Germaine Dulac, a Cinema of Sensations

Best known for her Impressionist classic The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923), and the first Surrealist film The Seashell and the Clergyman (1927), Germaine Dulac made close to thirty fiction films, as well as numerous documentaries and newsreels. Yet, according to her account of a 1908 visit to Gaumont-Pal­ace, Dulac did not always like the cinema, and “thought it disgraceful that an excellent symphony orchestra… would be heard in a movie theater”. It is not surprising that this femi­nist and avant-garde pioneer, who came to the motion pictures through music, saw in this lyrical art an incomparable model for a cinema of sensations, which could transmit certain notions of ‘emancipation’.
A follow-up to the 2006 Cinema Ritrovato program Germaine Dulac, Cinéma Pur, this new retrospective broadens our vi­sion of the director’s approach to cinema as a socially conscious lyrical art, based on movement, rhythm and the “material of life itself”. Dulac’s lyricism is showcased in five silent ‘commer­cial’ features, including her earliest extant work La Cigarette (1919), and her impressionist La Mort du soleil (1921), which engages technical effects to which she attributes “a suggestive value equivalent to musical signs”. Dulac’s avant-garde call for a “pure cinema” (exemplified by her 1929 abstract films) mani­fests itself in her low-budget social realist La Folie des vaillants (1925), an exploration of cinema as “visual symphony”. An­toinette Sabrier (1927) and La Princesse Mandane (1928), exhibited here, reveal Dulac’s efforts to minimize plot and decor in favor of suggestion and sensation to create, even in her most ‘commercial’ films, a feminist and, at times, queer text.
Several programs open with a 1930s realist musical short, and a selection of sound era newsreels, which Dulac later saw as cin­ema’s “most sincere and pure” form. Shot on location, Dulac’s musical shorts – designed to accompany classical and popular gramophone recording – feature working-class subjects reflect­ing with hope or despair on their daily lives in the boroughs. The first newsreel program leads us into La Mort du soleil with an enchanting childhood spectacle, a foray into Dulac’s pre­ferred topic, the ‘new woman’, and an unusual glimpse of ani­mal life in the city. A second selection showcases regional dance, a central visual and sensorial motif of La Folie des vaillants. A third program, preceding Antoinette Sabrier, provides a varied look at French cultural and socio-political life, with a captivat­ing film on the lives of blacks in Paris, an indiscreet peek at a star-studded beach vacation featuring Mistinguett, and an enthralling performance by Fréhel of a song written by Dulac’s partner Marie-Anne Colson-Malleville. Thanks to the restora­tion of many of these films by the CNC and the Cinémathèque française, the gracious cooperation of Gaumont Pathé Archives, and of Alain Carou who provided the gramophone recordings, Dulac’s rich and diverse filmography is enjoying a deserved re­discovery.

(Tami Williams)


Programme curated by Tami Williams