Germaine Dulac worked with remarkably energy and passion to create a “pure” cinema with which to express the inner workings of the human mind and soul. Born in France in 1882, her love for film developed as the art itself was in its infancy, and she had fervent hopes for the direction it would take as it matured. She believed in a cinema separate from literature or theater, one that would achieve its full potential power by focussing on movement and montage, and one that would not be confined by the restrictions of narrative.
She began making films in 1915, and would continue working for nearly twenty years, shaping the evolution of cinema. Her early films were commercial and narrative, serial stories based on novels or scenarios that she or others wrote, but from the first she was more interested in the musicality of film – the ability of film to create rhythm and atmosphere that plays on the emotions of the viewer – than in the dramatic action or the story. Her films became increasingly abstract and dream-like as her career advanced. In a sense she developed an alternative definition of an “action film.”
She used film technology to create “Interior life rendered perceptible through images, combined with movement–this is the whole art of the cinema. Movement, interior life, these terms are not incompatible. What is more active than the life of the psyche, with its reactions, its multiple impressions, its swells, its dreams, its memories?” She sought to express spiritual life “…cadenced by the rhythm of the images, their duration, their dramatic or emotional intensity, following the sweetness or violence which emerged from the souls of my characters.”
In her 1922 film The Smiling Madame Beudet, Dulac tells the story of a housewife trapped in a loveless marriage, who escapes her unhappy reality with a rich and vivid fantasy life. Dulac shows her flights of fancy in beautiful sequences that illustrate the rich creative world we all have inside of us, which we can turn to at any time, no matter what our outward circumstances. It’s fascinating to me that many of the women involved in the early days or film and photography were drawn to surrealism, at a time when people were trying to develop a language of and for images. Perhaps it was a response to the fact that the “real” world was designed and controlled by men. It was a way to create or shape worlds using their own particular vision.
I love this era of film, when it was so new, unknown and full of promise. I love the way that people wrote about film, thought about film, and talked about film with such passion and urgency. It was so important to them not to squander the magical possibilities of their new medium, not to let it take a wrong direction that would result in it becoming stale or dull. I wonder how they would feel about the movie industry today, as typified by Hollywood and the Oscars, which seems so cynical, bloated and mercenary.
Later in her career, Dulac would write an article discussing French film in relation to Hollywood, but I think it could easily apply to any film made outside of the system – independent films, home movies, even – and, in fact, it could apply beyond film to any effort to express ourselves creatively, in art, or in our lives. “We may lack faith in ourselves, and that’s the cause of our trouble. Our so-called inferiority…leads us to seek perfection through the correction of our faults rather than through the development of our good qualities…Instead of seeking inside ourselves, having lost confidence, we look to the accomplishments of others…The time has come, I believe, to listen in silence to our own song, to try to express our own personal vision, to define our own sensibility, to make our own way. Let us learn to look, let us learn to see, let us learn to feel.”