Marcel L'Herbier | L'Inhumaine / The Inhuman Woman | Feu Mathias Pascal / The Late Mathias Pascal | La Nuit fantastique / The Fantastic Night

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Marcel L'Herbier

Marcel L'Herbier is a French film director.

L'Inhumaine / The Inhuman Woman

L'Inhumaine ("The Inhuman Woman") (1924) is a romance and science fiction film.


We see superimpositions of multiple views of the landscape, when the hero is driving, near the start. This will be echoed with the opening of Feu Mathias Pascal, which shows multiple superimposed views of a forward motion into an Italian town, as its opening sequence.

Science Fiction

Science fiction ideas in L'Inhumaine echo those in American prose fiction of the 1910's:

Feu Mathias Pascal / The Late Mathias Pascal

Feu Mathias Pascal ("The Late Mathias Pascal") (1926) is serious drama, that also mixes in elements of adventure, melodrama and romance.

An Influence on Fritz Lang?

The Rome section of Feu Mathias Pascal contains some striking scenes, that anticipate episodes in later films directed by the great Fritz Lang. Did Lang see Feu Mathias Pascal and become influenced by it? Or are both Marcel L'Herbier and Lang influenced by earlier filmmakers? I don't know.

The Rome rooming house or pension has a spectacular staircase. Feu Mathias Pascal contains shots straight up and down the staircase well. Lang would include such shots in M (1931). And such staircase views would later become a staple of Hollywood film noir in the 1940's and 1950's. The shots in Feu Mathias Pascal are beautifully composed. These seem a bit more curved in their geometry, and less rectilinear than staircase shots to come in film noir.

Feu Mathias Pascal shows the hero talking to an imaginary double of himself. The double fades in and out on-screen, like a ghost. The double in Feu Mathias Pascal is not a ghost however. It seems to be some sort of mental vision of the hero, symbolizing his "world view" and perception of how he is living his life. In The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), Lang will show Dr. Mabuse having a double behave in a similar ghostly fashion. The double in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is more an actual hallucination, whereas the imagery in Feu Mathias Pascal is more a symbolic version of the hero's emotional state.

A dramatic, but phony, seance is held. This anticipates equally phony seances that appear in a number of Lang films. One notes that before Feu Mathias Pascal or Lang, a phony seance was a highlight of the hit Broadway play The Thirteenth Chair (1916) by Bayard Veiller. All of these works offer skepticism about the alleged "supernatural", and show seances as fakes and as a sinister attempt to victimize people.

The Provinces

Traditionally French intellectuals have had a horror of living anywhere in France other than Paris. The non-Paris parts of the country are dismissively referred to as the "provinces", and life there is called "provincial".

Without explicitly invoking the concept of the "provinces", Feu Mathias Pascal seems to echo this point of view. The first half of Feu Mathias Pascal shows the hero's awful life in a remote region. It is as suffocating, dull, joyless and miserable as one could imagine. This first half of the film has a nightmarish quality. It is relentless at showing the hero's worthless life.

The film's second half shows the hero's vastly more positive life in Rome. Rome, like Paris, is a great capital city. Living there is implicitly shown to make a huge difference in the hero's quality of life.

An Experimental Film: Not a Dream or Fantasy

The Rome sequence includes a number of non-realistic events: Neither scene seems to be depicting "reality", in any strict sense of that word. Instead, these scenes seem to be showing non-realistic events, which are depicted because they illuminate the psychology and inner emotional life of the hero.

Not dreams or daydreams. These scenes do NOT seem to depict hallucinations, religious visions, dreams, daydreams or fantasies of the hero. Films often depict dreams or daydreams: see my list of Films that Visualize Dreams, Fantasies or Literary Works. But such dream sequences tend to be clearly marked. In conventional films, dreams or daydreams start out with events such as a dissolve or wavy photography. The end of the dream or daydream is also clearly marked. Everyone in the audience clearly understands the hero is dreaming or daydreaming, when the dream starts, and when it ends. There is nothing like this in Feu Mathias Pascal. The fantastic action seems to blend in with the rest of the film, with no clear start or stop.

The strange events in Feu Mathias Pascal seem, as best I can tell, to be broadly similar to those in experimental films such as Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren) or Fireworks (Kenneth Anger). In such films, strange things happen, because they are poetic or symbolically revealing or startlingly surreal. They are NOT dreams or daydreams or visions.

Not fantasies. I'm also reluctant to call Feu Mathias Pascal or Meshes of the Afternoon "fantasies". In true fantasies, such as the fairy tale Cinderella or The Lord of the Rings, we are shown an alternate universe where magic is real and magical events are part of the "real world" of the story. When the pumpkin turns into a coach in Cinderella, it is a "real event" caused by magic.

By contrast, there is no magic in Feu Mathias Pascal. And it is very unclear to me that the hero's double is "real". It is something the film shows us, because it suggests something about the hero's psychology and state of mind. But the double does not seem to be a "real event" in the film's story, the way the pumpkin's transformation is in Cinderella. Similarly, the strange happenings in Meshes of the Afternoon don't seem to be "real magical events in a fantasy", either.

Feu Mathias Pascal seems to take place in the "real world". It is just as much set in the real world as such "typical films" as Titanic, Psycho, The Godfather or The Graduate, to pick four films at random.

Caveat: I have read very little about this topic, and am unclear about what ideas other viewers or film critics have on this subject. Perhaps my interpretation of these films is flawed.

An International Crowd

The casino on the Riviera the hero goes to, is conspicuously filled with people from around the world. The film underscores their presence by giving some of this international crowd bits of business.

Before modern transportation, places filled with "foreigners" were rarer than they are today. The United Nations headquarters in New York City was one such place. The film North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959) emphasizes the international nature of the crowds at the United Nations.

La Nuit fantastique / The Fantastic Night

An Imaginary, Cinematic World

Marcel L'Herbier's La Nuit fantastique ("The Fantastic Night") (1942) is a film that takes place in a nearly imaginary, purely cinematic world. Like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), it has its characters wandering around in a strange environment that has almost nothing to do with daily life. Instead, this environment is a fantastic one that is created for the movies.

La Nuit fantastique is full of elaborately strange sets. L'Herbier's silent films were famous for their avant-garde decors, and this film continues that tradition. The lighting is also consistently strange, with areas of light and shadow where one would not quite conventionally see them in an ordinary movie. Both of these aspects are meant to underscore the dream adventure.

Is it a Dream - or Reality?

La Nuit fantastique deserves credit for tackling an ambitious theme: its hero has an adventure that may be real, and may be a dream, which is what he perceives it to be. The treatment of this subject is only partly a success. The film never builds up what seems to me to be any genuinely dream like atmosphere. While quite a few non-dream films achieve such a dream-like quality, this one is pitched more at the level of gentle conceits and playfulness. Its attempts to create a dream-like feel, with magic acts in night clubs and galleries, and a visit to a comically treated insane asylum, are more conventionally whimsical than profoundly oneiric.

The story does take advantage of the plot possibilities of the dream / reality border. Its later stages especially commendably show a French concern with elegant storytelling. If one is going to make a film about dreams and reality, one should do it right, the filmmakers clearly feel. The filmmakers also deserve credit for sticking to their convictions. The film fully plays out the implications of its central subject.

The Heroes, and the Crowd

The hero and heroine seem too passive. The heroine often seems somnambulistic, perhaps appropriately for a dream film, but one longs for her to take some constructive action against the villains who pursue her. And the hero is a downright nebbish. His character, an overworked student, is clearly supposed to be an Everyman who finally gets a chance to experience some adventure and romance in his humdrum and miserable life. The hero is proof that nerds did not originate as a social type in Silicon Valley in the 1980's, but were already present in France in 1942. However, unlike many movies about nerds, our hero does not really transform into a dashing figure. This is not a movie about a frog who changes into a prince. Our hero still seems nebbishy at the end, making wry observations and treating everything as a bemusing spectacle.

L'Herbier often contrasts his heroes with a crowd around them. This contrast often has a surrealist side, and the crowd actively comments on and pushes the heroes into some sort of action. Typically, the members of the crowd do not understand what is going on. Instead, they are driven by some false but socially acceptable convention. This false idea whips them up, and makes them demand action out of the principals. This whole approach is frequently seen as well in the films of Alfred Hitchcock. In both directors, there is an element of social satire, with the suggestions that the public is easily misled by bad but popular ideas. Both filmmakers also suggest that public demands on individuals are often based on a superficial and incorrect understanding of the world. Implicitly, this suggests that one should be skeptical of received ideas and conventional wisdom.

Camera Movement

La Nuit fantastique is full of both pans and full scale tracking shots. The many moving camera sequences are designed to underscore the film's visual uniqueness. They make the already strange environment of the film's sets and plot visually richer and more complex.

L'Herbier pans wherever he can. His camera is quick, and can rapidly follow a character's movement. It also glances around the set, picking out objects and new perspectives.

While panning is L'Herbier's most common form of camera movement, he also breaks out into tracking shots when the film allows it. One of his most elaborate shots starts out as a pan, which shows the hero before the curtain of the stage show at the Louvre. Then, as the hero moves to one side of the curtain, and peers down a side corridor, the camera tracks along with him. The track reveals a full perspective down the side of the corridor. It anticipates such perspective revealing camera movements in Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura (1959). This shot combines a pan and a track.

The shot in the asylum, in which the hero tries many doors with his key, also involves a complex combination of pans and tracks.

L'Herbier's camera seems to follow the "thoughts" of the director. If the director wants to examine something, his camera follows, swift as thought itself. The camera movements can be completely irregular. They do not have to follow any fixed pattern. Some directors who pan make a very systematic approach out of it. They regularly pan from one end of an angle to another on a set, systematically staging the action around such pans. One can find examples of such systematic panning in the films of George Cukor, Richard Fleischer and Jacques Becker. L'Herbier's pans tend to be far less regular. They can glance up or down, left or right within a setting. They can suddenly whip 180 degrees, or go just a small distance. They can be quick or slow.

L'Herbier can pan in one direction, then back again in the reverse direction. Such reversals are also found in the films of Jacques Becker.

Unusual Vision

L'Herbier uses many strange optical devices. As Roy Armes points out in his book French Cinema (1986), these recall the early work of the French avant-garde: