One of the first feminist movies, The Smiling Madame Beudet is the story of an intelligent woman trapped in a loveless marriage. Her husband is used to playing a stupid practical joke in ... See full summary »
Visual structure composed of variations on the arabesque: arcs of light, water spouts, spider webs, burgeoning trees, flowers and foliage, a woman's smile, arms stretching, an arm giving rhythm to a rocking chair.
What can we say usefully about the works of Germaine Dulac? This little-remembered member of the French avant-garde in the 'Teens and Twenties has had her work recently revived. A series of movies by her were shown in 2003 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Each movie was preceded by an earnest lecture to the effect that Dulac was an important theoretician in film, someone who produced and directed her own films and who, after those days were gone, was an important film critic. Also she was a lesbian and a woman -- somehow the lecturer always put those two in that order --in Paris in the 1920s. All of these things, we were informed, makes Dulac an important figure in the history of films and probably the woman's movement.
Without intending to denigrate any of these things, I must admit I find them all irrelevant to the most important questions: were her films any good? And, in particular, is this film any good? Let's consider the latter question.
First, the good parts: Mme. Dulac's films -- and, I hasten to add, this film -- shows an excellent sense of cinematic language and composition. Mme. Dulac's compositions and setwork are pleasing and naturalistic and her actors in full command of the techniques of cinema acting of the period, naturalistically restrained when the scene calls for it.
Unfortunately, these abilities are overwhelmed by issues of story composition and character definition. This is a full-blown melodrama, about how the artist in question -- this case, a dramatist hoping to have his first play produced -- tromps on the lives and affections of the two women who care for him and support him: his wife, who forgives his laziness and the starring actress, who gets his first play produced and with whom he has a brief affair. This is followed by an endless third act in which he lies, dying, unaware of the premiere. My reaction: let him live or die, but in less time, please.
My other overwhelming issue with this movie, and Mme. Dulac's other movies is that her men are not men so much as collections of blemishes whose real purpose in life is to make women's lives miserable by random, barely motivated acts. It may well be that this is how Mme. Dulac saw men: after all, she was a lesbian and a woman. I find her drawing of male characters as aimlessly villainous to be annoying. Yes, this is a melodrama, but even Snidely Whiplash has some consistency of character.
Perhaps that is the point of the movie. If not, the movie fails. If it is the point, then I still have the right to mislike it heartily. I do so.
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