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In February 2019 I was commissioned by the University of Venice to present a live soundtrack for L’Inhumaine to be presented as part of a seminar titled FASHION APERTURA: UCHRONIA AND UTOPIAN FASHION presented by Alessandra Vaccari, Università IUVA di Venezia, and Caroline Evans, Central Saint Martins College, University of the Arts London at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice.
L’Inhumaine is a 1924 French drama-science fiction film directed by Marcel L’Herbier; it has the subtitle histoire féerique (“fairy story”, “story of enchantment”). It was notable for its experimental techniques and for the collaboration of many leading practitioners in the decorative arts, architecture and music.
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. 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”. 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.
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. 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.
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. The architect Robert Mallet-Stevens designed the exteriors of the houses of Norsen and Claire Lescot, with strong cubist elements. 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. 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. (This musical score which was central to L’Herbier’s conception of the film has not survived. 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”.
I took Darius Milhaud’s brief for a percussion heavy score for my presentation and employed a lot of pre-recorded electronic drum beats and added live electric lap steel and various small synthesisers hoping to ‘make the light sing’.
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