One of the shorter films on my 1920s watchlist, The Smiling Madame Beudet is a silent French film, often hailed as an early part of feminist filmmaking. At around 40 minutes, it’s an almost episode-length slice of life story, following the troubled wife of a businessman. Simple, tense and emotive rather than preachy, its theme resonates a century later with anyone who’s suffered controlling or abusive behaviour from their partner.
The movies I’m watching in my quest to see the most influential films from the early days of cinema seem to fall into two categories. On one hand, the likes of Metropolis, The General and Nosferatu are icons, known to movie buffs and many of the general public – either in name or imagery. The others, like The Smiling Madame Beudet or A Woman of Paris, are less well known but often no less influential on the medium.
The film follows Madame Beudet, the wife of a clothmaker, controlled by her husband into a life she doesn’t enjoy. While he wants to go to the theatre, she prefers to stay home and play the piano – so he locks the cover down to frustrate her and leaves. The two also battle over the placement of a flower arrangement, constantly moving its place on a table each time they pass by. More psychotically, he likes to press an empty revolver to his head and threaten to kill himself whenever he’s annoyed.
While he’s away at the theatre, and with nothing to distract her, Madame Beudet reflects on her life. She spends the evening imagining tennis players swooping in and removing her husband, before settling on the idea of placing a live bullet in her husband’s revolver. The next morning, she’s caught between trying to remove the bullet before the gun is used or staying away and letting things end as they may.
It’s this final act where the tension expertly builds, as we see the husband take his revolver from a drawer and begin to play with it. As his frustration builds over some business affairs, we know that one of his regular gun-to-the-head moments can’t be far away. Meanwhile, visitor after visitor prevents Madame Beudet from retrieving the gun.
It’s clear throughout the film that our sympathies are intended to lie with Madame Beudet, even when she becomes murderous. Her husband is essentially irredeemable, selfish and cruel to his wife, even delighting in threatening to shoot himself in front of her – presumably and odd victory as though he’ll be dead his wife will bear the guilt forever.
Madame Beudet perhaps can’t be called a feminist hero – she does set her husband up for an ironic death – but she displays an undeniable strength of character. It’s telling that her daydreams begin with visions of men coming in to save her, either by taking her away or removing her husband, but then move on to a more practical solution where she takes control. She even has the presence of mind to plan a crime that she’d never be accused of, given her husband’s known habits with the gun.
Director Germaine Dulac, a rare female voice in the 1920s, handles the subject matter with gentle ease. What could have been a miserable and harrowing film feels brisk and clipped, easy to watch despite the subject matter. The characters come to life without feeling like caricatures, especially through the close-ups of the husband in his crazed moments. It’s perhaps only the film’s final moments where it falls down, not quite matching the ambition and piercing tension of the setup. Though it feels unsatisfying, perhaps that’s the point. No fairy tale saviour is coming for Madame Beudet, nor should she rely on one.