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Foreplays #8: Germaine Dulac’s "The Smiling Madame Beudet"

A visionary silent film conjures the combat between a wife's oppressive space of domesticity and the liberating space of fantasy.
Foreplays is a column that explores under-known short films by renowned directors. Germaine Dulac's The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923) is free to watch below. 
As the calendar hanging on one of the walls repeatedly reminds us, the action of Germaine Dulac’s The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923) comprises only two days. On the 29th of April, Madame Beudet spends the evening alone at home, and decides to kill her husband. She puts bullets in the empty gun that he frequently uses to perform a parody of suicide. On the 30th of April, Madame tries to undo what she arranged the night before, but is unsuccessful. Not knowing that the gun is loaded, Monsieur Beudet begins performing his fake suicide but, at the last moment, instead points the gun at his wife. This shot, however, also fails. The Smiling Madame Beudet tells the story of this failed act of “double murder.”
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When Madame Beudet sits quietly reading a book, she’s interrupted by her husband’s complaints. When Madame Beudet plays the piano, her husband rudely mocks her. When Madame Beudet looks at the pages of a magazine, her husband smacks it with rage. When, after a night of restless sleep, Madame Beudet opens her eyes, the first thing she sees in the bedroom is her husband. Her husband half dressed, sprawled on the armchair. Her husband crawling to bed. Her husband begging for a morning kiss.
Stuck in a provincial city, trapped in an unhappy marriage, Madame Beudet is a prisoner in her own house. In the film’s second part, Madame, cornered in one room, tries to access another space without being seen—but the house is too cluttered. After several attempts, she finally gets to her husband’s desk. She tries to retrieve the bullets she put in the the gun, but doesn’t succeed: on three different occasions, she’s interrupted by three different characters. This is a schema very similar to the one that Max Ophüls will employ in a key scene of The Reckless Moment (1949).
Madame Beudet doesn’t have a “room of her own.” The window always delivers the same, chilling view of the Court of Justice. But still, she fantasizes… And Dulac finds evident pleasure in inventively depicting these fantasies. Not only because they are the product of a woman’s desire, but also because they are the only space that truly and intimately belongs to her.
A picture of a car in a magazine advertisement is followed by an aerial shot in which this car obliquely crosses the screen, riding in the sky, on top of the white clouds. Madame’s eyes are punctured by two luminous dots shining in the irises; her eyelids, overwhelmed, blink heavily. The husband interrupts her ecstatic flight, but now Madame focuses on the picture of a tennis player, racket in hand. In the next shot, this player appears over a black background, moving in slow motion. In the subsequent shot, he’s already inside the room, walking toward Monsieur Beudet, kicking him out of the picture. Madame, with her head reclined in the chair, laughs infectiously.
Madame Beudet likes to play her beloved Debussy pieces at the piano. In the introduction, Dulac shows us Madame’s hands gliding over the piano set against, in the same frame, her husband’s hands fiddling with coins. Later on, a medium shot of Madame playing at the piano propels a synaesthetic response: as if cued by a key being hit, an image of blurry reflections with shiny stars pops up. Before her husband goes to the leaves to the theater, Madame fixes his shirt; afterward, her hand slides, naturally and forcefully, toward the piano. Her reflex gesture will be punished: he locks up the piano case, preventing her from playing. As always, every affirmation of her self is crushed by her husband.
The film’s drama starts precisely here: when the door to Madame Beudet’s fantasies is locked up, and when her husband debases and colonizes those fantasies, turning them progressively into her worst nightmare. In one of the best sequences, Madame picks a book from the shelf. The first verses of Baudelaire’s The Death of Lovers are intercut with shots of her reading, and with images of different domestic objects. If, in Dulac’s later L’invitation au vovage (1927), Baudelaire’s poem of the same name inspires the nautical-themed décor of a club where a married woman experiences her fantasies of adventure, here the haunting verses of The Death of Lovers function in an opposite way: devouring the fantasy by returning Madame Beudet to the image of her tarnished, extinguished marriage. In despair, she throws the book into a corner.
The shadow of a man’s silhouette appears, projected on the door, followed by a shot of Madame’s arms extended. But, for a moment, she turns her face to the other side, and the picture of her husband fills the screen.  She concentrates on her hand and the wedding ring magically disappears. But now her husband crawls through the window, like a veritable Nosferatu. And all she can see is her husband. Her husband laughing grotesquely. Her husband raising his eyebrows and displaying his crooked teeth. Her husband asking her to fix his bow tie. Her husband performing his stupid parody-suicide …
But the ultimate fantasy is, of course, the one we aren’t allowed to see: the husband’s death. The Smiling Madame Beudet both anticipates and exceeds the Hollywood “women’s melodrama” of wives threatened by their husbands and trapped in their homes (Gaslight, Suspicion, et cetera). Here, the female protagonist prefers to kill rather than be dispossessed of her fantasies. The film builds up an intrigue wherein it’s his death and not hers that is at stake. But, ultimately, it pulls off a final pirouette, demonstrating that what has been at stake all along is the woman’s death.
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Split into two days, the action of The Smiling Madame Beudet not only conjures up the combat between an oppressive space of domesticity and the liberating space of fantasy. It also causes two different kinds of time to collide: a time of habit (a bourgeois time made of rituals, inert dynamics, and endless repetition), and the time of the decisive event (the murder that is capable of tearing apart the fabric of this numbing reiteration).
The time of the decisive event beats, ticks, rings, and screams in the background throughout the entire film. When Madame Beudet is left alone, the maid asks for the night off to go out with her fiancé. Moved by the woman’s eagerness, Madame imagines this man, with his big mustache, caressing the maid’s face. Both figures glow, displaying innocence and desire. Yearning for this romanticism, drowning in the muddy waters of her marriage, Madame consumes herself in fits of ecstasy and agony.
A remarkable succession of shots: a clock marking five minutes to ten; a painted window with curtains, made to look like a giant hourglass in the background; the same clock we’ve seen earlier marking, now, ten on the dot and rendered in a more dramatic close-up; a church bell ringing somewhere; Madame Beudet looking at herself at a mirror, lowering her head forlornly and resting her forehead on the crystal case of a clock that sits on the shelf. Clocks tick, whispering the way to Madame that leads through the only exit door.
The time of habit runs right alongside the time of decisiveness. It is depicted by Dulac through accumulative repetitions of absurd rituals and gestures. The recurrence of a bad joke (Monsieur Beudet’s suicide parody, performed on three different occasions); the eternal return to proper order (every time Madame puts the vase of flowers at the edge of the table, he moves it back to the center); the same reaction of resignation, bounced like a ping-pong ball across scenes, characters, and décors (Madame and Monsieur Beudet, in turn, shrug their shoulders preposterously; in another house, Madame and Monsieur Lebas do the same; back in the first setting, Monsieur executes the gesture once more).
Every action is taken to the point of paroxysm, turned into an absurd gag. Marriage, domesticity, social ceremonies are a never-ending, cyclical parade. The high point of this idea comes at the end when, after shooting the gun, Monsieur Beudet hastens to cuddle and sweet-talk his wife. Dulac cuts from a medium to a general shot. Behind the couple, there’s a painting that turns into a theater stage, with two puppets moving like automatons. The curtain falls and the word “theatre” appears in the center of the square.
How is this collision of different modes of time resolved? With a narrative inventiveness that delivers the cruelest irony: because the course of repetition is altered not only once (when Madame Beudet puts the bullets in the gun), but twice (when Monsieur Beudet points the gun at her), the decisive event fails to liberate the protagonist from her excruciating marriage, and the film ends just as it began.
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There’s no doubt as to where Germaine Dulac stands in relation to her two main characters; her position is encapsulated in the different acting styles of the protagonists. Germaine Dermoz as Madame Beudet has the serenity of a Greek statue. Proud and dignified, her pose and gestures are delicate and full. Often caught in back or lateral shots, with her head up or down, her figure has a weight that grounds her in the space, and a depth that transports her to other landscapes. Alexandre Arquillère, by contrast, is a vaudevillian figure, all grotesque laughter and bullying gestures, a caricature born from the woman’s contempt and revulsion.
But there’s an intelligence associated with imagination in The Smiling Madame Beudet. In this sense, it’s important to understand the deepest implications of the fact that the film tells the story of a failed “double murder.” Madame Beudet may regret the consequences of what she has done, but at least she can face what she has desired. Monsieur Beudet, on the other hand, doesn’t have a clue about either her or his own desire. He’s doubly blind. Unable to contemplate the possibility that his wife would put her freedom before his life, he’s convinced that she wanted to kill herself. But he can’t understand, either, what it really means to decapitate a doll with a slap, or point a gun at his wife.
“I’m not Emma Bovay,” says Madame Beudet in the stage play by Denys Amiel and André Obey upon which the film is based. And, certainly, Madame is closer to a Surrealist heroine than to a tragic one. She’d rather kill her husband than take her own life. She’d rather dream the unimaginable. But while, in the original play, the failed murder attempt ends up having a therapeutic effect on the couple (with both characters becoming more appreciative of each other), in Dulac’s ferocious critique of marriage, there’s no happy ending possible. One need only look at the expression of horror in Madame Beudet’s eyes, at her body trapped in her husband’s caresses. The only positive outcome of her failed murder attempt is that, at least, she has proved herself capable of imagining it.
This is a great film to pair with The Second Sex - as Beauvoir points out, woman is not prone to fantasy because of her nature, but because of the conditions imposed upon her.

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