Film history has been defined by men. Women filmmakers, and indeed there were women filmmakers before, I don’t know, the 1980s, have been relegated to relative obscurity. But those female filmmakers of note were making strides mostly in the silent era, before the sound era studio system mostly pushed them out once again. It rings of the marginalization of the up-and-coming class of women in film from the 1980s and early ’90s as they approached the 21st century. In any event, this is an introduction to the subject of this list, Germaine Dulac, a filmmaker who shouldn’t have to be defined as a female filmmaker but who nevertheless stands as an important feminist director from a time during which many assume there was no such thing.
Germaine Dulac was born Charlotte Elisabeth Germaine Saisset-Schneider on November 17, 1882 in Amiens, Picardy in France. Saisset-Schneider became Dulac when Germaine married Louis-Albert in 1905, at the age of 23, after the death of her parents and a move to Paris. In that city of culture, Dulac became interested in all manner of arts, and she began writing for two feminist magazines/journals in the French capital. Dulac was an early example of the “French critic turned filmmaker themselves,” and early experiments in photography, a “friendship” with actress Stacia Napierkowska, and a 1914 trip to Italy led Dulac to come back to France and co-found the production company D.H. Films (at least partially financed by Louis-Albert, an engineer). Dulac made her first film, LES SOEURS ENNEMIES, in 1915, and over the next five years, she worked steadily until she began laying the foundation of French Impressionism in cinema.
At the turn of the decade, however, Dulac divorced her husband, and began a relationship with a woman, Marie-Anne Colson-Mallevile, that would last the rest of her life. This was not Dulac’s first lesbian encounter; indeed, Dulac apparently had a lover in Napierkowska, as well as Irene Hillel-Erlanger, her business partner in D.H. Louis-Albert appears to have been generally aware of these relationships, and relatively supportive, but the two did ultimately divorce in 1920. By this time, Dulac had become an established filmmaker and theorist in France, and by the end of the decade, she would have directed the works that she is best known for today.
But part of the problem with Dulac’s work is that much of it is missing and/or inaccessible. This list will only address nine films, ranging from 1919 to 1929, out of a filmography of 29 movies and 21 years (1915–1936). Dulac, like many, faced difficulty in the sound era, and in 1930, she turned to producing newsreels and commercial films. Before her death on July 20, 1942 in Paris, at the age of 59, Dulac co-directed a couple more shorts, became the president of the Fédération des ciné-clubs, promoted the work of young filmmakers like Joris Ivens and Jean Vigo, and taught film courses at the École Technique de Photographie et de Cinématographie.
Part of me wonders if Dulac’s “eviction” from what is now considered more “respectable” filmmaking had something to do with her sexuality and gender, and indeed, her Wikipedia entry attributes the difficulty of publishing her obituary to her “non-conformist ideas…[her] impure origins” (this coming from the writings of Charles Henri Ford, I believe). Even today, her work has not been fully embraced by the major film canon, from what I can tell. That is a shame, because as I shall explain, her filmography, as represented by the nine films below, is still valuable.
#9 — DISQUE 957 (1928)
This short short, at five minutes, is a brief example of the “Pure Cinema” movement, showcasing quick cuts of motion. DISQUE 957 is part of a trend towards the end of Dulac’s career where she based her work on music, and indeed, even silent, this film carries a sense of rhythm and melody. Its placement as the “worst” Dulac film is simply because of its relatively simplicity, and sure, it’s a little cold.
#8 — ARABESQUE (1929)
The final film in the chronology of Dulac’s career presented here, ARABESQUE is another pure cinema short, focused on vegetation. Where DISQUE 957 was a bit more abstract in its imagery (besides some shots of hands playing a piano), ARABESQUE represents a warmer flipside of the rhythms she imparted with that short.
#7 — THEMES ET VARIATIONS (1928)
THEMES ET VARIATIONS, like DISQUE 957 and ARABESQUE, is pure motion. What makes it better than those shorts, however, is its focus on machinery. If DISQUE 957 was cold in its abstract nature, and ARABESQUE was warm in its depiction of nature, THEMES ET VARIATIONS lies somewhere in between. The short moves with an unceasing drive, working itself into a heat that dovetails into images of a ballerina and flowers. Despite its mechanics, THEMES ET VARIATIONS is the most human film on this list so far.
#6 — DANSES ESPAGNOLES (1928)
DANSES ESPAGNOLES is the most “conventional” film on this list so far, in that it’s not quite in the pure cinema mode. However, what would otherwise be comparable to an actuality from the early days of cinema is still driven with a discerning eye that moves us to different angles around a dancing woman. DANSES ESPAGNOLES is hypnotic.
#5 — CELLES QUI S’EN FONT (1928)
Translated to “Those Who Make Themselves,” CELLES QUI S’EN FONT is another short short at five minutes long. And yet this briefest of episodes is potent nevertheless. The film follows a drunk woman who is apparently seeking a role as a prostitute, or seeking love, or both, until, it is implied, that she walks into the river. This is impressionistic work, leaving a larger imprint than you would expect for its short runtime. CELLES QUI S’EN FONT, and the haunting looks of its main actress Lilian Constantini, is a comment on the destitution of women; not a treatise, but a strong, passing word.
#4 — THE CIGARETTE (1919)
THE CIGARETTE is the only feature on this list (although Dulac made many more), and also the oldest film on it in general. It is a drama following a collector of Egyptian artifacts as he begins to suspect his wife is guilty of infidelity. I watched a restored version of the film that brought THE CIGARETTE into striking clarity, and so I’m sure it benefits from that. But the movie also contains some of the themes Dulac would explore in her best known films, that is to say, the relationships between men and women and the institutions that define them. THE CIGARETTE is not as stylistically bold as her most famous shorts, but it is compelling enough on the strength of its scenario.
#3 — THE SMILING MADAME BEUDET (1923)
One of the two Dulac films that is most heavily studied today, THE SMILING MADAME BEUDET is an Impressionist film and one widely recognized as one of the earliest feminist stories in film. At 38 minutes, the movie is nearly feature length by the old standard of 40 minutes, and like all of Dulac’s films, there is more imparted in it than could be found in many films of double the length. This is a more straightforward narrative than can be found in the previous films on this list, but that doesn’t make THE SMILING MADAME BEUDET conventional. The titular wife begrudgingly continues in a marriage with her foolish husband, who has a favorite trick in which he pretends to shoot himself with an empty revolver. She puts bullets in the gun, hoping he will kill himself, but when she feels regret, she goes to stop him. Her husband fires at Madame Beudet as a joke, the bullet misses, and he embraces her thinking she was trying to kill herself. The stupidity of men, the misinterpretation of the actions of their wives, and the women’s role in returning to the status quo are all displayed in THE SMILING MADAME BEUDET. It’s a radical film for 1923, and even for 2020, and its close ups linger.
#2 — INVITATION TO A JOURNEY (1927)
(Another near-feature). In INVITATION TO A JOURNEY, a woman goes to a nightclub to get away from her inattentive husband. There, she spends time with a seductive sailor, and their eyelines entrance. Dulac cast for the male lead Raymond Dubreuil, who brings all his sensuality to bear on the also convincing Emma Gynt. INVITATION TO A JOURNEY is one of Dulac’s most explicitly sexual film, as far as that could go in 1927, and it succeeds on the Impressionist scale with its dreamlike exchanges between the man and woman in the nightclub.
#1 — THE SEASHELL AND THE CLERGYMAN (1928)
But there is no denying that THE SEASHELL AND THE CLERGYMAN, Dulac’s best-known film, is also her masterpiece. And more explicitly sexual! This experimental movie, another near-feature (again, at just under 40 minutes!), has led many to label Dulac as a Surrealist filmmaker. But besides THE SEASHELL AND THE CLERGYMAN, I wouldn’t say anything else in Dulac’s filmography is “Surreal,” not even her pure cinema experiments. THE SEASHELL AND THE CLERGYMAN is Surreal, in any event, and its place in that art tradition was derided at the time and quickly overshadowed by UN CHIEN ANDALOU (1929). This may be the better film, however, if such a comparison has to be made. Every apparently disconnected image that Dulac cooks up generally tells the tale of a priest lusting after the wife of a general, but what marks my favorite movies is the ability to pause on any one frame and look at a beautiful photograph. That is the case with THE SEASHELL AND THE CLERGYMAN, and the sum of these parts makes for a bewildering experience, yet one that is at the very least a clear display of male sexuality. As the British Board of Censors reported at the time, the film is “so cryptic as to be almost meaningless. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable.” In missing the point, these Censors hit the nail on the head.