For my “Women as Filmmakers” class, I wrote a brief research paper on Germaine Dulac, focusing on some of her filmmaking techniques.
French director Germaine Dulac was a pioneer in avant-garde cinema of the Silent Era, and has written many theoretical pieces regarding experimental film aesthetics and feminist analysis in cinema. Born in 1882, she first began her career as a journalist and editor for La Française—a feminist newspaper—from 1909 to 1913. Afterwards, she was introduced to filmmaking and ended up directing a total of twenty-six films (up until the late 1920s), plus a series of newsreels all throughout the 1930s. Along with still photography, Dulac also studied music, which would greatly influence her filmmaking aesthetics and theories (Flitterman-Lewis 48). In her 1925 article, “The Essence of the Cinema: The Visual Idea,” Dulac writes that the “integral film…is a symphony made of rhythmic images, coordinated and thrown upon the screen exclusively by the perception of an artist. A composer does not always take his inspiration from a story, but most often from a feeling, a perception” (61). As her filmmaking skills developed throughout the 1920s, Dulac integrates various experimental techniques into her visual narratives in order to convey specific feelings, themes, symbols, and motifs, especially in two of her silent films: La souriante Madame Beudet (1923) and L’invitation au voyage (1927).
In particular, both films utilize the superimposition of two or multiple images, distortion, and splitting the screen into two or three parts. The former is a technique that enhances the lucid and dreamlike quality of a narrative, which is a common element in Dulac’s films. Distortion can be used to exemplify anxiety, and the split screen technique can show two or multiple scenes happening at once. There is also frequent use of the iris shot. Dulac often uses this technique to isolate a certain figure, or to show a close-up of an object or action, instead of using the technique for its conventional method of starting or ending a scene with a fade. Another way Dulac adds emphasis to a singled-out subject is through the use of a dark solid background and dramatic lighting.
In both films, the protagonist is a married woman. As the narrative unfolds, the audience becomes aware that each woman is experiencing a troubled marriage. Beginning with La souriante Madame Beudet, there is immediate tension between Madame and Monsieur Beudet. In one scene, Madame Beudet is pictured off to the side of the room, sitting quietly in her chair while reading a magazine. Her husband, on the other hand, sits behind his large desk at the head of the room. Compared to Madame Beudet, he is much more animated with his gestures and facial expressions, which translate as being boisterous and in control. Through the use of editing, the audience gets a glimpse inside Madame Beudet’s mind and emotions. Suddenly, the magazine page she has paused on comes to life. Through Madame Beudet’s eyes, we see the athlete in the advertisement tiptoe towards Monsieur Beudet and forcefully carry him away, a symbol of her growing resentment towards her husband.
After Monsieur Beudet leaves the house with two friends to attend an opera, Madame Beudet is left alone to her thoughts. The audience sees even more of what she sees in her mind’s eye. Anguish starts to creep in once she finds out that the piano—the only thing that gives her joy—has been locked shut by her husband. Distorted images of Monsieur Beudet making grotesque expressions then infiltrate her mind, and her hands anxiously grip her hair at the thought of him. There is a recurring theme where he places a vase of flowers towards the center of the table, followed by Madame Beudet putting it back in its original spot (near the edge) after he’s left the room. Once again, she (and the audience) sees an image of him placing the vase to where he prefers, further emphasizing her perspective of his control of the house and of their marriage. A close-up of her left hand shows her taking off her wedding ring, then putting it back on. It magically disappears and reappears by itself, illustrating the swaying emotions she has on her routine and suppressed life.
Besides marriage, the theme of death also plays a significant role in the narrative. Towards the beginning, an iris shot is used to place emphasis on a letter that Monsieur Beudet is reading at his desk. The shot includes his torso, yet it is framed in a way that makes it look like he is beheaded. This image ties in with his “suicide parody,” where he takes an unloaded revolver to his head and makes a joke out of it in front of his wife. The revolver becomes a symbol of his control. Later, while Madame Beudet is alone in the house, she picks up a book and reads a poem entitled “The Lovers’ Death.” As she reads each line of the poem, juxtaposed images of actual parts of her home flood her mind. Once she realizes how much her own life connects to the poem, she hastily throws the book to the floor. She recalls her husband’s suicide parody, and sees yet another image of him mocking her with the revolver. Overcome with a desire to get rid of her husband and the life she is living, she takes the opportunity to go behind his desk and load one bullet into the revolver.
The next day, Monsieur Beudet is in his study with his friend. He attempts to mock his wife and her affection towards the piano. In a single outburst, he exclaims, “Women! Do you know what they need?” He grabs a doll from the shelf and proceeds to hit it, but its head wilts and breaks before he has the chance to do so. To this, his friend responds, “A puppet is fragile, a little bit like a woman.” Monsieur Beudet’s demeanor softens. Through his actions, the audience sees that Beudet becomes more careful of the doll, treating it delicately. Later, however, he continues to grab the sheet music off the piano, move the vase again, push the table, and fluff the pillows in haste. By comparing this scene to the previous one, Beudet’s actions show that he considers a doll to have more value than his wife.
Upstairs, Madame Beudet has been waiting for her chance to retrieve the bullet after a sleepless night, but her plan fails as she is called into the study by her husband. As usual, he immediately proceeds to yell at her about an issue, all while pointing the revolver to his head. This time, however, he eventually points it at her, saying, “You would deserve [this] more than me.” He shoots, unaware that the revolver is loaded, but the bullet misses his wife. Realizing what has happened, he rushes to kneel by her side. He fails to realize the situation, asking his wife, “You wanted to kill yourself like this?” He breaks down while embracing her, “How could I live without you?” She visibly does not give in to his display of affection, seeing it as merely a performance put on by the image of a puppet controlling him from an above painting. She is still bound to her dull life with him.
Similarly, L’invitation au voyage plays with the idea of seeing the thoughts and emotions of the married female protagonist. There is a clear lack of intertitles in this film, as visuals become a key role in emphasizing her character development. The film opens with the woman stepping out of a car and entering a nautical-themed nightclub. She is completely covered by her white fur coat, revealing only the top half of her head. She rejects and avoids a suitor, settling herself at a table in an empty corner. She catches the attention of a nearby naval officer, who leans back in his chair to catch a better glimpse of the woman. The camera tilts to follow the man’s gaze, providing yet another example of Dulac’s experimental techniques.
Just like in La souriante Madame Beudet, the audience takes on a semi-omniscient role. Inside the woman’s mind, we see a domestic scene start to unfold, especially through the gradual additions of furniture and figures. The end result portrays a husband and wife sitting in their living room, with the husband getting up to kiss his wife’s hand before leaving out the door. An intertitle explains that he has a business meeting, although the image of a wristwatch shows that it is well into the night. This goes on for a year, as illustrated by calendar pages. We eventually see what the woman is thinking: she is being neglected by her husband, and the image of her face looking out the window is replaced by the suitor sitting at a table with three giggling women, perhaps evoking the idea that her husband is engaging in an affair.
In the present moment, the woman has just shared a dance with the naval officer, and the two proceed to walk back to her table. He opens a nearby porthole, and the woman envisions images of the sea and traveling aboard a ship. The officer becomes a symbol for freedom—a navigator of the world. This contrasts with the confined sentiment of the married woman. It isn’t until she gets up to look out the window that she sees the cluttered mess of a room, juxtaposed with waves. There is a growing sense of swayed emotion, as she longs to live a life of independence on her own terms. With this feeling overcoming her, she gradually opens herself up to the officer, which can especially be seen through her layers of clothing. The white fur coat has been checked earlier, and as the evening progresses, she slides her wrap off of one shoulder, followed by the other. Once her bare arms are revealed, she is smiling and much more at ease around him.
However, as the naval officer starts holding her hand, he eventually finds out she is married. A close-up shows his thumb fiddling with her wedding ring. There is jealousy in his eyes (paired with the image of a fleet of ships appearing one by one on a horizon), but he just lifts up her hand to kiss it. He then opens a locket that belongs to the woman, and the inside reveals a photograph of her child. At this point, he quickly becomes disinterested in her, already viewing the child as a burden to their relationship. The woman inches her hand closer to his, but he retreats. Another woman eventually saunters by their table, and he seizes the opportunity to get up and dance with her. Left alone, the protagonist hastily covers herself up with her wrap again before the naval officer returns with the other woman. Although they are all sitting together at the same table, the protagonist is clearly isolated. Finally having enough, she gets up and leaves the bar. The officer has a tinge of remorse, as he imagines holding hands with the protagonist on the ship, but she disappears out of his hold in a flash.
Since Dulac experienced a time when cinema first appealed to the masses, she saw great potential in the new medium and what was to become of it: a form of artistic expression. With its development from a quick form of entertainment (actualities shown in nickelodeons), to an elaborate way of telling stories (once techniques were realized), Dulac saw the experimentation of the medium as an alternative way to “pry the cinema from its assumed ability for simple photographic reproduction in order to engage its capacity for evocation” (Flitterman-Lewis 49-50). As evident in La souriante Madame Beudet and L’invitation au voyage, Dulac brings out a hidden layer of cinema through specific elements of cinematography and editing in order to convey certain feelings, rather than focus on the conventional value found in dramatic action. As both films show the protagonist in confined spaces, Dulac’s notion of rhythmic images (an essential feature of cinema) is placed within the realm of the human psyche, allowing rhythm and movement to thrive. In her article, “The Avant-Garde Cinema,” Dulac mentions this as part of her theory of “pure cinema”—a concept that is “in search of emotion beyond the limits of the human, to everything that exists in nature, to the invisible, the imponderable, to abstract movement” (47). Thus, the way the movements are arranged simply have the power to evoke emotion, and give more voice and freedom to the protagonist in each film.
Dulac, Germaine. “The Avant-Garde Cinema.” 1932. N.p., n.d. 43-48. Experimental Media Arts. Web.
Dulac, Germaine. “The Essence of the Cinema: The Visual Idea.” 1925. Film Theory: Critical Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies. By Philip Simpson, Andrew Utterson, and Karen J. Shepherdson. London: Routledge, 2004. 57-62. Print.
Flitterman-Lewis, Sandy. “Germaine Dulac: First Feminist of the Avant-Garde.” To Desire Differently: Feminism and the French Cinema. New York: Columbia UP, 1996. 47-73. Print.