PRINT September 2018



Still from Germaine Dulac’s La coquille et le clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman), 1928, 35 mm, black-and-white, silent, 39 minutes 30 seconds. Woman (Génica Athanasiou). Clergyman (Alex Allin).

THE STATUS OF female filmmakers in the twenty-first century remains grim. In 2016, two federal agencies began an investigation into discrimination against women directors in Hollywood, prompted by the ACLU’s abysmal findings on sexism in the industry. In June of this year, the Directors Guild of America published a report on the 651 films released theatrically in the US in 2017—from the microbudgeted to the big-studio-backed—which found that women accounted for only 16 percent of directors.

Against this bleak data, several initiatives from the past five years have reminded us of the scores of women around the globe who made major contributions to cinema in its first decades. These have ranged from Web resources (such as the Women Film Pioneers Project, launched in 2013) to box sets (Kino Lorber’s forthcoming collection “Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers”) to screening series (Anthology Film Archives’ 2016 retrospective “Woman with a Movie Camera: Female Film Directors Before 1950”). All seem to advance this slogan: The past is female.

Still from Germaine Dulac’s La coquille et le clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman), 1928, 35 mm, black-and-white, silent, 39 minutes 30 seconds. Woman (Génica Athanasiou). Clergyman (Alex Allin).

Such important efforts have restored to prominence names that have long been overlooked or forgotten: Alice Guy-Blaché, Ida May Park, Lois Weber, and many others. Of these distaff innovators, the French filmmaker Germaine Dulac (1882–1942)—who is the subject of a retrospective that kicked off at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York in August and travels to Los Angeles this month—is especially worthy of rediscovery. The director of what is widely considered the first Surrealist film, La coquille et le clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman, 1928), which premiered a year before Luis Buñuel’s Un chien andalou, Dulac was also openly, resplendently queer. Several works by this debonair butch—Henry Miller, an ardent admirer of her films, called her “one grand Lesbienne”—unsparingly portray the despair of heterosexual marriage or slyly celebrate same-sex couplings. Fluent in both experimental and more conventional modes of filmmaking, Dulac was committed equally to the art and commerce of the new medium. In 1929, after being awarded France’s Legion of Honor, she remarked: “I’ve always tried hard, in the course of my production, to serve the cinegraphic industry by making commercial films, and the cinegraphic art, by making avant-garde films.”

The director of what is widely considered the first Surrealist film,
Dulac was also openly, resplendently queer.

Born Charlotte Élisabeth Germaine Saisset-Schneider in Amiens, a small city on the Somme River in northern France, Dulac was primarily reared in Paris by her paternal grandmother, a Franco-Polish aristocrat. Other forebears included captains of industry and a national-defense secretary. According to Tami Williams—author of Germaine Dulac: A Cinema of Sensations (2014), the sole book to date on the filmmaker in any language—this family legacy served as a “counter-model” for Dulac’s politics, which favored feminism and socialism, while also providing the funds needed for her artistic and reform-minded endeavors. In 1905, she wed Albert Dulac, the scion of a wealthy family, who shared and further encouraged her political and cultural interests; until they legally separated in 1922, they lived in an open marriage as Germaine embarked on several relationships with women.

From 1906 to 1913, Dulac contributed theater criticism (among other pieces) to the feminist weekly La Française while working on her own theatrical and literary projects. In 1916, with her lover Irène Hillel-Erlanger, a socialite, poet, and novelist, she formed a cinema-production company ultimately known as Les Films DH. That same year, Dulac directed her first movie, Les soeurs ennemies (The Enemy Sisters; Hillel-Erlanger wrote the screenplay), about the rupturing of the sororal bond between two orphaned siblings after the younger sister marries. (This film and the five that Dulac made immediately afterward are all thought to be lost.)

Germaine Dulac, La souriante Madame Beudet (The Smiling Madame Beudet), 1923, 35 mm, black-and-white, silent, 38 minutes. Madame Beudet (Germaine Dermoz) and Monsieur Beudet (Alexandre Arquillère).

Marriage is portrayed as an even more immiserating, and immuring, force in La souriante Madame Beudet (The Smiling Madame Beudet, 1923). Told with few intertitles, the film concerns, in Dulac’s own words, “the life of a soul”—that of the suffering protagonist of the title, played by Germaine Dermoz. Her buffoonish cloth-merchant husband (Alexandre Arquillère) interrupts her peaceful moments of reading Baudelaire or playing Debussy on the piano with his blustery importuning—and, even more grotesquely, with his sick running joke of pretending to shoot himself in the head. Via ghostly superimpositions, slo-mo, and distorted photography, Dulac keenly depicts Mme. Beudet’s dreams and fantasies, her lone means of alleviating her wretched life in the provinces, shackled to a petit-bourgeois fool. In the most fantastic of these sequences, Madame flips through a magazine to an article on a dashing tennis player (portrayed by a real-life French Olympian), who emerges from the page and vanquishes her oafish spouse.

Sports and dance are recurrent motifs in the films of Dulac, whose interest in the rhythm of movement was a crucial component of her desire to create “pure cinema.” (In 1928, she wrote, “The cinema can certainly tell stories, but one must not forget that the story is nothing. The story is a surface. The seventh art, the art of the screen, is the depth that extends beneath this surface made perceptible: the elusive musical.”) In L’invitation au voyage (Invitation to a Voyage, 1927), Dulac does away with nearly all intertitles, save for text at the beginning that includes a fragment of the Baudelaire poem that provides the movie with its name and a note from the filmmaker herself, which concludes, “I tried to communicate the idea through the images. I hope the spectators support my attempt.”

L’invitation, which Dulac also scripted, is another portrait of a joyless union. An unnamed woman (played by Emma Gynt), neglected by her husband, who’s frequently away on business, takes herself to a nightclub. Outside the boîte are a bellboy and a cop—roles both played by women in male drag. The sexual and gender fluidity continues inside: The lonely wife appears to be transfixed by a sleek, severe brunette flapper at the bar. The marine officer (Raymond Dubreuil) who approaches the unaccompanied spouse is a dead ringer for Rudolph Valentino, but is even more feline, more feminine than that delicate screen idol. As couples dance and various musical acts perform, the atmosphere of carnal possibility is enhanced by scenes of the heroine’s own reveries after the military man sits at her table. The seduction goes awry, but Dulac’s closing flourish doesn’t: a hand (presumably hers) writing FIN with a fountain pen and then signing GERMAINE DULAC.

Germaine Dulac, L’invitation au voyage (Invitation to a Voyage), 1927, 35 mm, black-and-white, silent, 39 minutes. Woman (Emma Gynt).

Yet Dulac’s authorship of La coquille et le clergyman, which she made just a few months after L’invitation, wouldn’t be as ineradicable. The film was written by Antonin Artaud, the only one of his screenplays to be produced. Opening with the movie’s lone intertitle, which begins, “It is not a dream but rather the whole world of images . . . ,” La coquille coheres as a series of potent symbols (cockles, skeleton keys, mirrored orbs, bared breasts) deployed to advance the scenario of an enfeebled priest overthrowing a stout brigadier general in order to claim the woman he lusts after. Artaud criticized Dulac for what he considered her insufficient fealty to his script, a position also taken by André Breton during the film’s scandalous premiere at Paris’s Studio des Ursulines theater—an event at which some rowdy spectators reportedly called Dulac “a cow.”

Unfazed by the contretemps, Dulac returned to script-writing duties for La Princesse Mandane (1928), the last commercial film she would direct, an adaptation of a 1922 novel by Pierre Benoit called L’oublié (The Forgotten One). Yet, as always with Dulac, “commercial” is not synonymous with “orthodox.” A tale of an adventure-seeking functionary, Pindère (Ernst Van Duren), who travels to the Caucasus region to rescue the eponymous royal-family member (played by Edmonde Guy), the film ends with Dulac’s most overtly sapphic moment. Thanking Pindère for his valor, the princess gives the guy her diamond crown—and then walks off with the real jewel, the “lady’s maid” who escaped with Her Highness.

After this lavender milestone, Dulac had a string of major accomplishments. In 1932, she established the newsreel company France-Actualités, for which she would direct hundreds of short nonfiction works. In 1936, she became a founding board member of the Cinémathèque Française. Before her death at age fifty-nine in 1942, she had been planning a biopic of Ève Lavallière, a noted stage performer turned devout Franciscan. Dulac’s influence undoubtedly crossed borders. She’s a forerunner to Dorothy Arzner, who, although her filmmaking idioms were limited to those of the Hollywood studio system, is Dulac’s near twin in butch mien and sartorial style. Arzner’s movies, like Dulac’s, also reveal an abiding interest in marriage and its discontents. One of the last films Dulac made was the nobly titled documentary Le cinéma au service de l’histoire (Cinema in the Service of History, 1935). Cinema, history, the history of cinema: Dulac helped shape it all.

“Germaine Dulac” ran August 24–30 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. The series travels to the UCLA Film and Television Archive, Los Angeles, September 15–23.

Melissa Anderson is the film editor of 4Columns.