The Feminist Ideology in Germaine Dulac’s La Souriante Madame Beudet (1922)
Germaine Dulac’s La Souriante Madame Beudet (France, 1922) is hailed as one of the first feminist films in the history of cinema, a term nevertheless quite abstract and thus problematic. According to Pam Cook (1985, p.356), ‘[c]inema is taken by feminists to be a cultural practise representing myths about women and femininity’ and therefore ‘[i]ssues of representation and spectatorship are central to feminist film theory and criticism’. However, as Jennifer Hammett (1997, p.85) has mentioned, after Laura Mulvey and Claire Johnston identified the constituent role of language in relation to the operation of ideology, the feminist film theorists by conflating Althusser’s and Lacan’s theories concluded that both representation and ideology are correlative. Defining the film ―which is a system of representation― as a point of production of definitions, Elizabeth Cowie (2000, p.49) argues that it can become an index mark for definitions of women through their representations. These definitions are mainly produced by socio-political and economic practices and then ‘reproduced, reflected or distorted by film’ asserting it as an ‘ideological practise’ (p.48).
The socio-political climate in which La Souriante Madame Beudet was created is singularly interesting, because as Tami Williams (2010, p.404) has rightly pointed out, ‘[i]in contrast to its mythical designation, “les années flles” (the roaring ’20s), in France of the 1920s there was a deep fissure between women’s desires to continue their wartime experience of liberty on the homefront, and the official moral discourse of neo-natalism, which dictated conservative perceptions of class, gender, and sexuality’. Germaine Dulac by filming within an ‘intellectual, political and aesthetic milieu’ and having realized the necessity to deconstruct the dominant models of her era (Armitage 1995, p.132), became a ‘moderate feminist’ who through ‘symbolic technical effects and abstract visual associations’ in her films ‘communicate[d] her progressive […] ideas through a symbolist network based on “suggestion”’ (Williams 2010, p.404). On this paper I will examine La Souriante Madame Beudet as an exemplary paradigm of the use of these techniques, which allowed Dulac to create a text with inextricable elements of fantasy in a correlative way, making her film a by intention product of feminist ideology. More specifically, through a sequence by sequence textual analysis of the film I will try to demonstrate, on the one hand, in which ways the film carries a distinct ideology and, on the other, in which ways and to what extent this ideology can be regarded as a feminist one.
The film begins with four outdoor shots of a countryside. The next shots are preceded by the inscription “Behind the peaceful facades, souls… passions…” importing that what exists behind the forefronts of the houses, within the private spaces is not peaceful. Germaine Dulac seems to call us to see beyond the surfaces of the society’s limits, maybe beyond the surfaces of a film’s characters and even beyond the surface of her film itself. She calls us to set about a deeper and alternative reading in order to understand things that will not be explicitly presented. In the next shot what we only see is the hands of Madame Beudet (Germaine Dermoz) playing the piano and the hands of her husband (Alexandre Arquillière) who is possibly counting some coins. This shot is created by two individual initial ones, presented here in a contradictive way, calling to attention the connection of the main heroine with the sentimental world of music and art in general and that of her husband with money, work, economical independence and capitalism in which his authority is mainly based. Details like these will come in useful in semiological terms for similar conclusions during the film.
Thereafter we see Madame Beudet playing the piano alone when a shot of reeds round a lake is being displayed. It is the first shot that signifies a depiction of Beudet’s inner fantasies. We see what she imagines. As I have already mentioned, the role of fantasy is determinative since Dulac chose to express her ideological positions in the film. If we conceptualize the main heroine as a social subject, and consider Teresa de Lauretis’ (1995, p.82) claim that the representation of the unconscious fantasies is important for the understanding of the physic contradictions and divisions in the social subject, Dulac’s intentions are getting gradually disclosed and through the use of the depiction of Beudet’s fantasies judged to be succeeded. By depicting the contradictive with the reality inner desires of her heroine, Dulac demonstrates the contradiction between what she has, or most importantly what is permitted to her, and what she really needs and wants. The director by relying on Beudet’s waking dreams reveals to the spectator the heroine’s inner reality, how she experiences it. Through this contradiction between her inner and outer reality, or in Colin MacCabe’s (1986, p.182) words, through the ‘different “views” of reality which are articulated together in different ways’ Dulac, to a certain extent, challenged the maintenance of the existing social reality calling thus the audience of her era to comprehend the need for a change.
On the next sequences after being introduced to the characters of her husband and his colleague (Jean d'Yd) in their common workplace, we watch once again Madame Beudet sitting and reading a book ―another sign of her connection to the word of art― while her husband comes in and sits at his desk without greeting her. When their maid (Yvette Grisier) comes in to deliver the mails, he asks her to give him a magazine that seems to belong to his wife and examines it. This detail apparently underlines his control on her. When he later suggests her going with him to watch Faust, she declares her disinclination, a reaction that caused his anger. The inscription “Dreams…” precedes the next sequence which is consistent of what Beudet fantasizes. Inspired by an advert of a car in her magazine, she imagines herself riding one across the clouds. She then glances at her repressive husband and after that at the photo of a tennis champion in her magazine, so she imagines him coming and taking her away. Her desire is to get rid of her husband and quite interestingly she imagines that this may become true when a man who would be able to save her arrive. It was indeed difficult for a woman of her era to divorce her husband; Beudet could only look to a sleazy factor like his death, a factor that maybe justifies her attempted murder. The reason why Madame Beudet is haunted by the need to create a new, better fantastic reality is because that other world that she tries to reconstruct provides a secure retreat for her.
After jesting and asking over his friends, a stereotyped action for him as the inscription informs us, he approaches his wife and molests her while reading her magazine in order to command her attention. Later on he removes the vase on the table according to his personal taste, placing it in the middle of it. When Beudet perceives the change she puts it back in its initial place. Dulac highlights that only through these little insignificant ways her heroine is able to resist and impose her taste and personal will. As any other women of her era, she has nohow to express her differentiation, to asseverate her implicit desires, so she tries through these niggling details not to lose her self within the limits of her husband’s authority. On a next sequence we watch them eating together and Madame Beudet seems to get annoyed at the inelegant way her husband devours his food. But she is not reacting and on this point her subservient position seems explicitly revealed. While both of them have problems with each other, he is the only who has the exclusive right to complain, and not Beudet who remains silent and obedient.
When their friends arrive at their home in order to go altogether to the opera and Madame Beudet insists on her decision not to go with them, her husband repeats his joke. On this point it would be interesting to mention that Dulac intends to make the spectator identify with her main heroine since the husband is presented through a quite graphical way. His expressions are over-exaggerated and Dulac brings them out through medium shots of him and close ups to his face. We will be able to justify Beudet only if we feel exactly as she feels, what interests Dulac is her own perspective, the feminine one. As her husband getting ready to go out he repositions the vase on the table and although her wife helps him gladly to wear his clothes, when she dares to play the piano, he does not only impede her, but also locks the piano and secretly pockets the key. She is getting disappointed to find the piano locked so she chooses to read a poem. During the poem’s recitation she realizes how different her real life is compared with the fantastic one described in the poem. This scene illuminates the corner stone of Dulac’s theory that both art and intellectuality in general can play an important, if not the most important, role to the awakening of a woman. She mainly focuses on the female audience and asks them not only to watch her film, but to compare the situations that are being depicted with their own lives. In addition, in order to underline this contradiction, she shows us at first an extract from the poem succeeded by an image of her real life which comes in opposition with what is being described in the poem. The contradiction as a visual device plays an important role to the whole film. We are always aware of the other side and perspective of the things, and there is not possibility for them to change if we do not firstly realize their very proneness to get altered. We have to imagine a better reality like her heroine and the whole film foreshortens exactly that, a Germaine Dulac’s fantasy.
Ensuant to the above, her maid comes in to ask if she allows her to go out with her fiancé. Madame Beudet imagines him beside her and gets pleased with his certain tenderness. We can consider this once again as a contradiction between her maid’s connubial life and her own. Madame Beudet instinct with solidarity permits her to go, a conspirational solidarity among women in order to achieve something. Of course, the awakening is an individual process, but the change can be succeeded in terms of a collective effort. The desperate Madame Beudet after correcting the position of the vase, looks herself on the mirror. What she sees is her identical self and not a better image of it. The mirror renders only the reality… Her desires remain immitigable. The interstitial inscription “And always the same skyline…”, seems to confirm that despite her desire for a change, nothing changes, everything remains at the inmost recesses of her heart as herself remains subjugated among the four walls of her house.
The second chapter of the film begins with Madame Beudet fantasizing a fiancé coming for her, but the picture of her husband on the wall reminds that he is an impediment in her happiness. Later on she plays with her wedding ring, a symbol of her bond, the inscription “Obsession” appears on screen and she imagines her husband coming menacingly from the balcony towards her. He reappears close beside her as she stumps towards the window. She fantasizes him over and over again, always as an obtrusion, as somebody whose preoccupation confines him to only put back the vase on the table and jest. This last image possibly inspires her to load the gun with bullets. In the next morning we see him falling asleep while getting ready to go to his job dreaming of the female actor of the previous night. Although Dulac shows us what he is dreaming, all these are just component images of his dreams, and not like in Beudet’s case a depiction of his imagination. That being so, Beudet’s point of view is not disrupted and remains dominant. At the same time Beudet suffers a broken sleep and when she wakes up and dolefully looks around the room, an oscillating pendulum suddenly appears. This still does not seem to make up a day-dream of the heroine, but to stand there only for the spectator. It intercedes between her and us, it purports to be a fancy of ours, a fancy fictitiously enforced by the director, in the same way she enforces it to her heroine, her world is just like hers, a fancy. Consequently, Dulac does not simply call us to get identified with Beudet, but she compels us to commiserate her through a clock finger ticking between her and us.
After that she imagines a criminal court, a possible indication that she already feels regretful for her yesterday’s act and in all likelihood she wants to wake up and correct it, but realising her husband’s presence at the farther end of the room she pretends to be sleeping. Her husband wants to kiss her, but her abrupt awaking stops him. She is not the only one who has problem with their marriage, but in comparison to her, he as a man has greater authority to resolve this situation. When he leaves the room and she goes to stand near the window the word “Remorse” is written in an inscription confirming her decision to remedy her mistake. After some unsuccessful attempts to enter her husband’s office to apologize, by reason of the many guests, she sits before a mirror reflecting the face by three different angles to comb her hair with a desperate countenance. Now we are watching her reflex tripled, her reality remains dreary and with her decision not to go out with him yesterday her problems would treble instead of unravel the situation.
In the meantime, downstairs, her husband complains to his friend about his wife. He wrests a doll and snaps it in two telling his friend that this is what women need. Here, the connotation of the social supremacy of the man because of his might is clearly stated. The man, as a by nature more powerful animal imposes his will to the women. In order to go by their will they need violence and submission. The phrase “You know what they need” in the inscription is of high importance. This reminds us of Teresa de Lauretis’ opinion (cited in Rodowick 1984, p.142) that
‘[t]he two terms, femininity or masculinity, do not refer so much to qualities or states of being inherent in a person, as to positions which she occupies in relation to desire. They are terms of identification. And the relation between them, Freud seems to suggest, is a specific character of female subjectivity… The analogy that links identification-with-the-look to masculinity [activity, sadism] and identification-with-the-image to femininity [passivity, narcissism or masochism] breaks down precisely when we think of a spectator alternating between the two.’
And this is what the director exactly attempts, to make us muse on the aforesaid dipole, but according to Beudet’s aspect. As Claire Johnston (1999, p.33) rightly mentions, ‘[w]ithin a sexist ideology and a male-dominated cinema, woman is presented as what she represents for man’. In La Souriante Madame Beudet, however, we face an opposition, that is the man is represented the way Madame Beudet perceives him and Beudet in her turn in the way the director perceives her.
In parallel, Mr. Beudet has kept the doll’s broken head in his pocket. Alone in his office later he examines it closely. Finally he replaces the various objects of his wife ―the vase among them― and sits at his desk. Pondering the monthly outgoings he asks the maid to call his wife who later comes after a few moments hesitated. Obviously crabbing about the outgoings he takes his gun and threats that he will commit suicide, his classic suicidal joke, an action that frightens Beudet. But later, telling that she deserves such a fate, he aims at her and pulls the trigger drawing amiss. He is running towards her thinking that she wanted to commit suicide and embraces her saying that he could never live without her. He is tensely touched with emotion in opposition with her who seems to be awe-striken and cofused.
At a time in a painting behind them two lay figures appear who look alike them and move cuddled together till the drop-curtain of this imaginative theatre closes and the word “THÉATRE” is written on the curtains. This particular interstitial scene seems to be there only for the spectator and not for Μadame Beudet. The heroine’s reality is ironically parallelized with the usually happy endings of a play. Dulac reminds us that what we are watching is nothing but a piece of art, an enactment decidedly able to affect our reality, suffice it not to be perceived with the aspirations of a passive spectator who no matter what will happen in the film, he insists on a happy ending or not, a catharsis or a catastrophe. As the reality of the lay figures limited in a smaller frame out of a whole in which the film is displayed consists a piece that belongs to the reality of the heroes, so relatively the whole film, what is inhered in its frame, is a piece of our own reality. Its heroes are nothing else than what Jean Louis Baudry (1985, p.540) calls ‘specular reflections’ of ourselves, just like the lay figures in this sequence consist metonymic reflections of the heroes. Something created by others becomes a part of our own reality and it must be regarded as such with the prerequisite to open up new prospects, namely its narrative end not to bring on the end of its possibilities. Our being compromised with the end of the fiction would consist an act of reconciliation and passivity of the ideology it carries. Finally, what the director also achieves with the above mentioned find is to prepare us to realize the unprecedented irony she inculcates in the last sequence of the film.
Although the inscription predisposes us with an ostensible tranquility (“In the peaceful streets, without horizon, under the low sky, together by habitude...”), we watch the twain walking along an upward gradient that may symbolises the oncoming hard goings for both of them, especially Madame Beudet. Moreover, as they gradually ascend, Mr. Beudet walking all the more on the right side of the street, he forces his wife to walk on the pavement while he keeps on walking on the street. This is the last sequence of the film and the present detail can be perceived as a remark by the director that no matter the seemingly happy ending, the difficulties are many and deep and it will not be possible for the woman to overcome them as long as she is put aside, outside of society ―outside of the main road, the pavement. For all that, the woman must not lose heart, she has to struggle for her rights, otherwise the only solution will always be the compromise.
By inference, Barbara Klinger (1981, p.142) has mentioned about La Souriante Madame Beudet that ‘[t]he film, through a level of self-reflexiveness-the obvious theatricality of its resolution and its visual inscription of the authorial voice through Madame Beudet’s point-of-view shots-represents a feminine discourse’. As a matter of fact the dominant angle of view of the film is that of the main heroine, who furthermore can be easily identified with Dulac herself. However, as Rosanna Maule (2002) claims, in the film the ‘femininity marks a strategy of representation that explores women’s fantasies and desires’. This is what mostly Dulac is interested to express. She does not suggest concrete proposals, but she presents them through her female heroine’s desires and imaginations. She deploys the cinematic medium to present a woman’s desires ―endeavouring to identify the spectator with her―, desires that were impossible to get expressed then, like the need to get rid of your husband or the pangs of love with a lover which were incompatible and against the dominant ideology of that era. Therefore Dulac ventures to cut in the prevalent sexual ideology of that time by exposing the desires of a woman almost in their entirety, depicting thus a heroine not as herself imagines her but as the male part of the society.
Again, what is more important is the fact that Dulac defends the woman’s independence in both the family and the society not by simply creating a film with a content that may be perceived and interpreted as dissentient to the prevailing circumstances. Now that I have run through the whole movie, it is worth the try to return and focus on its end setting thus off an other considerable point/way whereby the defiance/attack of Dulac is not confined in the content of a film, so to speak in an alternative representation of a female heroine, but at the narration itself. Bill Nichols (1988, p.78) mentions about the association between narratology and ideology, and more particularly the closure of a narrative:
‘[n]arrative […] shares with ideology a set of structural mechanisms serving to generate apparent unity and coherence. It proposes a sense of closure; it provides the sense of an ending. Narrative characterizes occurrences within a given domain in such a way to make these occurrences systematic and therefore comprehensible.’
However, as we have already pinpointed, Dulac refuses an essential closure for her film. This is only a typical and superficial and perhaps a fallacious deduction since as we have already mentioned, the director impels us from the beginning to get beyond the surface. She does not simply render a story about a woman, she enacts a situation that on the one hand sets out from the reality and on the other it must return at its source, the self-same reality. This is succeeded by reminding us ―as I have already demonstrated― our role as spectators and by calling us to identify ourselves with the main heroine and share her sentiments and impasse. It is not she that has to labour seeking an outlet but the spectators for what she represents. The closure is given to the spectator and concerns things beyond the film’s framework.
As regards the woman, Dulac does not choose to idealize her heroine or just render an inverse idealistic model of a perfect woman who manages to come through since this would be judged as unrealistic. She is not additionally interested in putting on the map a certain feminist ideology, an ideology about the women’s social position, to suggest a model. What she presents are women in their own right within the limits of the dominant ideology. What matters most is that an ideology expressive of the necessities of life a woman has as an equivalent member of the society is imperative. Germaine Dulac herself intervenes through her work by actively taking a hand in the representation of what could not easily be represented. Her film is not one-sided in the sense that it tries to defend something specific by subject, since its subject is exactly the necessity to focus on a woman’s desire. Hence, even the film’s title can be taken as an ironic one as the times with Madame Beudet smiling are not many. Dulac chooses to depict what prevents her from doing so.
 In particular Althusser’s definition of ideology as ‘“the imaginary relationship of … individuals to their real relations of existence” with Lacan’s theory of the subject as constituted through language’ (Hammett 1997, p.85).
 I would not exaggerate if I declared on this point that the presumptive reflection of Janet Bergstom’s (1998, p.162) notion about the ‘fundamental interdependence between film theory and textual analysis’ on my analysis makes up a secondary purpose of mine.
 The inscriptions quoted in my essay are translations from the French and German ones of the original film.
 The inscriptions quoted in my essay are translations from the French and German ones of the original film.
 It is not insignificant that, in contrast with his wife, the husband is standing upright.
 Robert Lapsley and Michael Westlake’s (1988, p.169) mention that one of the definitions of the realistic filmic text rises to prominence its being conformable to the spectator’s existing ideology or represents reality as a particular society, proposes and assumes it.
 The case is reminiscent of an other film, the Los Olvidados (d. Luis Buñuel, Mexico, 1950) in which the wings coming down in the dream sequence can not be perceived by Pedro, but exist there only for the spectators.
 For further reading about this identification, see Musser 2007.
- Armatage, Kay (1995) ‘Nell Shipman: A Case of Heroic Femininity’, in Laura Pietropaolo and Ada Testaferri (eds.) Feminisms In the Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 125-145.
- Baudry, Jean Louis (1985) ‘Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus’, in Bill Nichols (ed.) Movies and Methods, Volume II: An Anthology. London: University of California Press, pp. 531-542.
- Bergstom, Janet (1988) ‘Enunciation and Sexual Difference’, in Constance Penley (ed.) Feminism and Film Theory. London: BFI Publishing, pp. 159-185.
- Cowie, Elizabeth (2000) ‘Woman as Sign’, in E. Ann Kaplan (ed.) Feminism and Film. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 48-65.
- De Lauretis, Teresa (1995) ‘On the Subject of Fantasy’, in Laura Pietropaolo and Ada Testaferri (eds.) Feminisms In the Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 63-85.
- Hammett, Jennifer (1997) ‘The Ideological Impediment: Feminism and Film Theory’, Cinema Journal, 36(2), pp. 85-99.
- Johnston, Claire (1999) ‘Women’s Cinema as Counter Cinema’, in Sue Thornham (ed.) Feminist Film Theory: A Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 31-40.
- Klinger, Barbara (1981) ‘Conference Report: Conference on Feminist Film Criticism’, Camera Obscura, 3(17), pp. 136-143.
- Lapsley, Robert & Westlake, Michael (1988) Film Theory: An Introduction. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
- MacCabe, Colin (1986) ‘Theory and Film: Principles of Realism and Pleasure’, in Philip Rosen (ed.) Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 179-197.
- Maule, Rosanna (2002) ‘The Importance of Being a Film Author: Germaine Dulac and Female Authorship’, Senses of Cinema, 23. [Online] Available at: http://sensesofcinema.com/2002/feature-articles/dulac (Accessed: 26 November 2013).
- Musser, Charles (2007) ‘The Clash Between Theater and Film: Germaine Dulac, André Bazin and La Souriante Madame Beudet’ New Review of Film and Television Studies, 5(2), pp. 111-134.
- Nichols, Bill (1988) Ideology and the Image: Social Representation in the Cinema and Other Media. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- Rodowick, D. N. (1988) The Crisis of Political Modernism: Criticism and Ideology in Contemporary Film Theory. Urbana: University of Illinois.
- Smelik, Anneke (1985) ‘Feminist Film Theory’, in Pam Cook and Mieke Bernink (eds.) The Cinema Book. 2nd edn. London: British Film Institute, pp. 353-365.
- Stam, Robert (2000) Film Theory: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
- Williams, Tami (2010) ‘Toward the Development of a Modern “Impressionist” Cinema: Germaine Dulac’s La Belle Dame sans merci (1921) and the Deconstruction of the Femme Fatale Archetype’, Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, 51(2), pp. 404-419.
Ι would like to express my sincere thanks to Christos Aggelakopoulos for his diligent philological support.