Saturday, 30 January 2016

Happy families… La Souriante Madame Beudet (1922)

Sometimes the manners of a hundred years just drop away and you simply see.

This film plays with your expectations and the outcome we anticipate is quite different from the one we get - such is our (my) complacency and Germaine Dulac’s genius. The director took Denys Amiel’s play of a marriage being slowly strangulated by a careless male becalmed by middle age routine and turned it into a meditation on woman’s capacity for quiet desperation: one almost without ending… It would be funnier if it didn't feel quite so true.

Hanging on... desperate
Germaine Dermoz is Madame Beudet who does indeed smile fairly often: out of acceptance, the sheer agony of her boorish husband’s humour, her lack of freedom, the absence of love and the impossibility of ever finding it and, ultimately, her own decisions…

There’s a vase of flowers on the central table in their drawing room. Madame positions it right of centre near the edge whilst Monsieur always moves it to the obvious centre. This is all things in their marriage which has been panel-beaten into rigid conformity by a husband (Alexandre Arquillière) who actively seeks out only more of the same ignoring the impact of diminishing returns by forcing himself to laugh louder.

Go ahead punk, make my day...
In mock despair, he feigns to commit suicide – what a card – by holding an empty revolver to his temple if his wife disagrees with him. He wants to go to watch Faust (the opera, it's a few years too early for Murnau’s silent version, which I would urge Madame to drop everything to see…) yet his wife refuses, preferring to play her piano, read or re-position the flower pot.

Their friends arrive and pressure is repeatedly applied – including the gun act – but she is not for turning. Mean old man that he is though, he locks the piano lid down if she is not joining in then she shall have nothing.

The friends, Monsieur (Jean d'Yd) and Madame Labas (Madeleine Guitty) are clearly as much in sympathy as her husband and the latter’s angled disregard says all you need to know about her view of Madame Beudet’s fashions.

The long suffering Madame B is at home when her husband initially returns and begins the process of setting his house in order. He sits at his commanding desk ordering the servants around and taking care of important matters whilst his wife tries to read a book.

She had been playing Debussy and was in a world of pastoral escape, with a gentle breeze accentuating the slivers of sunlight on the long grass near some imagined pool. Dulac compares the motion of her hands on the piano with her husband’s graceless shuffling of business correspondence.
She reads a magazine and imagines a hunky tennis player running to her relief and yet thoughts of her husband crash in on the reverie and fragile invention is rudely dissipated…

He’s a menace and in her desperation she takes the bullets from the left-hand drawer and loads them into the gun in the right-hand drawer – his fail-safe method of ensuring the gun is never loaded has been removed and the next time he pulls the trigger the joke will be on him.

Yet Madame B is no killer and tries very hard to empty the gun… only to be thwarted by too many people popping up in the wrong place. Husband duly arrives home ready to begin his boorish routines… it could be the death of him but there's a narrow escape.

In many such plays a dramatic incident serves to bring the wayward couple back together again but not here where his complete misunderstanding of what has just happened only makes matters worse. She looks pleadingly to the Heavens – possibly with murder on her mind and certainly with the knowledge that she is trapped – damned as sure as any caged bird to a long and tedious demise.

Germaine Dermoz
Dulac directs with impressionist invention and allows the settings to define Madame’s prison: outside there are beautiful streets and waterways whilst she is confined by role and situation to a life in which even art is an irritation. There are no title cards to directly reflect the characters' inner turmoil only the visual clues - the perfect capture of thought on silent screen.

The film is available as part of an ARTE DVD Germaine Dulac (1922-1928) - Drei Filme der französischen Stummfilm-Pionierin and can also be found on YouTube complete with a dreamily-anxious score from Manfred Knaak and played by the Kontraste Ensemble.

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