Thursday, November 13, 2008

Talking Cinema With Madame Dulac

When Henry Miller managed to meet surrealist filmmaker Germaine Dulac in Paris in 1930, it seemed like he might find a job in French cinema, or perhaps secure a starring role for his wife, June. But Dulac was too busy adjusting to the advent of motion picture sound to be of any benefit to Henry or June.

38-year old Henry Miller had been only been in Paris for two months [1], but was already deeply involving himself in everything the city had to offer, including cinema. At 4 Square Rapp, near the Eiffel Tower, Henry would bring his American ear to listen to the French intelligentsia discuss the cinematic arts [2]. In that first month in Paris, he was excited by an impressionistic short film by Germaine Dulac called Thème et variation (1929), with what he viewed as sexual-industrial imagery [3]. Around this time he also watched Dulac’s 1922 film, La Souriante Madame Beudet [4], which he would later list as one of the most remarkable films he’d ever seen [5]. Henry immediately sent a letter of appreciation to Mme. Dulac, with veiled hope that she might also prove to be a beneficial connection to Parisian artistic circles: “If that woman would pay me $15 a week I would go work for her. I would be proud to assist in the production of such films as she turns out.” [6]

A still from Theme et variation (1929). Excerpt viewable at Daily Motion.
By 1930, Germaine Dulac (1882-1942) was a feminist activist and editor, cinema critic, lecturer, and filmmaker. She was also a champion of “pure cinema,” young filmmakers, and film appreciation, as proven by her status as Director of the French Federation of Cineclubs [7]. La coquille et le clergyman (1927) is considered by some as the first French surrealist film [8]. Unbeknownst to Miller, Dulac, age 47, was nearing the end of her fictional filmmaking career in 1930. It was this year that French film became dominated by the use of sound [7]. Although this suggested the death of cinema as a purely visual spectacle, Dulac was starting to see film sound as a potential tool for factual documentary [9]. In fact, she was beginning a new career as a producer of newsreels [7/9] around the time that she met Henry Miller on May 16, 1930 [10].

Two stills from La coquille et le clergyman. The film may be viewed on UBU.
“How I ever got to Madame Delorme’s, I can’t imagine any more,” wrote Miller of Dulac as Madame Delorme, in a brief cameo in Tropic of Cancer. “But I got there, got inside somehow, past the butler, past the maid with her little white apron, got right inside the palace with my corduroy trousers and my hunting jacket—and not a button on my fly” (p.15). It is pretty impressive how a penniless American with little French speaking skills managed to be invited to call upon an esteemed queen of cinema. But it was Henry’s Americanism that opened the door to the “golden ambiance” of Dulac’s book-lined study, with her goldfish and antique maps [11].

The mannish “grand Lesbienne” [6] showed kindness to Henry, resting her “heavy hand” on his shoulder [11] and treating him “like a brick” [12]. “The Americans have broken new ground in making films with sound,” declared Dulac to Miller, plying him with questions about the “talkies” he’d seen in New York [13]. It seemed that Mme. Dulac had plans to direct her first speaking film in English. Thinking of his wife June, who was still back in New York and was trying to get a break in Theatre, Henry did his best to sell the idea of a great American actress named June Mansfield to Germaine Dulac, to star in her next production [13]. A few months later, June would sail back to Paris on the assumption that a great opportunity awaited her in the world of French cinema. [14]

“I succeeded in getting a promise for [June] of a job in the first English talkie to be directed by Mme. Germaine Dulac. But that won’t be until January at least,” wrote Miller on October 23, 1930 [15]. But June had already come and gone when he wrote this, after a volatile three-week visit with Henry in Paris. She could see that there was no film project waiting for her. The emptiness of that hopeful promise could not sustain June, who was broke and disillusioned [16]. Nothing more ever came of the acquaintance between Miller and Dulac.

In August 1934, Miller moved into an apartment on Villa Seurat that had recently been occupied by Antonin Artaud, who happened to be the writer of the Dulac-directed La coquille et le clergyman.

Although some of Dulac's 1930/31 short films contained elements of fantasy, her fictional film career was over. She continued to produce newsreels for Gaumont-Franco-Films-Aubert (GFFA), until eventually (1932) going into business doing the same for her own freelance branch of Gaumont, France-Actualités [7]. She died of a heart-attack in Nazi-occupied Paris in 1942 [9].
[1] Miller, Henry. 1989. Letters to Emil. George Wickes, ed. New Directions, 1989; p.15: he arrived there on March 4, 1930; [2] ibid, p.31; [3] ibid, p.32: Henry writes about the juxtaposition of female dancer and a huge piston rod, "thoroughly greased"; [4] Martin, Jay. Always Merry And Bright, p. 192; [5] Miller, Henry. 1938. "The Golden Age." The Cosmological Eye (1939), p. 51; [6] Letters to Emil, p.52 (letter: May 10, 1930); [7] Kershaw, Angela, and Angela Kimyongür. Women in Europe Between the Wars. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2007; pp.172-175; [8] For example, at A lot of internet sources list this as being made in 1928, but both IMDB and, more importantly, France's cinema archive lists this as being 1927 (that year, it was banned in the U.K. for being incomprehensible. And probably because there are bare breasts. And a priest who is lusting after them; [9] Dulac saw the educational possibilities of covering social issues for a wide audience; [10] In a letter to Emil from May 10, 1930 (p.52) he mentions that he is going to see Dulac "Friday next week." By referencing a calendar from May 1930, I can see this is the 16th; [11] Tropic Of Cancer, p.15. According to Jay Martin's Always Merry, apparently referencing portions of Henry's May 10 letter to Emil that has not been published, he "vowed he would have a room like this himself." (p.193); [12] Ferguson, Robert. Henry Miller: A Life. Ferguson presents this as a quote, but doesn't list his source (probably from the same unpublished portion as Martin); [13] Always Merry and Bright, p.193; [14] ibid, p.213; [15] Letters to Emil, p.63 (OCt 23, 1930); Always Merry, pp. 213-215.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Luckily, my video store will order absolutely anything, and I'm going to get them to bring in a couple of Dulac's.

10:30 am  

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