The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923)

I have an ambivalent relationship with feminism, and I don’t really propose to go into the whys and wherefores of that fact, just accept that it is the case; I’m interested in individuals, not demographic subdivisions, and I’ve never been big on the idea that an artist’s gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, etc is enough by itself to make their art inherently interesting. Mind you, being a canonised feminist classic won’t necessarily stop me from watching something and liking it, and such was the case with Mme Beudet this evening. Our titular heroine is trapped in a marriage best described as loveless, lorded over by her husband, a bourgeois slug with a penchant for making ghoulish jokes about shooting himself. As the film progresses, we find he even dominates her subconscious; left alone in the house one night while he goes to the opera, she can’t even fantasise freely without images of M. Beudet intruding. What else to do but kill him with that very revolver he keeps playing with. This is grim stuff, but what really trips it over into despair territory is the climax where he doesn’t even realise she was trying to kill him; it’s an irony of quite astounding bleakness, and I’m kind of glad the film only clocks in around 40 minutes. Director Germaine Dulac was a rare female director in the 1920s, lumped in with the “Impressionist” movement in French cinema of that period; personally I’m still not convinced said movement really existed, and in any case this is really straight narrative dressed up with a few “subjective” experimental techniques rather than what I’d call a “real” avant-garde film as such. Whatever it is, I liked it, though I wonder how many critics who praise it as a founding work of women’s cinema note the fact that Dulac based her film upon a play written by two men…

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