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Movie Crash Course: The Smiling Madame Beudet

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A few entries ago we had the 1001 Movie List’s first film from an African-American director; this short French surrealist work is the list’s the first film from a female director.  And there ain’t much smiling in this, I’ll tell you what.

After a brief intro hinting darkly at “the lurking passions” in small provincial towns, we meet Madame Beudet, the unhappy wife of a fabric merchant.  While he’s at work, she entertains herself by playing piano and reading romantic poetry; Monsieur Beudet, meanwhile, is an ugly, boorish social climber who loves making fun of how snooty she is. One of his favorite “jokes”, the film points out, is to take his pistol and pretend to shoot himself in the head, telling the missus “look at what you’re making me do!….ha ha!”

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He does this “joke” twice on the night of our story – first, to protest her turning him down for a night at the opera. He’s just scored three tickets to Faust and wants to take her out; but she’d rather stay home. After miming his suicide – and cracking himself up – he calls his business partner instead, whose wife is more than happy to oblige and show off her fancy dress. Monsier Beudet teases his wife with the mock suicide again while their guests are there, but then reassures them he’s teasing – the gun’s not even loaded, he shows them, since he keeps the gun in one desk drawer and the bullets in a different one entirely.  What could go wrong? After one last dig at his wife, the trio leave.  A few minutes later, the maid comes to shyly ask for the evening off so she can visit her fiance. Madame Beudet agrees; and spends the next several minutes daydreaming about young love, and imagining herself caught up in romantic bliss – only to think again of her piggish husband’s antics. She is alone in the house and she is miserable. She is alone in the house…in the same room as her husband’s gun.  And she gets an idea….

Now, I’m going to stop here.  Because I think you know exactly what her idea is, and I think you have a guess as to how her idea plays out.  Because I had the same idea.  But not so fast.

Because yes, she does indeed load the gun, expecting him to clown around with it the following day at some point the way he always does goddammit, well this time we’ll give him something to joke about…But the next day, as he’s leaving for work, she suddenly chickens out. She’ll be charged! She’ll go to prison!  She paces in their bedroom, waiting for him to leave for work so she can run to his study and unload the gun.  When the front door slams, she runs to the stairs – only to see it’s her husband’s business partner, come by in search of something her husband brought home.  They disappear into his study, leaving Madame Beudet frantically stranded while they search.

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Monsieur Beudet can’t resist complaining about his wife to his business partner as they search, finally snatching one of her dolls off the mantel and frustratedly throttling it to the point that its head falls off. As he stares at the doll’s head in his hand, Monsieur Beudet’s partner chides him that he should be gentler because “women are fragile, like dolls”. Monsieur Beudet is cowed for a few minutes, gingerly tucking the doll away so it can be repaired – and stays at home to simmer down. But then after reviewing the family checkbook, he demands to see his wife.

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Madame Beudet, who’s been cowering upstairs all this time, nervously joins him in the study, nervously watching him rant about the house expenses. And sure enough, he reaches for the gun, joking that maybe he should just kill himself.  “But wait,” he says at the last minute, to his wife’s horror.  “Maybe I should shoot you instead!”  And with the gun pointed at a frantic Madame Beudet – he pulls the trigger!

….I’m going to stop here again and say that you think you know where this is going.  But you don’t.

He pulls the trigger; she screams and ducks aside, the bullet shattering a vase. Monsieur Beudet is understandably shocked. He looks at the gun, and figures out that she loaded it. She regards him fearfully.

And then…Monsieur Beudet proceeds to be entirely wrong about her motivation. He thinks that her plan was not for him to shoot himself – but to shoot her. He grabs her up in a smothering hug.  “How could I have lived without you?” he blubbers, as Madame Beudet, face falling over how he still doesn’t get it, sits stonily depressed.

The end!

The film bills itself as a “surrealist” work, but it’s more so an experimental, stream-of-consciousness film; throughout much of Madame Beudet’s night alone, we are treated to tableaux depicting the images in her head, like a brief thought about the maid’s fiance hitting on her while she’s asking for the night off.

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Or the tennis star from the magazine she’s reading jumping out of the picture, clobbering her husband and dragging him off.

Even her books of poetry are no help – after reading a passage about two lovers passing time in a room with grand canopied beds and soft deep couches surrounded by exotic flowers, Madame Beudet helplessly thinks about her own boring double bed, the easy chair with the lumpy pillows and the modest bouquet she’s been fussing with all evening.

Filmmaker Germaine Dulac lived a bit more happily then our film’s heroine; she began as a journalist before turning to filmmaking.  She reportedly got into a life-altering discussion about The Artistic Nature of Film with our old friend D. W. Griffith, which she distilled into an essay about film criticism called Chez D. W. Griffith, during which she argued that film should strive to be an art form independent of any inflences from painting or literature. Her works got professively more experimental following Smiling Madame Beudetbut did not enjoy the same popularity; still, her career spanned an impressive 20 years.

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