Film: La Souriante Madame Beudet (The Smiling Madame Beudet)
Format: Internet video on laptop.
I knew going into this project that some films made The List because they’re great films and others were added because of some other reason. I try to appreciate those other films for what they represent rather than specifically what they are, but this isn’t always easy. I expected Within Our Gates to be much harder than it was, for instance, and buoyed with that sort of optimism, I plunged into La Souriante Madame Beudet (The Smiling Madame Beudet) with high hopes.
And those hopes got dashed pretty quickly. What this film has going for it, really, is its short running time. It could have been Les Vampires all over again, and had it been, I’d have objected pretty harshly.
The reason this film makes the list is that its director, Germaine Dulac, was a woman and an ardent feminist. This makes La Souriante Madame Beudet one of the first (if not the actual first) examples of feminist expression in film.
The title must be considered sarcasm, because Madame Beudet (Germaine Dermoz) does not smile a whole lot in this film. Most of the time, she frowns or looks wistful. The reason for her sorrow is simple: she is an intelligent, educated woman trapped in a horror of a marriage to a successful businessman (Alexandre Arquilliere) who also happens to be an uncultured oaf. While she plays the piano and reads, he stomps around and makes fun of her. When he gets too frustrated with her, he plays the same joke over and over. Essentially, he pulls a revolver out of his desk drawer, puts the barrel to his temple, and pulls the trigger. No big deal, because of course the gun isn’t loaded. When we see this trick for the first time, her reaction indicates that she’s seen it all before.
The two are a poor match for each other, and we’re intended to sympathize primarily with Madame Beudet, of course. That’s hard to do before he pulls the gun trick, though. He shows up from work and offers to take her to the theater. Okay, so at the theater is Faust and maybe Madame Beudet’s sensibilities won’t allow her to enjoy a German performance, but hey, he did bring home tickets for a show. I suppose on the one hand, that would be like me showing up with tickets to a horror movie and inviting my wife—she’d have no interest—but at least he considered her.
Madame Beudet is tired of her loveless, stifling marriage and wants out. And she hits on exactly the way to do it. When he is away, she’ll sneak real bullets into his revolver so that the next time he puts the gun to his head, it won’t be a click, but a bang. Not only will she escape the marriage, but she’ll be free to enjoy her own pursuits. Even better, the death will look like a suicide, because without the knowledge that the gun sat unloaded, it will look exactly like one. He’ll even pull the trigger himself. But, when he next pulls the revolver out of the drawer, M. Beudet makes a change to his little game: he points the gun at her instead.
I’ll freely admit that seeing this story from the perspective of the woman is an interesting one, but that’s all the film has going for it. It’s slow moving to a fault, and there were several times I had to skip back to earlier parts of the film because I’d completely drifted off or started doing something else. Yes, this film is so dull that I forgot I was watching a film.
In short, this is a “watch ‘cause you have to” not a “watch ‘cause it’s great” film. Thankfully, it’s short. It only feels like three hours.
Why to watch La Souriante Madame Beudet: The earliest taste of cinematic feminism.
Why not to watch: Because it really isn’t very good.