La Souriante Madame Beudet (1922)

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  • directed by Germaine Dulac
  • starring Germaine Dermoz, Alexandre Arquilliére, Jean d’Yd, Madeleine Guitty, Dick Sutherland
  • The story of an intelligent and imaginative woman who is trapped in a loveless marriage.

Germaine Dulac was operating on two very bold and groundbreaking levels with the release La Souriante Madame Beudet in 1922. Not just content with the distinction of being one of the few working women directors in those years, she also stood out for exploring stories filled with strong feminist angles and employed experimental techniques that contributed greatly to the formation of the impressionist and surrealist movements of French cinema.

At just shy of 40 minutes, La Souriante Madame Beudet is overflowing with visual and narrative ideas. The A-story tells of a wife trapped in her own home terrorized by an insensitive and bullying husband. Each night he returns home from work and ignores her save for the nightly ritual of pointing an empty revolver at his head as a mock suicide attempt. You can practically see the drool escape his chin as the laughter roars from his body. None of this amuses the Madam as we see in the B-side of the story, which Dulac presents to us as visual representations of her discontent and her dreams of a life with more. The music she plays on the piano literally glows and sparkles above her head; a puppet show appears above her husband as he rambles on about something she knows are not genuine words; and a professional athlete leaps off the page of a magazine to confront her husband with a polo mallet. Soon the lonely and miserable nights add up to a point when Madame Beudet decides to put bullets in his gun, a plan that doesn’t go off as well as she would like.

The visuals of the film were its strongest aspect and it made me sad that Dulac’s career never quite got rolling. Her other well-known film, 1928’s La Coquille et le clergyman, was a complex and multi-layered surrealist project, which preceded, influenced if not informed, and was then overshadowed by Un chien andalou one year later.

Aside from the superb effects work that gave life to the imagined visions of the wife, the film was photographed beautifully with mood-adding elements that took a simple story and made it feel just a little off-kilter. Darkness was prevalent whether it shut off the background completely to reveal fully lit characters out in front or shadowed large portions of characters’ faces in close-up. Though it all took place in one small house for the most part and spoke solely of one woman reaching her personal limit for abuse, it was the finesse with which the film was shot that injected extra meaning and depth.

Dulac should be applauded for highlighting the strength of a woman and being forward-thinking enough to realize that subservience in any way will not always be the unavoidable, never-ending fate that it may have been in 1922. Dulac should also be applauded for telling that bold story in such an easy to watch and masterfully visual way. Most of all, I think she should be downright celebrated for her work in creating a few great movements in cinema that would reverberate through France and elsewhere for decades. She got in on the ground floor of these styles and somehow made a loud statement of a film that made it feel like she’d been there for years.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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