The Smiling Madame Beudet (1922) Director: Germaine Dulac
The Smiling Madame Beudet (or La Souriante Madame Beudet) is a moody but beautifully painted impressionistic short French film. Germaine Dulac, a woman, had developed a taste for the avant-garde and surrealist cinema, and later scholars have dubbed Madame Beudet a “feminist” film, though that label is debatable. Dulac certainly was a progressive feminist writer in her day, and she was involved in various young film auteur circles, such as with Jean Vigo and others. She is also known for her other surrealist film: La Coquille et le Clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman 1928).
It tells the story of Madame Beudet, a house-wife trapped in a loveless marriage to a buffoon she neither respects nor loves. The film opens and closes with pleasant scenes of small-town life in Provence, France. Mr. Beudet is revealed to be a cloth merchant. He frequently plays a joke – pretending to shoot himself in the head with a small gun he keeps in the drawer of his desk. He tries to drag his wife out to a performance but she declines. While remaining at home, she is on the edge of sanity, with all manner of apparitions coming in and out of the house. Here, the cinematography is extraordinary for the time period. The next morning, she secretly loads his gun with bullets hoping he will accidentally shoot himself, but instead he points the gun toward Mrs. Beudat thinking it is unloaded. When he fires he misses and hits a flower pot instead ( the metaphor of Mr. Beudat “missing the mark” is not lost on the viewer). He wrongly thinks she was trying to commit suicide and he embraces her as she looks away. The film closes with couples greeting each other on the street outside.
The Smiling Madame Beudet uses all manner of impressive techniques to tell the story with as little words as possible: slow motion, superimposed images, distorted projections and so on. The film is beautiful, innovative, and haunting -and I tend to be drawn to simple stories and ideas that are well-executed. It is a top-notch picture – one of the best and most underrated movies of the 1920s.