The Smiling Madame Beudet (Dulac, 1923)

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The Smiling Madame Beudet, is known by many to be the prototype of feminist cinema. Directed by female director, Germaine Dulac, the film explores the role of the woman within society, especially the confined role of the domestic wife. Dulac is categorized by most scholars as an impressionist director, the style emphasizes the subjectivity of cinema, focusing on the emotional and psychological interpretation of events, rather than the rational and objective ones. Told from the point of view of Madame Beudet, the film uses extensive symbolism and fantasy to express the frustration of her circumstances.

Married to a brutish and crude man, Madame Beudet’s only comforts are her piano, and imagination. However, even the freedom of her music is controlled by her husband. He not only has the key to her piano, but during a short sequence, mocks her impassionate playing to a friend, using it as grounds for “male-bonding”. The abuse she suffers, is almost entirely psychological, as every aspect of her life is controlled and monitored. She is confined to the interior, which is classically the world of women. An especially common metaphor in pre-1970s art, the world of women is manifested as the world of domestication and the home. Dulac manages to subvert this symbol, by creating a prison through the use of windows and linear imagery, literally creating a prisoner of her character. Furthermore, even the traditional roles of womanhood associated with upholding the household and home are shown to be under the jurisdiction of the male, as he subverts and abuses even her most menial task. Though, I think it’s possible to read this as a yearning for traditional roles, I think the film emphasizes the lack of functionality of her life, opposed to her inability to take hold of her “birthright”.

This is reinforced by the symbol of the flowers, that Madame carefully arranges, only to be re-arranged brutishly by her husband every time. His lack of respect for her passionate pursuits are inexcusable, but somehow, him intruding on her “flowers” seems inexplicably crude and violent. Though there is an undeniable link between a flower and the female genitals, I doubt this is meant to be a metaphor for a sexual attack (though the film makes it perfectly clear of Madame’s lack of sexual fulfillment), but rather the very symbol of femininity. A flower kept in a vase does not have the same freedom as one growing out in the open air, but at the very least, it’s able to reach for the sun from it’s place on the table. The husband’s almost constant fiddling destroys it’s harmony, and emphasizes the complete control men have over women. The women are not even given the freedom to thrive freely within the confines of their home, and are left with little more than their own body to control.

The mirror becomes an important motif in this regard, as it seems Madame is constantly drawn in and subsequently terrified by her own reflection. An older woman, she seems to yearn for the vivacity and naivety of youth. Though one can barely imagine she was ever happy with her husband, her desire for male companionship and a sexual relationship gives insight into her deepest needs. She yearns simultaneously for courts of law, and justice, one can assume at the very least she wishes for a divorce. Her reflection teases her though, as her sadness reflects the loss of her youth. It is very easy to freely criticize the shallow nature of “femininity”, though it’s unfair to detach it from hundreds of years of oppressive domination. If a woman cannot even control her home, or her bedroom she is only left with her appearance. If she does not have a great deal of money (even if she does), her attractiveness is really the only leverage she has within a strongly patriarchal society. This was the root of early feminism, as women could not break out of their pre-occupation with their physical appearance, because they were not permitted an education, let alone any social or political standing. The fight was uphill, as those who opposed growing rights for women would often argue the lack of rationality, especially linked to the lack of interest in “important” issues, assuming that even without an education one should be rational enough to act as though one has been given one. Madame Beudet, though a “modern” woman by the early 1920s, is also middle-aged and stifled by expectations. Her yearning for divorce is frustrating because she no longer is equipped with the leverage to gain her a worthy husband. One might scoff at her crisis, but without a husband, a woman could do nothing. In many ways, a woman of her position was of even greater disadvantage of one several classes lower. It’s clear she is unequipped to handle herself, and I can’t help comparing her plight to that of Lily Bart from House of Mirth, who was raised as a woman of society, but once cast out had none of the knowledge or skills to survive in the real world.

Though in the Western world, we are lucky to have moved beyond most of the oppression of the pre-second world war two era, both the stories and the suffering of women then and now seems to take a backseat to the heroics and psychological suffering of men. Cinema especially seems to be dominated by the influence of men, behind and in front of the camera, and even great visionaries such as Germaine Dulac are all but forgotten against their male counterparts. There is both a lack of interest and empathy with stories like Madame Beudet, as they are deemed not quite serious enough for the “film canon”, and films about women are continually forgotten or debased as being trivial. Even for a short film, The Smiling Madame Beudet is ripe with nuance and depth, and feels far more modern that it’s 1923 date suggests. Perhaps I’ve vented far too much of my frustration out in this review, because the film community is not quite as bleak as I paint it, it’s just that sometimes… it’s hard to see beyond the clutter of the mainstream.
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