Early Women Filmmakers Blogathon: Germaine Dulac

Introduction

When embarking on blogathon I tend to opt between either of two extremes: either I pick a subject I know innately, preferably looking at it from a vantage point I’ve note yet attempted; or conversely picking a subject which to become more enlightened about, in short, seeking a moment of auto-didacticism. It was with the former intent I embarked to write an introductory sort of overview to the works of Germaine Dulac.

The collegiate experience doesn’t permanently affix one’s critical or aesthetic modality of choice but it does greatly influence it. As such, my reflex knowing that I was covering a writer/director was to take an auterist approach seeing how one of her films was already being covered in-depth.

As it so happens this decision, based on the facts of her life and career, was of providence more than of my own making. I discovered that not only did Germaine Dulac write, direct and shoot films but she was also one of the earliest pioneers of film criticism. One of my longstanding complaints: the French pioneers of film theory such as René Tabard or Henri Langlois are hard to find in print and translated to English are hard to find.

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Aside from her inclusion in the forthcoming Early Women Filmmakers box set from Flicker Alley in May, Tami Williams, PhD, is preparing Pure Cinema: Selected Writings of Germaine Dulac, for publication through the University of Wisconsin Press.

So more in-depth knowledge of her life and works are on the way, allow me a brief introduction that I hope will inspire you to look further into her fascinating life and work.

I. SEARCHING FOR PATHWAYS FROM UNIQUENESS TO UBIQUITY

Typically when women are breaking into male-dominated fields their inclusion and acceptance seems to be almost self-congratulatory on the part of the gatekeepers of the boys’ club (“See we let the girl in, aren’t we great? ‘Men’ on three!”). Take for example this article pictured below which that starts with the phrase “Germaine Dulac is the only female director in France at the moment.”

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The particular nomenclature had her bristling against it, whenever and wherever she could Metteur being a phrase borrowed from the theatre, it bears noting that the standard credit for film directors in France is now mise en scène.

In response to a journalist who only cited the novelist of the source material as the ‘author’ of The Seashell and the Clergyman (Le coquille et le clergyman). She said:

“les intellectuels et le cinéastes se rapproches, or, ce sont des nuances de mots qui les séparent irrémédiablement”

the intellectuals and the filmmakers should develop a closer kinship to one another, for it is only nuances between words that irremediably keep them apart.

However, her push against the status quo wasn’t just against the parameters and influences on film, but also one that was very sociopolitical in nature. Aside from her activism in socialist causes, the onset of the Great War had her urging women to make their presence felt and a difference. While World War II was seen as a sociological flashpoint in the United States where the war effort suspended typical notions about the sexes and work, Dulac sounded the rallying cry in the War to End All Wars as it was on France’s doorstep:

“international task of French Women.” She urged her audience to “create things anew and according to your own spirit”

Yet while being quite involved in activism this did not slow down her varied productions during this time:

From 1916-1918, Dulac produced and directed six feature-length films, a six-episode serial film, a ballet-pantomime set at a cross-dressing masked ball, and a series of journalistic shorts, all of which are lost, though Williams thoroughly describes and analyzes the existing related documentation. After the war, though continuing to produce films on her own, Dulac mostly worked with independent producers, including Ciné-Studios, Film d’Art, Société des Cinéromans, and Delac, Vandal et Cie.

II. VANGUARDIAN

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One of the traps when discussing a female pioneer in a field is discussing the precedent she set, or the way in which she was an antecedent of those in said field in her gender. Make no mistake, there were many instances wherein Germaine Dulac was out in front of all filmmakers in many ways.

Not only was she on the vanguard of thought, but there was little to no precedent for it. In a wonderful piece on Senses of Cinema (see it for a more in-depth reading of her career and works) that Dulac was indeed ahead of her time in championed the notion of auteurism that Truffaut, Goddard, Varda and others would rally around and propel in France in the ‘50s and ‘60s onward.

“This letter addresses a concept—authorship—that was not prominent in French film discourse at the time.”

-Rosanna Maule

If one were to look at her filmography, be it what is still extant or it in toto, one will find that despite its at time varied stylings it her works are typically distinctively hers. Much as the scattershot styles and genres the great Michael Curtiz directed in part as a result of the Studio system, Dulac’s varied output was dictated in part by the marketplace in which she worked.

Since the end of World War I, French cinema was hindered by an economic and institutional crisis, struggling to counteract Hollywood’s emergence onto the international film scene. The fragmentation of France’s film industry into various film companies, many of them small and independent, and the crisis of the national system of film distribution and exhibition coincided with the expansion of alternative circuits of film production and distribution by avant-garde filmmakers.

She was a woman definitely marked by her era and some of her quotes underscore the very issues that arise when engaging in feminist film theory as Patrice Petro astutely observes:

As the history of feminist film theory so clearly demonstrates, the very attempt to ‘find’ a female subject has led to a paralyzing situation in some feminist film histories, which tend either to affirm a socially constructed feminine identity or to reject any attempt at self-naming at all.

Yet one must not fall too deeply into the trap of examining films that at this point in time are around ninety years of age by current social mores. Be it in telling a tale of a wife distressed by her relationship with her oafish husband with a different kind of tragic capper (The Smiling Madame Beudet), A farcical look at a cruise romance (Invitation to the Voyage), or the impossible conflict of clerical celibacy as seen through the eyes of a woman (The Seashell and the Clergyman), her vantage point on these dramas was unique in and of her perspective alone even if she did not have different aesthetic aims than many, but that she had too.

“It is unacceptable that half of humanity continues to be written off.” Despite her exemplary career, during which she was compared to such cinema luminaries and innovators as Sergei Eisenstein and Jean Renoir, Dulac experienced erasure both during her life and after her death. Over a century later, women directors are still grossly underrepresented in the film industry, women’s stories dismissed as unbankable by producers, and it is still unacceptable.

Flitterman-Lewis expanded upon that notion by saying The Seashell and the Clergyman was “a more intriguing field of inquiry, for it thematizes woman as a force of desire within the production of the filmic writing itself”.

If you get too bogged down in labeling you could be missing the textual intrigue in examination of the technical. If you want to label her as a surrealist impressionist, you can What ratio she filmed these stylings in, and whether this film fully fits the surrealist mode, and if in The Seashell and the Clergyman she gets to shout “FIRST!” rather than Un chien andalou, is not as important as having created the work itself and how she advanced the aesthetics of visual of storytelling, and engaged in an active dialogue both in her work, in her writing on film, which establish an exchange between high and popular culture, art and commerce.

 “The avant-garde and commercial cinema, or the art and industry of film, form an inseparable whole.”

Germaine Dulac

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In this balancing act, Dulac found the equilibrium for other forms of exploration that paved the way for her presaging other cinematic developments.

Her filmic approach to sport in her documentary of the Tour de France anticipated Leni Riefenstahl. In 1919, Dulac set up her own distribution office in New York, becoming one of the first foreign filmmakers to do so. She also distributed several of her films through London studios.

Francois Truffaut on the set of Confidentially Yours (1983, Le Films du Carrosse)
Her dialogue between art and criticism and commerce and art she would foreshadow things not just like the The New Wave, where a group of young French critics viewed and studied film voraciously with the intent to study the landscape, but in embracing the avant-garde and popular cinema she anticipated not just one of the New Wave idols, Hitchcock, but in professing the auteurist belief can be found in more broadly accessible film types she anticipated the likes Spielberg.

III. QUESTING FOR DIALOGUE

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Her insistence on creating and persisting upon a dialogue about the nature of film, challenging preconceived notions while the art was still in its youth, cannot be underestimated in its importance in affecting the form’s aesthetic development.

When the cinema was a purely visual art form there was truly more a case to be made against intersectionalism. With the advent of sound, cinema became the crossroads of all artforms, the cinema and its forerunners became much closer. However, seeking ones own voice, ones own means of creation, and standards of narrative and technique was a necessity. The only way to adequately establish such beliefs were to experiment and to share your thoughts with colleagues. This exchange of different ideas, especially when one has a unique view of cinema is a necessity:

I actually had the desire to become a dramatist, but when some pecuniary circumstances obliged me to abandon this first path to chose that, at the time more lucrative, of the cinema, I had no regrets. However, in the beginning I did not understand the importance of the cinematographic expression in its entirety. Only by using ideas, lights, and the camera was I able, by the time I made my first film, to understand what cinema was, art of interior life and of sensation, new expression given to our thought … an art non-tributary to the other arts, an original art with its own meaning, an art that makes reality, evades from it while incorporating it: the cinema spirit of beings and things!

And Dulac was certainly not one to run from nuance and say things that very nearly contradicted each other (but not quite), as this quote from the same interview proves:

I believe that cinematographic work must come out of a shock of sensibility, of a vision of one being who can only express himself in the cinema. The director must be a screenwriter or the screenwriter a director. Like all other arts, cinema comes from a sensible emotion … To be worth something and “bring” something, this emotion must come from one source only. The screenwriter that “feels” his idea must be able to stage it. From this, the technique follows.

Not only would this philosophy be embraced by the New Wave but further down the line would appeal to many modern day actors.

IV. NOUVELLES VOGUES

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The French word vogue is now so synonymous with fashion that it’s full embraced in the English lexicon, the name of a magazine, and a hit song by Madonna all bear its name. However, it is one thing to introduce things as the latest trends, but it’s quite another to explore new notions so throughly that they tend to permanently affect an aesthetic landscape, which is what it seemed Dulac did.

She maintained an ongoing dialogue between different models of cinemas that the auteur and the European art cinema would later crystallize into oppositional clusters, despite their interrelations in the film industry and in the production and distribution policies of European governments. She established a more consistent correspondence between film theory and practice, personal view and formal expression, aesthetic and technical considerations. Although her filmmaking career ended relatively early and she subsequently pursued a more administrative role at Gaumont, she continued to write and lecture on film, maintaining her intellectual and aesthetic commitment to cinema until her death.

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Dulac avoided the contradictory intentions of auteur critics and filmmakers by keeping the contradictions in check through a dialectical position in her filmic and theoretical practices. From this perspective, her auteurism also invites one to reconsider the conceptualization of the auteur in different historical and critical frameworks.

If one were to take too cursory a glance at the career trajectory of Germaine Dulac one might be too quick to dismiss it, as one where she transitioned from more literary-based traditional films to impressionist and surrealist works to newsreels. However, the back and forth of these works is more involved than that, and her interests even more varied than that as she also wrote plays that were performed and engaged in theatrical criticism.

One need look no further than her Wikipedia entry to see disinformation spread with a generic, unsupported claim that “Her career as filmmaker suffered after the introduction of sound film and she spent the last decade of her life working on newsreels for Pathé and Gaumont.”

As if this was some sort of failure on her part, running the nonfiction film department of France’s oldest film distributor and writing presciently about the importance the newsreel could hold. Poor thing. It made me nearly want to create a Wikipedia account just to flag that nonsense.

The title of this piece has been purposely been selected for its trace of irony. For Dulac was not seeking the next trend like a bandwagon to jump on but instead was seeking to introduce new concepts and change the paradigm wherever and whenever she could. First, let us look at that aforementioned, and scoffed at by some Wikipedians, newsreel work:

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La Mort du Soleil (The Death of the Sun)

The team she headed at France-Actualités made and sold to distributors, including its patron Gaumont, a weekly compilation of about twenty minutes made up of short news items. In the 1930s, cinema programmes usually consisted of a short film, and a newsreel, before the “big film”. News theatres offering non-stop newsreels and cartoons were just opening. About five companies, including Pathé, Eclair etc., competed for contracts. A typical newsreel programme from the archives of France-Actualités, for 2 March 1934, ran for 20-30 minutes as follows :

  1. Belgium: accession of King Leopold
  2.  Lake Placid bobsleigh competition
  3. ‘Paris-humour’: a taxi-driver’s strike, using a puppet
  4.  Maiden voyage of the Normandie
  5.  The mysterious death of local councillor in Dijon*
  6. General review of the army garrison in Algiers
  7. Children’s string band in Montmartre
  8. Police work: how laboratories help trace criminals
  9. Film awards at Harry’s Bar, Venice
  10. Two air force planes collide in mid-air
  11.  Funeral of victims after a street riot
  12. Saint-Malo fisherman’s religious procession

When one characterizes working on newsreels as a career that is “suffering” the inference is that nonfiction films are less than, that person has without careful examination answered the question why film even needs to exist. Germaine Dulac examined that question, and make no mistake based on what little I read, and knowing there’s more to come, she never overlooked the basic question, which I’ve seen too few tackle:

When the cinema was first discovered and given mechanical and technical form by the Lumière brothers, it took by surprise a world by no means ready for it.

If we compare cinema with the invention of printing, that too had brought upheaval, by finding a completely new means of spreading the written word, but it did not create any new form of expression: on the contrary, it appeared in response to a need. […] Commercial entrepreneurs had created a “need” for cinema among popular audiences before artists had had a chance to reflect on its possibilities.

In fact many of Dulac’s crusades were not shortsighted in their aims but seeking to create a cinematic framework and reexamine definitions that were, in her estimation, too quickly set in place in the art’s infancy.

Her wish to unify creative responsibilities in the figure of the filmmaker insists upon the need to break away from the literary and theatrical notion of authorship in French culture. For Dulac, abolishing the expression metteur en scène (which she considered reductive because indebted to its theatrical origins) would have meant dispensing with a concept that at the time was, even more so than in literature, almost exclusively identified with male authorship.

The foreword-looking nature of her film thought was especially prescient when it came to the newsreel:

The public has learnt to notice any changes in their attitude, their appearance or their gestures. Familiarity starts to breed sympathy and perhaps understanding of ideas. Greater familiarity leads to more informed judgment. Walls come down. The vagueness of speeches can be harmful. The precision of the camera brings the clarity of truth.

Thanks to newsreels, we can enter into diplomatic discussions, into quarrels or alliances between peoples, and we can learn about their society.

The dialogue she was interested in was just not in traversing the divide of criticism and creation, but also in meandering from one style of filmmaking to another.

In remaining working on newsreels Dulac kept some of her focus always on what many (mostly men) thought the original function of the motion picture was going to be: the recording of real life events rather than staged, scripted dramas or comedies.

In her avant-garde work she focused on another major tenet of the cinema the juxtapostional relationship of images through editing technique, the quasi-musical rhythm it by itself could create, and the mimetic ability to reflect the workings of the conscious and subconscious mind, as well as the alchemical tricks that could be achieved by techniques in post production such as super-impositions split-screens and the like.

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The Dancer’s Prism

While traveling back and forth between the artifice and veracity of film she was able to underscore the impartiality necessary to accurately convey current events and what cinematic techniques could be manipulated to mold interpretation. In short, she put out a primer on how to interpret the influence of propaganda on newsreels and films.

The cinema, with its whirlwind of moving images, delivers what we all dream about, all the things that escape conscious thought.

What lessons could have been learnt if the cinema had been invented a hundred years earlier, if it could have captured the ancien régime and then the events and people of the French Revolution!

In future years, historians will unquestionably go to this source rather than to written documents, because thanks to film, they will be able to reconstitute an event not merely in the imagination, but with an exact visual image.

The result of this little survey was as follows: the items I had selected from the weekly programmes were actually dependent on each other: one thing had led to another. When stripped of irrelevancies, their graph told an inexorable tale. The cinema was truly in the service of history.

This is another example in which the cinema binds together the scattered forces of humanity and coordinates them into a single current which thereby gives them wider distribution.

If that isn’t enough to convince you that her aims were for the future and the overall betterment of the artform, perhaps nothing else could convince you, but in fact there is more.

From 1930-1935, Dulac was the artistic director and nonfiction filmmaker at Gaumont, one of France’s largest and oldest production houses. She also assisted Louis Lumière in creating France’s first major film school, L’École Louis Lumière, where she taught until her death in 1942. Dulac was fundamental to the 1935 nationalization of the French film industry and in 1936 helped establish the Cinémathèque française.

If you reached this point and are itching to see some of her work, my mission has been accomplished. Below is what was readily available online. Enjoy!

V. PURE FILM: Or, Don’t Take My Word for It Just Watch

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First, what is one of her seminal works.

“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.”

 

The Smiling Madame Beudet (La Souriante Madame Beudet) (1923)

 

Invitation to the Voyage (L’invitation au voyage) (1927)

The following quote perhaps describes this film best, for even through its experimentations in repetition, in shot length, even without the framework of the source material, and the tongue-in-cheek commentary keeping this quote in mind one will see it embodied on celluloid.

A film’s characters are not the only important things; the length of the images, their contrast and harmony, play a primary role alongside them. A new drama made up of movement, finally understood rationally, asserts its rights, magnificently leading us towards the symphonic image poem, towards the visual symphony beyond familiar formulas where, like music, emotions burst, not into deeds or actions, but into sensations.

Below you will find links to both a monochromatic and a sepia-toned version of the film. The monochromatic one features a more logical scoring option in my estimation inasmuch as I find jazz to rarely be fitting accompaniment to silent cinema, and is frequently anachronistic.

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The Seashell and the Clergyman (Le coquille et le clergyman) (1928)

After more than seventy years, Germaine Dulac’s film The Seashell and the Clergyman surely merits that we take another look, as we reclaim Dulac’s rightful place among pioneering filmmakers of the early avant-garde. – Maryann De Julio 

 

Spanish Dances  (Danses Espagnoles)  (1928)

Some of the earliest works of the silent cinema were merely cinematic records of particular dance styles or routines. In excess of two decades later, Dulac here pushes that idea forward with the technology available to her.

Celles qui s’en font (1928)

The music video was hotly debated innovation in the music industry in the 1980s. Today, it is such an afterthought it’s rarely discussed at all. More than a half-century before that Germaine Dulac already experimented with the form.

 

Étude cinégraphique sur une arabesque (1929)

This was the first of Dulac’s shorts I watched. Borrowing nomenclature from ballet and combining it with her shock of images she creates a study in motion created by both her mise en scène and editorial choices. It is a symphony of movement.

 

Retour à la vie (1936)

I could not find a subtitled version of this film unfortunately. Some of the drama is readily apparent and visual. It’s only the detail that is lost in this talkie. However, it is another example of Dulac’s preoccupation with the juxtaposition of city life in Paris versus the very different provincial existence in the rural areas of France.

 

Coda

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Beauty and the Beast (2017, Disney)

This Paris-province conflict is still a reality of modern-day France, and the examination that Dulac was so fond of sees itself exemplified this very year as Disney in expanding the story of Beauty and the Beast for the live action version had Belle, Maurice, and her late mother as Parisians until she was taken by the Black Death.

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6 comments

  1. Movies Silently · March 29

    Thanks so much for joining in and cutting through some of the myths surrounding Dulac. She really was an astonishing talent.

    • bernardovillela · March 29

      You’re welcome. Glad to do it! Glad I learned so much by jumping in.

  2. Silver Screenings · March 29

    Awesome! You’ve provided almost a full semester on Germaine Dulac. (Shhh: I’ve never even heard of her before. Please don’t throw anything at me!)

    Thank you for embedding her films, as well. I had a quick look at a couple of them, and I know I’ll love them. I’ve bookmarked your page so I can come back and enjoy. Thanks again. 🙂

    • bernardovillela · March 29

      Haha, no worries. I hadn’t before signing up. I was glad to learn of her though.

  3. Great post! I would like to invite you to add it to this week’s Classic Movie Marathon Link party http://classicmovietreasures.com/classic-movie-marathon-link-party-premiere/

  4. Joe Thompson · March 30

    Hi Bernardo. I had run across Germaine Dulac’s name in connection with movies like “The Seashell and the Clergyman,” but I hadn’t know about the great breadth of her career. I was especially struck by her move to actualities in the 1930s. “the items I had selected from the weekly programmes were actually dependent on each other: one thing had led to another. When stripped of irrelevancies, their graph told an inexorable tale.” I found that quote interesting because many preserved American newsreels are not intact as they were presented. Instead, they were cut up to be recycled in various ways. I wonder if this happened to her work from that period.

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