The First Feminist Film, Germaine Dulac’s The Smiling Madame Beudet (1922)

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 Cler­gy­manThe 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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The First Sur­re­al­ist Film The Seashell and the Cler­gy­man, Brought to You By Ger­maine Dulac & Antonin Artaud (1928)

Simone de Beau­voir Explains “Why I’m a Fem­i­nist” in a Rare TV Inter­view (1975)

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 Cin­e­maand the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future? Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (3)
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  • Noelle says:

    Hi great com­ments. I’m doing some research on Mau­pas­sant and won­der if you know which sto­ry the play Mme Beudet was based on?
    Thank you!

  • R.L. Cagle says:

    The film is, in fact, based on a 1920 play by Denys Amiel and André Obey. The play is avail­able in both a col­lec­tion (two titles) by the two play­wrights (Car­casse and La souri­ante Mme Beudet) and in the July 30, 1921 issue (no. 58) of La Petite Illus­tra­tion: Roman-The­atre.

  • Robert says:

    Hel­lo, I am pol­ish resaes­rcher and I am pas­sion­ate espec­cialy in silent french cin­e­ma. I t hard to m under­stand french lan­guage even with google trans­late. Could you tell me if the play which Dulac’s movie was based on, is this play was more a trag­ic or com­e­dy? I have found that this was com­bined of this two gen­res, but I could­n’t find the play, and it woud be hard for me to under­stand it. I have found also that authors of this play achieved qui­et high suc­cess with their play in USA, and it was adver­tise only like com­e­dy, but when we would read descrip­tion of plot we could find some trag­ic ele­ments in it. I am ask­ing about this because I am won­der­ing how big intu­ition Dulac had in that moment to see fem­i­nis­tic poten­tial in this (tragic)comedy mate­r­i­al.

    Greet­ing from Poland
    Robert Siw­czyk

    PS Sor­ry for my eng­lish. You can imag­ine how bad my french is.

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