The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923) Director: Germaine Dulac
The Smiling Madame Beudet (or La Souriante Madame Beudet) is a moody but succinctly constructed impressionistic French film by feminist director Germaine Dulac. Latter-day scholars have debated whether or not Madame Beudet is truly a “feminist” film. 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 other surrealist films like La Coquille et le Clergyman (“The Seashell and the Clergyman,” 1928).
The Smiling Madame Beudet uses all manner of impressive cinematic techniques to tell a story with as little words as possible: slow motion, superimposed images, distorted projections, montages 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.
It tells the story of Madame Beudet, a housewife who is trapped in a loveless marriage, chained 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 his desk drawer. He tries to drag his wife out to a performance but she declines. While remaining at home, she hangs onto the edge of sanity, all manner of apparitions appear, revealed her fragile mental state. In these scenes the cinematography is quite 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 glimpses of friendly couples as they greet each other on the street outside.
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