1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die: Sometimes it's hard to be a woman
Many of the very early films — like 1925 and before — that have endured in the canon are epics. From the four-timeline Intolerance to the tragic life retrospective of The Phantom Carriage, many of these stories have had sprawling casts and multi-year timelines, like a great literary novel. It was refreshing, then, to watch The Smiling Madame Beudet in the context of early cinema. At 42 minutes, this brisk feature by Germaine Dulac is more like a short story come to life: two characters across a couple days, with a single, harrowing premise seen through to completion with an ambiguous ellipsis of a conclusion.
Housewife Madame Beudet is married to an emotionally-distant, casually cruel businessman: He shuts the piano while she’s playing, mocks her, carelessly moves and breaks her belongings. He’s not a monster, just a self-centered schmuck. His meanest, most manipulative habit: Threatening and pretending suicide by putting his unloaded pistol to his head to gain Madame Beudet’s sympathy.
One night, when her husband is out, the depressed and trapped Madame Beudet slips a bullet into the usually-unloaded pistol so that his next fake suicide might not be so fake. She (and the audience) wait with tension and guilt as she changes her mind, trying and failing to undo the trap before her husband inevitably reaches into the drawer to grab the revolver during an argument.
But something is different this time. Rather than pretend to kill himself, he points the gun towards Madame Beudet and fires. The bullet barely misses her, and her husband misinterprets the scenario as Madame Beudet being suicidal herself. It’s a genuinely compelling conclusion that leaves Madame Beudet no happier than when the film started. Compare it to the straightforward melodrama common of hits from the era, and the emotional ambiguity really stands out.
This movie is groundbreaking in a number of ways. First, the central perspective of a repressed woman brings life and honesty to the story. Women in early cinema are often reduced to types with little agency: damsels in distress, objects of affection to be won, etc. For a film to probe a woman’s mindset during this repressive era is enlightening. Germaine Dermoz is brilliant in the title role, restrained but simmering with resentment, conveying so much with furtive glances and shifting facial expressions. Her exhaustive state of depression carries to the viewer; I personally felt an empathic weariness as I watched.
In addition to giving us Madame Beudet’s perspective, we see her husband so unappealing and overconfident in his control of her agency, that it’s impossible not to share her disdain. Alexandre Arquillière is great as the boorish Monsieur Beudet, his grossness emphasized with harsh lighting and unflattering angles.
The second notable trait of this film is its experimental visual effects. Dulac uses a wide variety of visual manipulations: slow motion to heighten emotional impact of certain gestures; imagined cutaway scenarios (including a memorable double-exposure hallucination of a tennis pro hitting her husband’s head as if a tennis ball); distorted frames and uneven compositions to emphasize Madame Beudet’s emotional fragility.
The Smiling Madame Beudet is a peculiar but effective film, using its distinct visual traits to create a sense of instability and claustrophobia. Anchored by excellent acting and a unique, proto-feminist perspective, it remains compelling nearly a century later.
(I’m attempting to watch 1001 Films to See Before Your Die in chronological order. This is film number 12. Up next is the two-part Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, my first encounter with Fritz Lang.)