Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Silent, so You Can't Hear the Complaining

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.


  1. I'm thinking this couple could have been the mold that created Fred and Ethel Mertz.

    I don't know which of the two I pitied most. Both had moments of sensitivity when they seemed likable, when monsieur bent to kiss his sleeping wife only to get the glare of distaste, his walk downstairs with the cat on his shoulder and his sorrow upon breaking the puppet showed he was worthy of some empathy while Locking the piano and constant battle in the placing of the flowers shows his need to control his wife and her surroundings was evidently a problem. Her day dreams showed her dislike for her situation. When the gun does get fired, it seems evident that the husband was shocked and seemed sincere in his shock but did not seem to realize that the bullet was meant for him. Another interesting aspect, as the couple husband is clutching his wife, the wife does not reciprocate. We see a puppet show in the frame behind the couple which seems to be mirroring the activities of the room. Why? I wish I knew.

    I felt that if Germaine Dulac deserved a place in "The Book" that she would be better represented by "The Clergyman and the Seashell" which is a surreal film more in the "Un Chien Andalou" vane, actually predating it by at least a few months. and I love this entry in wikipedia...
    The British Board of Film Censors famously reported that the film was "Apparently meaningless" but "If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable"

  2. I actually liked this film, or at least appreciated it aesthetically and technically, although I can appreciate your comment that it "only felt like three hours". It was pretty slow moving.

  3. I think it's fair to say that each movie hits us at a particular time and place. Who knows? If I watched this again in six months, I might appreciate it a lot more.

    I appreciate, as Ken suggests, that Dulac isn't simply blaming the man for everything. Certainly he has his issues, but there are moments when I felt that he truly was sympathetic. He may not understand or appreciate his wife, but I got the sense that he really did love her. Is it fair that I feel like the fault here may be more in her? Maybe she should express herself rather than withering in silence. Maybe she can't. But I would have liked it more if she did more than simply daydream.

  4. 'Yes, this film is so dull that I forgot I was watching a film." - you are hilarious. And i agree entirely with you. Boring and probably not as essential as something else from this year in film.

  5. Looks like I found my quote for when this one shows up in the club.

  6. I decided to use YouTube to watch as many of the early 1001 List movies as I can (but just the ones I haven't seen). On 1001Plus's version of the list, Peter Ibbetson is the 100th movie and there's only 18 of the first 100 movies I haven't seen.

    So I think this is what I'll do on Sundays for a while. I'll take a look at what's available and see if I'm in the mood for anything. I think about how much I enjoyed The Great White Silence earlier this year and that makes me look forward to it. Then I think of The Wheel, a four-hour French silent film I haven't seen, and I want to cry.

    But I'm actually looking forward to Nanook of the North and The Man with the Movie Camera. And Judge Priest looks interesting. I'm thinking this might be fun. At times.

    When I've seen as much of the first 100 as I can, I'll think about whether or not I want to go on.

    I have things to do today, so I decided to watch The Smiling Madame Beudet because it's short. I'm only four minutes into it and I hate Madame Beudet already. What kind of killjoy turns down the opera like that? This could be a fun movie about going to the opera to see Faust! But I already have a feeling it's not going to be that.

    1. A few things quickly:

      My version of the list comes from Chip Lary, who is more or less the listkeeper for me and a lot of other people. Chip came up with a way in which the list order can be kept consistent, so every year when I update, I update specifically off what Chip does. Chip deserves all of the credit.

      Peter Ibbetson was, in my opinion, a poor addition.
      The Wheel is too long, but it's worth seeing.
      Nanook of the North isn't as good as The Great White Silence, but I liked it.
      I loved The Man with the Movie Camera, but I'd recommend looking for the version with the soundtrack by The Alloy Orchestra.
      Judge Priest is racist as all hell, but it's cool to see Will Rogers on camera.

  7. I rather enjoyed it.

    Still, it seems like a lot of fuss over the worst gun-safety PSA ever made.

    I want to see it remade with John Goodman and Cate Blanchett as Mssr, and Madame Beudet.

    1. I'd watch this with Goodman and Blanchett. I just wish there was something here to really care about.