close association with the director Marcel L'Herbier.

Marcelle Pradot was a French actress who worked principally in silent films. She was born at Montmorency, Val-d'Oise, near Paris. At the age of 18 while she was taking classes in dancing and singing in Paris, she was asked by Marcel L'Herbier to appear in his film Le Bercail (1919). She went on to appear in a further eight of L'Herbier's silent films, and then in his first sound film L'Enfant de l'amour (1930) with which she ended her acting career. She was noted as an aristocratic beauty, and she was described by the critic Louis Delluc as "the Infanta of French cinema".

<i>The Last Days of Pompeii</i> (1950 film) 1950 film directed by Paolo Moffa, Marcel LHerbier

The Last Days of Pompeii (1950) is a black and white French-Italian Peplum, directed by Marcel L'Herbier "in collaboration with" Paolo Moffa, who was also the director of production. It was adapted from Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel The Last Days of Pompeii. The film has also been known as Sins of Pompeii.

<i>Le Bonheur</i> (1934 film) 1934 film

Le Bonheur ("Happiness") is a 1934 French film directed by Marcel L'Herbier. It was adapted from Henri Bernstein's play Le Bonheur, which Bernstein had staged in Paris in March 1933 with Charles Boyer and Michel Simon in leading roles; Boyer and Simon took the same parts in the film.

<i>Fantastic Night</i> 1942 French film

La Nuit fantastique is a 1942 French fantasy film directed by Marcel L'Herbier. It is regarded as one of the most successful films made in France during the German occupation. It was shot at the Francoeur Studios in Paris. The film's sets were designed by the art director Marcel Magniez.

<i>Feu Mathias Pascal</i> 1925 film

Feu Mathias Pascal is a 1925 French silent film written and directed by Marcel L'Herbier. It was the first film adaptation of Luigi Pirandello's novel Il fu Mattia Pascal.

<i>Entente cordiale</i> (film) 1939 French film

Entente cordiale is a 1939 French drama film directed by Marcel L'Herbier and starring Gaby Morlay, Victor Francen and Pierre Richard-Willm. The film depicts events between the Fashoda crisis in 1898 and the 1904 signing of the Entente Cordiale creating an alliance between Britain and France and ending their historic rivalry. It was based on the book King Edward VII and His Times by André Maurois. It was made with an eye to its propaganda value, following the Munich Agreement of September 1938 and in anticipation of the outbreak of a Second World War which would test the bonds between Britain and France in a conflict with Nazi Germany.

<i>La Comédie du bonheur</i> 1940 French film

La Comédie du bonheur is a French-Italian film directed by Marcel L'Herbier as a dual-language production. It was filmed in Rome in the early months of 1940, but after Italy joined World War II on the side of Germany, the French and Italian versions of the film were completed separately. The Italian version was released in December 1940 under the title Ecco la felicità!. The French version was released in July 1942.

La Vie de bohème is a French-Italian drama film directed by Marcel L'Herbier. It is based on Scènes de la vie de bohème (1851) by Henri Murger and includes music from Giacomo Puccini's opera as accompaniment. The set designs were created by Georges Wakhévitch. It was filmed during the winter of 1942–43 at the Victorine Studios in Nice. However it was not released until January 1945, after the liberation of France.

<i>La Route impériale</i> 1935 French film

La Route impériale is a 1935 French film directed by Marcel L'Herbier. It combines a romantic drama with a military adventure story, set against the contemporary background of British operations against a rebellion in the kingdom of Iraq.

La Femme d'une nuit is a 1931 French drama film directed by Marcel L'Herbier. It was made simultaneously with Italian and German versions of the same story, which were however not only in different languages but in different genres.

<i>Little Devil May Care</i> 1928 film

Little Devil-May-Care is a 1928 French-British silent drama film directed by Marcel L'Herbier and starring Betty Balfour, Jaque Catelain and Roger Karl.

<i>La Galerie des monstres</i> 1924 film by Jaque Catelain

La Galerie des monstres is a 1924 French drama film directed by Jaque Catelain, set against the background of a circus in Spain. It was produced by Cinégraphic, the production company of Marcel L'Herbier.

<i>Veille darmes</i> 1935 film

Veille d'armes is a 1935 French drama film directed by Marcel L'Herbier and starring Annabella and Victor Francen.


  1. L'Inhumaine was shown in 1926 in the USA under the title The New Enchantment.
  2. "Progressive Silent Film List: L'Inhumaine". Silent Era. Retrieved 11 November 2008.
  3. Jaque Catelain, Jaque Catelain présente Marcel L'Herbier. (Paris: E. Jacques Vautrain, 1950). p. 76.
  4. Marcel L'Herbier, La Tête qui tourne. (Paris: Belfond, 1979). pp. 100–102.
  5. 1 2 Marcel L'Herbier, La Tête qui tourne. (Paris: Belfond, 1979). p. 102.
  6. For a discussion of Canudo's influence upon L'Inhumaine, see Prosper Hillairet, "L'Inhumaine, L'Herbier, Canudo, et le synthèse des arts", in Marcel L'Herbier: l'art du cinéma, ed. by Laurent Véray. (Paris: Association française du recherche sur l'histoire du cinéma, 2007) pp.101-108. Ricciotto Canudo died while L'Inhumaine was in production and did not see the completed film.
  7. "...cette histoire féerique de l'Art décoratif moderne". Marcel L'Herbier, La Tête qui tourne. (Paris: Belfond, 1979). p. 102.
  8. Jaque Catelain, Jaque Catelain présente Marcel L'Herbier. (Paris: E. Jacques Vautrain, 1950). p. 77.
  9. 1 2 Marcel L'Herbier, La Tête qui tourne. (Paris: Belfond, 1979). p. 105.
  10. Jaque Catelain, Jaque Catelain présente Marcel L'Herbier. (Paris: E. Jacques Vautrain, 1950). p. 79. L'Herbier mentions only three cameras in "La Tête qui tourne, p. 104.
  11. Prosper Hillairet, "L'Inhumaine, L'Herbier, Canudo, et le synthèse des arts", in Marcel L'Herbier: l'art du cinéma, ed. by Laurent Véray. (Paris: Association française du recherche sur l'histoire du cinéma, 2007) p. 105.
  12. George Antheil gave his own account of the occasion in: Bad Boy of Music (London; New York: Hurst & Blackett, 1945) pp. 134–135.
  13. Léger's contribution to the design of L'Inhumaine, and its relationship to his own film Ballet mécanique, is discussed at length by Standish D. Lawder in The Cubist Cinema (New York: New York University Press, 1975) pp. 99–115.
  14. Richard Abel, French cinema: the first wave 1915-1929. (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984). pp. 387–389.
  15. Madeleine Milhaud [?] told film music historian Theodore van Houten in 1982 that the music for the Léger laboratory scene ended up in the short Concerto for percussion and small orchestra, op. 109, published 1930. [No further source identified].
  16. "...pour faire chanter la lumière." Marcel L'Herbier, La Tête qui tourne. (Paris: Belfond, 1979). p.105.
  17. 1 2 Richard Abel, French cinema: the first wave 1915-1929. (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984). p. 383.
  18. Jaque Catelain, Jaque Catelain présente Marcel L'Herbier. (Paris: E. Jacques Vautrain, 1950). p. 82. "A chaque séance, les spectateurs s'insultent, il y a autant de partisans frénétiques que d'adversaires acharnés. C'est dans un véritable vacarme que passent sur l'écran, à toutes les représentations, les images multicolores et syncopées sur lesquelles se termine le film. Des femmes, le chapeau de travers, exigent d'ètre remboursées; des hommes, les traits convulsés, se précipitent sur le trottoir où, parfois, les pugilats continuent..."
  19. Georges Sadoul, Le Cinéma français (1890-1962). (Paris: Flammarion, 1962) p. 28.
  20. Léon Moussinac, in Le Crapouillot [journal], quoted in Marcel L'Herbier: l'art du cinéma, ed. by Laurent Véray. (Paris: Association française du recherche sur l'histoire du cinéma, 2007) p. 358.
  21. Adolf Loos, in Neue Freie Presse, 29 July 1924, quoted in Marcel L'Herbier, La Tête qui tourne. (Paris: Belfond, 1979). p.105. "C'est une chanson éclatante sur la grandeur de la technique moderne. ...La réalisation des dernières images de L'Inhumaine dépasse l'imagination. En sortant de la voir, on a l'impression d'avoir vécu l'heure de la naissance d'un nouvel art."
  22. Dudley Andrew, Mists of regret. (Princeton University Press, 1995) p. 157.
  23. Jaque Catelain, Jaque Catelain présente Marcel L'Herbier. (Paris: E. Jacques Vautrain, 1950). p. 82.
  24. Cinematek programme (Belgium): "un sublime manifeste cinématographique du mouvement Art déco, et un classique de l’avant-garde des années 20". Retrieved 31 December 2015.
  25. Musée d'Orsay programme (Paris): "L'Inhumaine ... résonne comme un manifeste Art déco en matière de décors et costumes". Retrieved 31 December 2015.
  26. Marcel L'Herbier: l'art du cinéma, ed. by Laurent Véray. (Paris: Association française du recherche sur l'histoire du cinéma, 2007) p. 388.
  27. "Festival de Cannes: L'Inhumaine". festival-cannes.com. Retrieved 25 July 2009.
  28. Serge Bromberg, in Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 34: catalogo (2015) pp. 157-158: "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." Retrieved 31 December 2015.
  29. L'Inhumaine: Blu-ray/DVD edition, December 2015. Lobster Films (Paris).