Yesterday we featured The Seashell and the Clergyman, the first surrealist film, directed by Germaine Dulac in 1928. Given Dulac’s gender, for those playing the cinema history home game, it also counts as the first surrealist film directed by a woman. That alone would make for a sufficiently pioneering achievement for any career in film, but Dulac had already accomplished another important act of cinematic trailblazing with La Souriante Madame Beudet (The Smiling Madame Beudet), a short silent that also happens to hold the title of the first feminist film.
Where Dulac worked from a story by Antonin Artaud in the The Seashell and the Clergyman, she works here from a story originally by Guy de Maupassant, one revolving around a wife, the titular Madame Beudet, pushed to the brink by years of life with her boorish husband. Madame Beudet at first finds some sweetness in her unenviable lot in life in the form of the rich fantasies in her head, realized onscreen with a suite of visual techniques similar to those Dulac would use to bring her audience into the romantically fraught psyche of the clergyman six years later. Eventually, though, she engineers a more permanent solution to her problems, placing a live bullet into the chamber of the revolver Monsieur Beudet uses in his constant self-pitying pantomimes of Russian roulette.
And where scholars label The Seashell and the Clergyman as a work of surrealism, they label The Smiling Madame Beudet as a work of impressionism. “Throughout the picture,” writes critic Nathan Southern, “Dulac uses such devices as slow motion, distortions, and superimposed images to paint Beudet’s various emotional states onscreen,” an intersection of form and substance that resulted in a picture that “instantly established Dulac as a force in world cinema.” Now, alongside The Seashell and the Clergyman, The Smiling Madame Beudet lays strong claim to the title of her masterwork. Dulac clearly had far better luck than the pitiable Madame Beudet who, despite her best efforts ends the film deeper in despair than she began it. As advanced an artistic sensibility as she had, the filmmaker here expresses a dictum of age-old simplicity: you can’t win ’em all.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, and the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future? Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.