Germaine Dulac: A Cinema of Sensations

Germaine Dulac: A Cinema of Sensations

by Tami Williams

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Best known for directing the Impressionist classic The Smiling Madame Beudet and the first Surrealist film The Seashell and the Clergyman, Germaine Dulac, feminist and pioneer of 1920s French avant-garde cinema, made close to thirty fiction films as well as numerous documentaries and newsreels. Through her filmmaking, writing, and cine-club activism, Dulac’s passionate defense of the cinema as a lyrical art and social practice had a major influence on twentieth century film history and theory.

In Germaine Dulac: A Cinema of Sensations, Tami Williams makes unprecedented use of the filmmaker's personal papers, production files, and archival film prints to produce the first full-length historical study and critical biography of Dulac. Williams's analysis explores the artistic and sociopolitical currents that shaped Dulac's approach to cinema while interrogating the ground breaking techniques and strategies she used to critique conservative notions of gender and sexuality. Moving beyond the director’s work of the 1920s, Williams examines Dulac's largely ignored 1930s documentaries and newsreels establishing clear links with the more experimental impressionist and abstract works of her early period.

This vivid portrait will be of interest to general readers, as well as to scholars of cinema and visual culture, performance, French history, women’s studies, queer cinema, in addition to studies of narrative avant-garde, experimental, and documentary film history and theory.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252079979
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 07/30/2014
Series: Women & Film History International Series
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Tami Williams is an assistant professor of English and film studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Read an Excerpt

Germaine Dulac

A Cinema of Sensations

By Tami Williams


Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-09636-5


"How I Became a Film Director"
Dulac's Early Life and Pre-Filmmaking Career

Pierre de Coulevain [nom de plume of Jeanne Philomène Laperche] observes that our life, since childhood, is filled with desires, aspirations, facts, and encounters that, despite their disparate appearance, are very closely related. ... and that all lead us, sooner or later, to our destiny, to the real role we must play, and for which we are truly created.... Looking back I now realize that everything, all of my joys and dominant tastes, fit together to form this art.... that all my trials, all my projects and experiments, were part of an unconscious apprenticeship, and that the directing career to which I am devoted is the true response to my desires, the synthesis of my faculties.
—Germaine Dulac, "Comment je suis devenue 'metteur en scène' cinématographique" (1924)

Belle Époque Paris (1890–1914), where Dulac came of age, was the epicenter of all that was modern in art, science, and social politics. These developments ranged from the renovation of the literary, plastic, and performance arts (poetry, novel, theater, painting, haute-couture, pantomime, and dance), to the elaboration of grand scientific theories (Marie Curie on radioactivity, De Vries on genetic mutation, Rutherford on atomic structure) and revolutionary technological advances (electric lights, phonographs, horseless carriages, airplanes, and moving pictures). They also entailed a fundamental modernization of social attitudes, and research disciplines (political science, sociology), including a positivist (and counter-positivist) turn in philosophy (Nietzsche on human creativity, Henri Bergson on vitalism, duration, and perception), as well as the secularization of women's education under the Third Republic.

In the 1924 Ève magazine interview quoted in the chapter epigraph, Dulac aphoristically depicts her youth in this dynamic environment as the foundation for her film career. While this path may not have been as inevitable as she suggests, a study of her early life reveals many of the key persons, events, and tendencies that shaped her unique approach to filmmaking. While Dulac's diverse film career may appear disjointed or incoherent at first glance, read in context it proves to be both fluid and complex, and a mark of her extraordinary ability to move both with and against the currents of her time. Original sources, from private and public archives, indicate a great deal about her early life, from her struggle for emancipation and the affirmation of her feminism and homosexuality, and her first creative and professional activities to how she came to create a cinema that was at once visually engaging and politically effective.

"Entirely Parisian": Family Origins as Model and Counterpoint

Central to understanding Dulac is an appreciation of her family background and social standing, as well as her influential relationship with and marriage (1905–22) to Albert Dulac. Her family was both the source of her exposure to the arts, and their modernist promise, as well as the conservative and traditionalist backdrop against which her nascent activist politics emerged. While scholars have rightly highlighted her privileged social status, Dulac's tumultuous childhood also shaped her self-reliant personality and the independent social ideals that set her apart among young women of her milieu.

Pierre Maurice Saisset-Schneider (1849–1921) and Madeleine Claire Waymel (1863–1918) married in 1881. Their first of two children, Germaine Dulac was born Charlotte Élisabeth Germaine Saisset-Schneider on November 17, 1882, in Amiens, in the Somme department of Picardy, in northern France (coincidentally, near modernist fantasy and sci-fi writer Jules Verne). During her childhood, her father, a brigadier general, was stationed in various parts of rural France, from Normandy to the Haute-Loire. During her late teenage years, Dulac's parents were effectively absent. After the early passing of Dulac's six-month-old sister, Françoise Adelaide Gabrielle, in 1885, her mother was diagnosed with chronic depression, and spent extended periods at a sanatorium from 1898 until her death in 1918 at age fifty-five. While prior accounts suggest that Dulac's parents passed away at the turn of the century, leading her to seek out a new life in Paris, archival records indicate that they lived through World War I and suggest that she distanced herself from them during her adult years.

With the instability of her home environment, Dulac spent much of her childhood in Paris with her Franco-Polish paternal grandmother, Jeanne Catherine Elisabeth Schneider (1817–1901), who had a tremendous impact on her early artistic development. Not surprisingly, Dulac later referred to her birth in Amiens as "completely accidental" and considered herself "entirely Parisian" in terms of her origins and education. During her late teenage years (ca. 1897–1902), she stayed in a Catholic boarding school in the rural town of St. Étienne (near Lyon, central France), returning to her grandmother's city apartment near the Opéra Garnier with increasing frequency. This transition from rural to metropolitan, a dichotomy that reemerged with her future husband Albert, an agricultural engineer, and inspired the representation of urban modernity and rustic provinciality in her work, would have a major impact on her intellectual development, as well as the emergence of her progressive political and aesthetic ideals.

The Schneider Legacy

Dulac's grandmother, Jeanne Schneider, who essentially raised her, was a woman of great culture and aristocratic privilege—the daughter of a Polish countess, Catherine Zawelska (ca. 1795–1832), and Lieutenant-General Antoine Schneider (1779–1847), a Napoleonic colonel (and chevalier de l'empire, or "imperial knight"). The Schneider family had a foothold both in the nation's government and in its most important industrial enterprises. Jeanne's father, Antoine Schneider, and Dulac's not-so-distant great-grandfather, was the national defense secretary (ca. 1839) under the July Monarchy of Louis-Philippe I (1830–48). He was also a key player in the founding of one of France's most powerful corporations, the Creusot metallurgical empire, owned and administered by his first cousin Eugéne Schneider (1805–1875), whose exploitation of the poor Antoine later condemned. This industry's dynastic financial subsidiaries extended from the first national railway system (over which founder Antoine Schneider presided as of 1838) to its first nuclear (and electric) power industry (overseen by Dulac's cousin and future supervisor at Gaumont-Franco-Films-Aubert, Charles Schneider, until 1960). These subsidiaries included the leading French arms and weapons enterprise, which had no fewer than twenty thousand employees on the eve of World War I, and which after this human cataclysm became a world leader in its domain.

Despite her initiation to the Schneider family's imposing upper-bourgeois and industrial capitalist milieu, whose values (religious education, bourgeois marriage, wartime profiteering) Dulac later would condemn in her literary projects (e.g., novel "Denise Serpe," 1915) and films (e.g., La Souriante Madame Beudet, 1923; Antoinette Sabrier, 1926; Le Cinéma au service de l'histoire, 1935), the future filmmaker affiliated herself with the burgeoning Section française de l'internationale ouvrière (SFIO, founded in 1905 and the basis for today's Partie socialiste, PS), and several associated feminist, humanist and universalist organizations in the mid-1900s. Her progressive politics, radically oppositional in the face of her family's heritage, were most influenced by her uncle (Virgile) Raymond Saisset-Schneider (1844–1926), who lived with Dulac's grandmother from the early 1890s until her death at age eighty-four in 1901.

Early on, Dulac's "Oncle Raymond," a staunch socialist close to many of the party's founding members, took his niece to illustrious events at the Elysée presidential palace, introducing her to artists, intellectuals, and statesmen, including her future husband, Albert Dulac, in 1904. He also served as a role model for her progressive stance on politics, religion, and art education, providing the radical edge that would offset conservative predispositions. An executive member of the Conseil d'état (France's highest ruling court), and the Department of Education and Fine Arts (later the Ministry of Public Instruction and Fine Arts) under cultural luminary Jules Ferry, Saisset-Schneider helped carry out some of the widest ranging and most enduring educational reforms in modern-day France (such as access to secondary education for girls), while helping to establish other major public liberties (freedom of press, assembly, and unionization), for which Dulac would become a staunch advocate. Close to the future Socialist minister, Marcel Sembat, with whom he drafted the reforms leading to the separation of church and state in 1905, Dulac's uncle no doubt influenced her adoption of a strong anticlerical stance. Sembat, a lifelong friend who devoted much of his political efforts to bringing art to the masses and who sponsored major art salons, would be an important ally for her in the 1910s, as would future prime minister Léon Blum and ministers of education Yvon Delbos and Jean Zay. Thus, while Dulac's family heritage served in part as a counter-model for her politics, it also gave her access to considerable financial means and to a powerful support network for her social and cultural reform efforts.

Early Exposure to the arts

Above all, Dulac's family background influenced her unique career in cinema by exposing her to new schools of thought, the latest in painting and opera, as well as emergent technologies including amateur photography (1888) and cinema (1895). Belle Époque Paris was the center for a diverse reevaluation and reconfiguration of suggestive forms that galvanized the world of modern art through a variety of approaches. Among other things, this Parisian renaissance brought about new pictorial models (from symbolism to abstraction), exhilarating new dance forms (Loïe Fuller, Isadora Duncan), innovative musical compositions (Éric Satie, Claude Debussy), and widespread theatrical renovation through naturalist (André Antoine) and symbolist mise-en-scène (Aurélien Lugné-Poë, Maurice Maeterlinck). The influence of these newly emerging trends in the arts and the new representational possibilities they offered can be seen in Dulac's eclectic poems, creative drawings, lively essays, and correspondence from the late 1890s and early 1900s.

In 1904, a year in which the influence of her religious education remained robust, she expressed a deep admiration for the classical and religious works (painted panels, illuminations, tapestries, needlework, and stained glass) that she viewed at the Exposition des primitifs held at Paris's Pavillon de Marsan that spring. These medieval works were known for their masterful use of light to link beauty and divinity, estheticism and the sacred—a conception that would have bearing on the spiritual and mystical components of Dulac's artistic sensibility, later articulated in films such as Vénus Victrix (1917), Malencontre (1920), and Le Diable dans la ville (1924). Similarly, the future filmmaker noted her affinity for the works of Pablo Picasso's blue period (Paris, 1901–4), which employed monochromatic color to portray themes of poverty and social injustice, a technique that would characterize her own approach to art and social representation. At times, Dulac's work can be seen to take the form of a stylistic dualism that juxtaposes or combines a dramatic, often symbolist representation of psychic life, and a social, often realist depiction of domestic life. These early painterly influences anticipate her symbolist exploration of natural settings and lighting sources, as well as monochromatic tones (for instance, the use of sun-drenched yellow in the tinted La Fête espagnole, 1920; bitter wintry whites enveloping a bleak château in Malencontre, 1920; an array of suburban greys in La Souriante Madame Beudet, 1923).

Dulac also attended by chance, at an age that forbade her the music hall, the spectacles of U.S. dancer Loïe Fuller, whose multicolored, luminescent projections on her mobile and transparent veils stunned the Parisian crowds and prefigure the filmmaker's conception of visual music. "Could light provoke emotion? Ignite our sensibilities?" she asked. In subsequent years, she followed the modern dance performances of Ida Rubinstein and Isadora Duncan, the latter of whom conceived of her choreographic art as a "nature-inspired" manifestation of the human psyche and spirit, and thus as a liberating social tool. Dulac also frequented the opera and attended on several occasions impressionist composer Claude Debussy's groundbreaking five-act opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, based on Flemish dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck's 1893 symbolist play, which premiered at Paris's Opéra comique in April 1902. Notably, Debussy's pioneering work employed layers of sound (atonal music, orchestral tone-color) and silence to express the ineffable or elements of human consciousness or soul that are beyond language—essentially transforming Maeterlinck's "theater of silence" into a "music of silence." These terms would anticipate Dulac's ideal of cinema as visual music, alternately as a "music of silence" or a "music for the eyes." Her predilection for visual primacy and her aversion to cinematic ventriloquism and intertitles fit hand in glove with her investment in an impressionist signifying system. Alongside these diverse cross-medial tendencies, from the painterly to the operatic, Dulac's engagement with musical composition, photography, and early cinema would also leave their mark on her unique artistic and social vision.

A Passion for Music

Dulac described music as her earliest and most profound love. Struck by its ability to stimulate the imagination and allow for a reinvention of the self, she would view it as an ideal thematic, visual and structural model for the creation of an artistic and socially effective cinema in the 1920s and 1930s. "More than elsewhere," she explained in her 1924 Ève magazine interview, she found in it "joys of a magnificent intensity."

Dulac's grandmother Jeanne Schneider appears to have exercised the greatest influence on the early development of her musical sensibility: Dulac's companion and assistant Marie-Anne Colson-Malleville (1892–1971) asserted that "[Dulac] was very musical ... raised by her grandmother who was very musical ... she knew all of the operas by heart." In this early era of liveness, and brief and limited recordings, Dulac also had a considerable music library that, according to Colson-Malleville, had been in the family since 1870. Like many artists of her time (from the symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé to the pre-surrealist painter Odilon Redon), Dulac was influenced early on by Wagner's operas, especially the notion of visual equivalences (see especially Gesamtkunstwerk in "The Artwork of the Future," 1849), lending support to Theodore Adorno's assertion that cinema was born out of opera in the darkened theater of Bayreuth. As Henri Fescourt, who worked with Dulac as a producer, wrote: "When she was very young, she drank insatiably from the fountain of Parsifal [ ... ]; from the age of five, she was deeply moved by certain passages of Tannhäuser." Certainly, the key romantic character types and symbols of these operas (the chivalrous male hero; the femme fatale; the swan motif in Tannhäuser and Parsifal, presented in Paris in 1914) can be found in her films (La Cigarette, La Belle Dame sans merci), as can the expression of deeply felt emotions and visceral sensations. However, it is the role of the leitmotif, which creates suggestive meaning through repetition, and Wagner's conception of symphonic orchestration as integral to drama that is most apparent in Dulac's work. In particular, she incorporated these elements into her models of cinematic impressionism and so-called integral (i.e., abstract) cinema, which operate as autonomous, indivisible signifying systems (see, e.g., chapter 4 on L'Invitation au voyage).


Excerpted from Germaine Dulac by Tami Williams. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

Part I

1 "How I Became a Film Director": Dulac's Early Life and Pre-Filmmaking Career 9

2 The Great War and Dulac's First Films 45

Part II

3 Negotiating Art and Industry in the Postwar Context 77

4 Dulac's Aesthetic Matures 124

Part III

5 Fiction, Newsreels, and Social Documentary in the Sound Era 163

6 Popular Front Activism and Vichy 195

Conclusion 209

Chronology 213

Filmography 219

Notes 231

Bibliography 277

Index 295

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