‘Your humanity leaves me cold. Only superior beings interest me.’
A famous singer plays with the affections of the notable men of the day, remaining aloof, despite many offers of love and marriage. Her latest admirer is a handsome young engineer, and when she rejects him, he declares his intention to commit suicide…
This highly unusual French silent picture was a showcase for the groundbreaking techniques of director Marcel L’Herbier. It’s a fascinating glimpse into an early filmmaking artist at work, even if the story aspects of the finished work can’t match his vision.
As famous for her exclusive parties as her vocal prowess, world-famous chanteuse Claire Lescott (Georgette Leblanc) is the target of many of the most famous men in the world. However, she seems content to rebuff their advances with a smile. The latest gathering at her mansion includes business tycoon Frank Mahler (Fred Kellerman), the Maharajah of Nopur (Philppe Heriat), radical philosopher Kranine the Apostle (Leonid Walter de Malte) and several other famous men from the world of science and politics.
And what a party it is! Dinner is served at a table floating in the middle of her lounge’s indoor pool, which comes complete with ducks! The servants wear identical uniforms and papier-mâché heads, complete with grinning lips and narrow eyes, and Leblanc holds court in a spectacular creation of veils and feathers. However, there’s an empty seat at the table, thanks to the late arrival of handsome young engineer/scientist Einar Norsen (Jaque Catelain). It turns out he’s just as keen on Leblanc as all the other guys, and he throws himself at her as soon as he gets the opportunity, even though this tactic hasn’t worked for anyone else. Leblanc meets his advances with the same amused ridicule with which she greets every other proposal, although it’s clear from her body language that she’s more interested in him than her other suitors.
Distraught at her refusal, Catelain declares his intention to take his own life and storms out. Shortly afterwards, his wrecked car is found at the bottom of a cliff, and it seems he has made good his threat. Leblanc is grief-stricken at the young man’s death. Tormented by guilt, she visits the mausoleum where his recovered body is resting. But it’s then that she finds out things aren’t always what they seem.
The latter days of European silent cinema are rightly celebrated for their technical accomplishments and artistic virtuosity, and here we have another fine example. The first hint we get that this is something different is there in the opening scenes in Leblanc’s mansion. The massive interior was a set designed by painter and sculptor Fernand Leger and helps give the film a very different look, which is strangely reminiscent of the pop art production design of the 1960s, yet still retaining its own unique identity. This mixture of Art Deco and Cubism means that the square is a recurrent design motif throughout the film, with buildings comprised of blocks and lines cut straight and true. Later on, some curves and circles intrude with the devices housed in Catelain’s laboratory, but there’s still a strong sense of mechanics and efficiency. This is a world fashioned by man into the shapes that he has chosen.
This extravagance is matched by the daring of L’Herbier’s filmmaking choices. Early on, we see a miniature of Leblanc’s house from a distance. It’s not particularly convincing, but the model work looks far better when we see a car approaching. When the vehicle stops and someone gets out, the shot seems animated, and, again, it’s pretty impressive. But then the lackeys standing like statues at the front door begin to move, and we realise that the scene is actually live-action. It’s a seamless transition that makes the viewer question the judgements he made about the previous shots in the sequence.
L’Herbier also chooses to shoot the entertainers at the party in a radically different way. When they perform a fire-eating act, he has the camera looking down on them from way overhead, probably the studio rafters, which, again, reinforces the sheer scale of Leblanc’s home. He’s also very precise in his use of colour tinting. We see Leblanc and Catelain conversing in an indoor garden seemingly populated by giant paper flowers, and all the scenes that take place here are tinted green. Similarly, the brief sequences featuring radical philosopher de Malte and his acolytes are rendered in scarlet. The director also employs surprisingly fast cutting for a film of the period, which helps a good deal with the pacing. Unfortunately, this is necessary, given the slight nature of the story and the film’s two-hour length.
And it’s that story which proves to be the film’s major weakness. It’s simply insufficient to sustain a film of this length, and, whereas there are always technical aspects to admire, the film fails to make any real emotional impact. The romance between Leblanc and Catelain fails to resonate because they are broadly unsympathetic characters, driven by selfish desires and self-absorption, rather than more relatable qualities. Leblanc is also decked out in a series of wild, bohemian outfits and incredible hairstyles, which might be interesting visually, but doesn’t help with the emotional grounding of the story. The film isn’t particularly good at establishing the nature of their relationship either. She’s invited him along to her party, and he already seems madly in love with her before he arrives. But have they ever met before? Any shared history, however brief, is never mentioned.
Things do improve when the film (finally) enters the science fiction arena in the third act. Here we get an extended look at Carelain’s laboratory, which, of course, he fails to keep up to applicable Health and Safety standards in the grand tradition of movie scientists ever since. The purpose of his inventions are somewhat vague at times, too, with even the man himself admitting that he doesn’t know what his latest device will do, despite its production of ‘a force of unexpected effects.’ However, he does hijack listening devices worldwide so everyone can listen to Leblanc sing, which is a strange foreshadowing of live streaming via the Internet today. The fact that he and Leblanc can watch the reactions of listeners sitting around in their homes is a little less believable, though.
But, outside of our main couple, some of the broader themes are certainly of interest. This is a film that enthusiastically embraces the machine age to come, a very forward-looking point of view at a time when mechanical innovation was typically viewed with suspicion. But it also seems to suggest that technology has a transformative and humanising effect on individual people. It’s an interesting notion, but one that seems hopelessly naive and simplistic, given developments in social media over recent years.
L’Herbier came to film during military service with auxiliary units during the First World War. His first significant production was the propaganda piece ‘Rose-France’ (1918) which was notable for its innovative camera techniques. This led to a six-picture deal with Gaumont, but the studio was often unhappy with his experimental tendencies and his handling of budgets. By 1924, L’Herbier had formed his own company to ensure a level of artistic freedom, but the venture had foundered by the end of the silent era. This was despite some commercial and critical acclaim for the films that resulted. Nevertheless, the director adapted well to the talkies and continued making films until the 1950s, and with some success. However, it appears those projects were often guided by commercial considerations rather than artistic ones.
If the story fails to engage, the settings and techniques should. They combine to deliver a highly individual and captivating viewing experience.