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Marcel L’Herbier

Blu-ray: Marcel L’Herbier’s ‘L’Inhumaine’

LinhumaineThe 1923 French feature L’Inhumaine (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray), which translates to The Inhuman Woman, is not exactly about a femme fatale, though singer and social diva Claire Lescot (played by real-life opera star Georgette Leblanc) does enjoy the power she wields over the rich and famous men who attend her exclusive salons. They compete for her attentions and affections, which she withholds with a twisted smile. Leblanc doesn’t quite convince us of her overpowering charms—she’s confident and even commanding on the screen playing the arrogant superstar but she radiates little sex appeal—but then the melodrama itself is a conventional construct used to show off director Marcel L’Herbier’s ambitions. There’s a suicide, a scandal, a romance, and a resurrection, plus jealousy and vengeance, and forgiveness rolled through the two hour drama.

Jaque Catelain plays the young engineer and scientist Einar Norsen, a figure of youthful idealism and emotional impulsiveness who proves to be much more formidable and visionary than his initial impressions suggest. His angular face could be carved from stone and he cuts a striking figure in both his tuxedo and his laboratory coveralls, which look more like a space suit than a jumpsuit. His amazing laboratory all but wins the heart of Claire, who proves less inhuman than simply arrogant and haughty. But she also has a stalker or two among her spurned suitors and they plot their revenge against her, one of them in a plot that he could have stolen from Fantomas.

L’Herbier, the director of The Late Mathias Pascal (1924) (released on Blu-ray and DVD by Flicker Alley in 2012), was a modernist and an innovator in the lively culture of French cinema in the twenties. L’Inhumaine is, as the credits read, “A fantasia by Marcel L’Herbier,” and he gathered an impressive collection of collaborators. The modern mansions (seen from the outside as delightful miniatures, complete with toy cars crawling past to park) are designed by architect Robert Mallet-Stevens with the interiors given expressionist grandeur by future filmmakers Alberto Cavalcanti and Claude Autant-Lara and a magnificent fantasy of a modern laboratory, more spectacular than functional with its moving parts and electrical arcs zapping across the screen, designed and constructed by painter Fernand Léger, who also designed the animated credits. The next year he made his own directorial debut with the avant-garde classic Ballet Mécanique (1924). These elements are marvelous but it’s L’Herbier who brings it all together with cinematic brio and dazzling visual intensity.

The film has been tinted as originally conceived by L’Herbier, using archival notes. Features French intertitles with English subtitles, choice of two excellent musical scores (both newly composed for this release), and two featurettes, plus a booklet with notes on the director and the film.

More reviews of European silent and classics film on Blu-ray at Cinephiled

Blu-ray: ‘The Late Mathias Pascal’

Even the most famous of silent movies are a specialized interest when it comes to home video. Apart from the comedies of Chaplin and Keaton or a few acknowledged landmarks of silent cinema (think Sunrise or Metropolis or Nosferatu), many movie fans view silent films as primitive or dull. Nothing could be farther from the truth. At its best, silent cinema is a pure kind of moviemaking that tells stories in images and metaphor. It’s a different kind of storytelling, but it is no less complex or evocative than the best of sound cinema.

The Late Mathias Pascal, Marcel L’Herbier’s fabulist epic from 1926 France, is a marvelous example of silent cinema at its most ambitious from one of the most inventive and most influential French directors of the era. Based on a novel by Luigi Pirandello, The Late Mathias Pascal (originally titled Feu Mathias Pascal) stars Ivan Mosjoukine, a Russian émigré who became a leading star in French silent cinema, as a dreamer whose life takes a fantastic turn. The film opens with Mathias as the spoiled son of a wealthy widow who loses the family fortune because he, the aspiring artist and would-be genius at work, is too self-involved to be bothered with the family affairs. He’s hardly a classic hero – when asked by his best friend Jerome (Michel Simon), a shy and bumbling but good-hearted working class schlub, to approach the town beauty Romilde (Marcelle Pradot) on his behalf, Mathias ends up falling in love with her himself and ultimately marrying her – but he’s also resilient, plucky, and driven to succeed after his sudden turn of fortune.

Mathias and Romilde move in to a dreary old apartment with Romilde’s sour mother and Mathias takes a job in a horror of a municipal library, yet he approaches both with optimism and ingenuity. When he first enters the former church turned neglected book warehouse, a place that could have spring from the imagination of Kafka in a whimsical mood, he finds rats nibbling the haphazard stacks of books and responds by bringing in a pair of cats. He watches them clear the place with the joy of a kid. But while L’Herbier makes a point of creating a vivid portrait of the social culture of working class life in this small town, realism is the last thing on the director’s mind. The plot takes wildly abrupt turns and shifts in tone–the storybook romance of this marriage is poisoned by his never-satisfied mother-in-law, his optimism is swamped by a double-shot of tragedy, and when his misery sends him on a trip to Rome, fate turns around and suddenly pours on the good fortune. The provincial dreamer who loses it all becomes an innocent in the high society of Rome where he wins it all back, but his new life comes with a wicked price.

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