Sunday, February 07, 2010

L’inhumaine (Marcel L’Herbier, 1924)

Like many popular singers, Claire Lescot attracted more admirers than she knew what to do with. Many were rich and powerful, and promised to take her away from it all. Claire had to admit that she did want to get away, but wasn’t at all sure that this was the way to do it. For these men bored her frightfully; the last thing she wanted was more of the cosseting with which her career already provided her. She wanted action, adventure, new places, new thrills. She announced that unless somebody did something really exciting, and soon, she was going to leave it all behind for a time and embark on a journey around the world. The announcement was made at a dinner party in a house whose décor positively ached with modernity: leading in to the main hall were two functional staircases, in the left and right corners, and one in the centre with steps askew, like crooked teeth or fallen columns. In the centre of the room were tables laid out in a horse-shoe formation, on a floor with a black and white pattern, bold and interlocking like a Navajo rug. Around this central square was a moat, in which swam some ducks. Doves flew about the room, to no-one’s surprise. The servants wore papier-mâché heads with fixed smiles, but there were real people inside – at least this is what the host told his guests. The whole thing bored Claire so much she could almost have cried. But she could not be bothered, so instead she listened to the compliments as they poured in, and deflected the proposals.

But one guest, arriving late, was not to be so easily put off. Einar Norsen, unlike the other admirers, was so sincerely convinced of his love for Claire that it was all he could stand to watch her talk merrily to his rivals. Through the course of the evening he grew increasingly agitated, and when she made her remark about travelling abroad, alone, he wrote a note for her and left the dinner party, to drive home down the high coastal road. He drove furiously, his vision blurred, the twilight trees and the road seeming to split into two and then four separate overlapping fields of vision. Abruptly the car swerved left, until it hung precariously on the cliff. It tipped until it was vertical, then fell into the sea. Back at the house, after dinner entertainment was in full swing – dancers, fire eaters, a man spinning a barrel in the air with his feet – and Claire refused to take Einar’s note seriously. He would kill himself because she was going away? Preposterous! But despite herself, her interest was piqued. She liked the geekiness of it. A little later Einar’s death was reported at the house by a simple country girl who had seen the car fall into the sea. She drew back at the grandeur of the room, and four servants with papier-mâché heads moved slowly forward to terrify her still further.

But Einar was not dead. He had contrived to make Claire believe so, in order to tempt her to his home, where he could show her an invention which he believed would change her mind about going away. Some spectacles and a stick-on moustache were crucial to organising this, but I forget the details. Revealing his true identity, he explained that he had developed a system which would allow Claire to sing to her audience across the world, as with a radio, but that it would also allow her to see their reactions on a screen. They tested it: Claire sang into a microphone, and on the screen appeared an African woman in a grass skirt, sitting in a mud hut, looking in surprise at a speaker. Einar pressed home his point that Claire could have all the excitement she wanted without ever leaving the house. Claire seemed reasonably impressed at this. Things seemed to be going Einar’s way.

A rival with heavily made up eyebrows had other plans. Djorah de Nopur, an exotic prince of some sort, whose suit had been rejected, plotted against the pair. At the theatre after a performance of hers he advised her not to go back to Einar’s house because, ‘you will never reach it alive’. And so it very nearly proved: Djorah introduced a deadly snake into the back compartment of her car, placing its small unlocked cage amongst the branches of a shrub which she had been given alongside the bouquets. Sending off her chauffeur on some pretext, Djorah drove her himself. Another journey along the high coastal road saw Claire bitten on the wrist, shouting and banging in vain against the compartment window. Djorah pressed on at top speed, demonic, triumphant, and Claire finally slumped back in her seat. On arrival, Einar retrieved her limp form from the back of the car and wondered what to do. The obvious thing would have been to call an ambulance. Instead – and without even employing this as a back up strategy – Einar took Claire in his arms up to the laboratory, where he kept the radio performance machine and all his other inventions. He summoned his own servants / automatons, in black gloss papier-mâché head-pieces, and set to work making his laboratory flash and shake, swing and explode. There were cogs, there were pendulums. Wearing extended welders’ goggles, Einar really gave it everything he had. The same stark black and white patterns from the dinner party were brought alive, and it was clear that something astonishing was going on. Something more exciting than fame, fortune and proposals from princes. If only she could have seen it. At length Claire Lescot opened her eyes.

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