The Divided Artist: Germaine Dulac
Germaine Dulac is a schizoid artist, like the famous image of the human head cracking down the middle in “The Seashell and the Clergyman” (1928): a corpus callosum separates her drawing-room dramas from her experimental phantasmagorias, though plenty of her films straddle the divide, veering from elegant explorations of bourgeois life and marital discord, into delirious evocations of dream states and abstract angst.
In this, Dulac was in tune with a certain loose school of French cinematic impressionism, encompassing the work of Jean and Marie Epstein, Louis Delluc, Marcel L’Herbier, Dmitri Kirsanoff, and most famously Abel Gance. This is not to suggest strong personal ties between all these filmmakers (Kirsanoff was a notable outsider) or any consciously shared mission or manifesto, but all of them sought expressive stylistic choices, often involving blurring and distortion of the image to evoke moments of overwhelming emotion, breaking free from the “photographed play” form of cinema increasingly popular in the 1920s.
Generally speaking, in Dulac’s features, the rational mind dominates, though with irruptions of swirling mania and subversive feminist intent, whereas the shorts are allowed the freedom of complete abstraction, often taking their forms from music rather than story.
In “Theme and Variations” (1928), Dulac intercuts the movements of pistons, wheels, and other mechanical parts, with female dancers gyrating and bending in sympathy. The startling effect is threefold: we are made to appreciate the mechanical composition of the human body, with its hinges, sockets, and so on; we perceive the dancers partnering the machines in a cybernetic pas de deux; and, since the machines seem so damned hard and male, there’s an inescapable sense of sexual coupling between woman and machine that may not have been consciously intended, but which makes the film a perfect short to complement David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) or Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989).
“The Seashell and the Clergyman” is one of Dulac’s most celebrated films, though one denounced by its screenwriter, Antonin Artaud, as well as by the British censor, who banned it, pronouncing the film, “so cryptic as to be almost meaningless. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable.” A magnificent piece of film criticism from an unexpected source.
Anticipating “Un Chien Andalou” (1929), Dulac’s film is a succession of startling, oneiric images, with a kind of narrative of forbidden lust struggling to manifest itself through the parade of surreal tableaux. Artaud and Dulac’s film is both more painterly than Dali and Buñuel’s, and more cinematically flamboyant. There are atmospheric and mysterious camera movements within dark, sepulchral spaces that are beautifully designed and more… glamorous? — than the deliberately banal interiors and street scenes of “Un Chien Andalou.” Buñuel evidently wanted his bizarre imagery to contrast sharply with the mundane settings, whereas Dulac invents a world of intrigue and exoticism where the strangest occurrences seem at home. Those giant checkerboard floors!
Dulac’s slow-mo, jump cuts, and occasional defocused shots are arranged rhythmically, more concerned with producing an effect of visual music than with progressing a plot or drawing emotion from key moments, and its perhaps this preoccupation with the look and the rhythm that makes Dulac’s straight dramas less interesting to me: unless she can find an opportunity for abstraction and delirium, she can’t bring to life the full metabolism of her talent.
“The Smiling Madame Beudet” (1923) shows the controlled and loose aspects of Dulac’s film language in a kind of balance. The plot is simple, implausible, but grounded in a degree of naturalistic detail. The unhappily married Madame Beudet is tormented by her grotesque, imp-like husband, whose favorite joke is to aim an unloaded revolver at his head and pull the trigger, laughing at the anxiety this produces in his spouse. So, one day, she decides to load the pistol.
What follows is a slow erosion of the film’s realist style and the invasion of impressionistic and expressionistic tropes. The mounting anxiety that seizes the heroine as she waits for hubbie to blow his brains out is rendered, not merely in a Hitchcockian succession of ever-tightening angles, but in a rush of warping images and blurring filters that seem to melt reality, fracturing and distorting everything to the point of fever-dream madness. Editing is used to fragment the world rather than assemble it in coherent narrative order, building to a frenzy of emotion and, to our vast relief, an eventual resolution.
A feminist and an artist who believed in extending the range and power of the film medium, Dulac was limited not by her powers of invention but by the constraints of commerce: her last work in movies seems to have been in the newsreel company France-Actualités, where she strove to make simple observational films about small subjects, exploring the artistic possibilities of a form that had been given over entirely to crude journalism.
The failure of the company and a stroke Dulac suffered ended her filmmaking. When she died in 1942, it took three weeks for her obituary to appear, so inherently controversial was the example she set as a feminist filmmaker. The qualities that made her seem dangerous then, of course, add to her allure today. A woman making films in a male-dominated industry, looking for workarounds to escape the tyranny of narrative; undercutting the propaganda of the patriarchy. How many currents is it possible to swim against at once?
A retrospective dedicated to the work of Germaine Dulac begins at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on August 24 and ends on August 30.