Germaine Dulac is possibly best known for the British film censor's verdict on her 1928 experimental-surreal freak-out The Seashell and the Clergyman: "...apparently meaningless. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless offensive." And even then, that quote is often misapplied to Buñuel's Un chien andalou, which came later.
Dulac's career was relatively brief, like all too many female filmmakers, but during the fifteen years when she was prolifically active, she pushed into a whole range of interesting experimental areas, exploring cinematic answers to poetic and musical forms, and more or less inventing surrealist cinema. The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923) represents both an experimental expressionist-impressionist approach to narrative, and also succeeds as a truly agonizing suspense film, and a feminist argument.
We are in Province, and a series of attractive location shots set the scene, somewhat prosaically. But "behind the facades of these tranquil houses, the hearts, the passions." Madame Beudet is a middle-aged, respectable married lady with a rather tiresome, unattractive husband, a stultifying and fettered existence, and a dangerously rich fantasy life.
It is April 29th—today, in fact! But a today eighty-seven years ago. Through a series of intense, distorted details, we pick up the essentials of Madame Beudet's existence, her hidden desires and daydreams. As she looks at her magazine, she creates images in her mind, which Dulac invites us to share: a glamorous sports car racing over a dreamy cloudscape; a romantic tennis player who steps from his page and hauls her boring spouse bodily from the room.
We learn also that Monsieur Beudet has a peculiar habit, a "favorite joke," of pointing his pistol to his brow at moments of stress. It's a bizarre gesture, but harmless, since the bullets are kept in a separate drawer. But then M. Beudet goes to the opera to see Faust, leaving his wife behind and thoughtlessly locking the piano. Forced to make her own entertainment, the no-longer-smiling Madame Beudet begins to think about covertly loading her husband's revolver. The next time he plays his little pleasantry may be the last.
What follows is a nerve-gnawing ordeal of dramatic tension, stretched out to the point where one is tempted to root for death to intervene, either the husband's or one's own, just to relieve the strain. It's comparable to Hitchcock's TV episode Bang! You're Dead in which a small boy plays with a real, loaded gun, oblivious like everyone around him to the imminent peril. While the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode did not quite put forward a pro-gun control message, it did focus one's attention on the dangers of the uncontrolled gun. Dulac isn't interested in that, but she is interested in the effects of a deadening atmosphere, which can be so extreme that the revolutionary impulse to homicide starts to seem like a reasonable response.
Throughout, Dulac's ability to conjure visual representations of mental states, through distorted images or stylized lighting (Madame is often picked out from total darkness by a brilliant spotlight, a device which has no naturalistic alibi in a drawing room), and through beautifully observed body language (one little sequence shows everybody repeatedly shrugging/sighing, until the two gestures seem inseparable).
Finally, an ironic twist brings about a grisly parody of a happy ending, which Dulac further parodies by showing the embracing couple—Madame stares blankly into space, possibly plotting her hubbie's demise by some new means—echoed by a little puppet show that's somehow playing out in the mirror behind them. Embracing puppets, and then a curtain falls, marked "Theatre." It's a strange moment. And when Dulac then cuts to her street shots of the town again, the fantasies of the mad housewife and the stilted embrace of the marionettes seems to surround everything. "Behind the facades of these tranquil houses..."
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.