Germaine Dulac was a key precursor to the surrealist films of Luis Buñuel and a crucial champion of Jean Vigo, yet unless you’re an avid silent cinema buff, you probably have not heard of her. The French filmmaker — who began with narrative films, directing what some consider one of the earliest feminist films, The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923), and who wrote passionately about pure cinema, elaborating ideas that linked cinema to dance, stressing rhythm as Maya Deren did later — may have just been too far ahead of her time as a queer woman filmmaker, and too prodigious in her output (progressing through abstract films onto socially committed documentaries) to receive proper recognition in any category.
Starting this Friday through August 30, the Film Society of Lincoln Center is screening a survey of her films. Last year, Dulac received an important reconsideration when she was included in The Specter of Surrealism exhibition at Les Rencontres de la Photographie d’Arles. The curator, Karolina Ziębinska-Lewandowska, made a point of including Dulac’s surrealist film, The Seashell and The Clergyman (1928). It’s not surprising — the riveting work, which tells the story of a priest’s relentless pursuit of a young woman, and his battle with his arch nemesis, a general, is textbook Freudian surrealism, starting with the curvaceous form of the seashell itself, which some have taken to suggest a female body organ or, more broadly, desire.
Whereas Dulac’s early films are fairly plotted, The Seashell’s narrative is spare. The film opens with the priest (Alex Allin) pouring dark liquid into bottles from an oversized seashell, and then immediately shattering them by throwing them onto a heap. Dulac is a master of mysterious mis-en-scène and the architecture she presents could be a muddied cellar, a dark bunker or a lustrous palace, a Lynchian nightmare à la Mulholland Drive. In the end, it is all these things. After the alchemy inspired introduction, we see the priest crawl and run through the streets, following the General’s wife (Genica Athanasiou) inside a church, where he tries to strangle the General (Lucien Bataille), and later chasing the wife down a forest path.
Dulac avails herself of dramatic camera angles, taking a cue from such early 20th century formalist photographers as Rodchenko. The image is also often distorted, at times stretched, other times quivering, pulsing, blurred. The film’s forms and shapes, and the actors’ bodies, are kept in perpetual motion, conveying the priest’s inner torment. In the end, we can never be sure if we are following an action or being plunged inside the priest’s psyche. The dissolves create a fluid landscape — in one striking shot, the priest sees the wife on a boat with the general, and then opens his hands, to reveal in his palms water and a sinking ship.
Antonin Artaud, the enfant terrible of French cinema and theater, who wrote the screenplay for The Seashell, deemed the film unsuccessful. This denunciation had very real consequences: Dulac was insulted at the premiere, a row ensued in the audience (it is uncertain if Artaud, present at the opening, abstained from it as he later claimed, or not), and the screening was aborted, casting a shadow over the entire film. In her wonderful book, Germaine Dulac: Cinema of Sensations (2014), Tami Williams suggests that at least part of Artaud’s objection had prosaic grounds: he was dissatisfied because, when he himself couldn’t play the priest as he was playing a monk in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Dulac instead cast a “meek, human and antiheroic Alex Allin.” As Williams points out, Dulac’s casting approximates the film stylistically to a fairytale horror, with “Allin’s gripping, claw-like gestures that often recall Max Schreck in Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922).”
At the same time, Artaud most likely had more serious artistic objections: Dulac was, after all, a proponent of pure cinema, stressing film’s unique plasticity, while Artaud considered pure cinema to be devoid of emotion. (Lee Jamieson wrote of Artaud’s opposition in her article, “The Lost Prophet of Cinema: The Film Theory of Antonin Artaud,” in Senses of Cinema; she contends that Dulac may have in fact delayed the shooting so Artaud couldn’t participate in her project, as she was wary of his demands for complete collaborative input, including editing the film.)
While on the narrative level we may think that the priest aims to save the wife from the General, the two men represent two sides of the same oppressive symbolic order. The first suggestion of this is an early shot of the general peeking (at us? his wife?) through a crack in a door, steeped in shadows, and then appearing in the same image with the priest. The General’s massive medals weigh down his uniform; this is countered by the delicate hands of the priest, with their unnaturally long fingers. Both are threatening to overshadow the female figure. Dulac thus establishes a pattern of dualities and echoes. On one hand, she articulates contrasts, such as the priest prostrated on the ground and the erect, levitating figure of the General, or the General’s bulky frame to the priest’s wane figure; on the other hand, there are formal and visual parallels, for instance, both men’s stylized acting or the General’s phallic saber, shown in at least one shot to pierce the seashell, and the priest’s long fingers.
Dulac went on to make films that espoused pure cinema even further, jettisoning narrative altogether. Her delightful short, Arabesque (1929), is an evocation of the world’s material properties. In a park scene, she films squirting water, a white sheet blowing in the wind, light pulsing on the water’s surface. Once again, there’s a wonderful tension, between lightness and fleetingness, and the solidity of objects. Into this scenario, Dulac sparingly inserts features of a female figure: a high-heeled shoe, a foot tapping, a face veiled by a light shawl. Shiny reflective surfaces once again collapse the difference between an actual thing and its representation, as was often the case in The Seashell. Dulac skillfully deploys the film’s technical possibilities, such as speeding up the frame, or multiplying images.
A proto music video, Celles qui s’en font (1930) (which in Dulac’s day was called an “illustrated record”), shows her embracing sound as the film industry was dramatically shifting. We might say that, after the much more brazen themes in films such as The Smiling Madame Beudet, the imagery in Celles qui s’en font is fairly mawkish. In the former, Dulac showed a young housewife pining for an intellectually exciting life, while imprisoned in a lackluster marriage. In the latter, dictated by the lyrics of the two popular songs, All Alone and Drifting, made famous by French singer, Fréhel (born Marguerite Boulc’h) and shot at least partly in the working-class suburb of Paris, Aubervilliers, featuring the same actress, Lilian Constantini, the filmmaker depicts a young gamine driven to suicide by the abuse and fickleness of her boyfriend. Nevertheless, there is an edge to the woman’s clearly impoverished surroundings and dress, her sickly figure not yet glamorized, as such a figure will later become in the age of Calvin Klein commercials and fashion trends like “heroin chic” (Williams wrote in the Dulac biography on Constantini’s naturalist acting style and the film’s semi-documentary aesthetic).
In 1930, Dulac would become an assistant artistic director at Gaumont-Franco-Films-Aubert, an influential production house. Yet, as Williams mentions in her biography, this role was often curtailed by the house’s unwillingness to grant her control, in an environment hostile to women. Facing such difficulties, Dulac sought to counsel young filmmakers, under Gaumont’s auspices, and to direct short nonfiction films. Nevertheless, her relationship with the company remained strained, and eventually Dulac filed a lawsuit, alleging that her specific talents and capabilities had been entirely disregarded. Today, she is a striking figure to rediscover and embrace — a prolific, protean talent, with over 30 films to her name, and, at a time of heated discussion over the discrimination against women in the film industry, a reminder that such prejudice can hide behind prestigious titles, as veiled as it is systemic.
A Survey of Films by Germaine Dulac will be screened August 24–30 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center (144 W. 65th Street, Manhattan), with a talk scheduled for August 25.