The UCLA Film Archive presents "Germaine Dulac: Duty, Deviance and Desire," a weekend retrospective of the work of a central figure in the French avant-garde cinema of the '20s, at Melnitz Hall's James Bridges Theater. The series opens Saturday with the screening of "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" (1920), which -- while hardly avant-garde -- is a stylish and sophisticated work.
Tania Daleyme stars as Lola de Sandoval, a celebrated stage actress rendered cynical by having been dumped by her protector, the Count Guy d'Amaury (Jean Toulout). After a lengthy sojourn at his chateau in the country, the count returns to the Parisian high life and would like to take up where he left off with Lola. Not surprisingly, Lola, now an infamous heartbreaker, feels differently. As fate would have it, Lola is booked into the town near Chateau d'Amaury, and it takes the beautiful, neglected Countess d'Amaury (Denise Lorys) to put the stamp of approval on the notorious Lola. Melodrama, with various subplots, ensues, but those ensnared are by and large considerably more reflective than their counterparts in U.S. movies of the era, though the film's ending is straight out of Hollywood.
The world of "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" is as elegant and luxurious as that of an Erich von Stroheim classic -- and like many of Stroheim's characters, Dulac's seem more real in their lack of physical perfection.
Between 1919 and 1929, Dulac would become a bold experimentalist, and her shorts reveal a fascination with the contrast and the interaction between the mechanical and the natural world. Two featurettes, each running around 35 minutes, represent dramatic advances from "La Belle Dame Sans Merci." Like the countess of that film, the heroines of "The Smiling Madame Beudet" (1923) and "Invitation to the Voyage" (1927), which screen following "La Belle Dame," are women who feel trapped in unhappy marriages. In these graceful and highly original psychological vignettes, Dulac reaches into her heroines' interior lives and finds striking visual means to express them.
"The Smiling Madame Beudet" retains its freshness and force after 80 years. The same can be said of "Invitation to the Voyage," which takes its title from a nightclub with a nautical theme and tropical decor. It's New Year's Eve 1927, and the husband of a pretty young woman (Emma Gynt) yet again tells her he's off to a business meeting. Swathed in white fur, she enters the club hesitantly but soon becomes caught up in its atmosphere, imagining romantic South Seas vistas. "Invitation" is full of deftly evolved surprises.
"La Belle" has a poetic quality even though it is largely a conventional narrative, but these two shorter films are stunningly cinematic, with an effortless visual fluidity. All three films are strong expressions of an impassioned and deeply personal feminist sensibility, and Dulac (1882-1942) understood well her medium's unique powers of revelation.
"Death of the Sun" (1921), which leads off the Sunday program, was regrettably unavailable for preview. It was with this feature that Dulac began to experiment in expressing the subjective states of her characters, which in this instance involves a dedicated doctor whose husband grows jealous of her intense research into a cure for tuberculosis but will eventually have reason to try to win her back.
Among the films on Sunday's program is the tantalizing "The Seashell and the Clergyman" (1927), written by Antonin Artaud, no less, in which a homely priest playing around in a lab would seem to have conjured up a rugged, good-looking man who assumes various guises, and with whom the priest becomes obsessed.
One of the films in the American Cinematheque's "Inspired By ... ," a program of shorts adapted from literary works screening Wednesday, is Aaron Schneider's "Two Soldiers," a poignant, wryly humorous vignette based on the William Faulkner short story. Schneider takes us to rural Mississippi, 1941, where two brothers, sons of sharecroppers, have developed a strong, loving relationship. Pete (Ben Allison) is 19; Willie (Jonathan Furr) is 10 years his junior, yet they are inseparable, with the religious, humble Pete consistently setting a fine example for his younger brother.
One night as they huddle to listen to a neighbor's radio though a window, it's not "The Green Hornet" or "Jack Armstrong" they hear, but the voice of President Roosevelt announcing the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Not surprisingly, Pete sees his duty clearly and is soon boarding a Greyhound bus to Memphis, where he will enlist in the Army. Willie cannot accept that he's too young to serve and becomes determined to follow his brother.
Schneider is skilled at telling Faulkner's story, bringing out the heart-wrenching and humorous aspects of Pete's ambitious adventure.
"Two Soldiers" is a notably evocative period piece, with a strong sense of the look and feel of its time and place.
"La Belle Dame Sans Merci,"
"The Smiling Madame Beudet" and "Invitation to the Voyage," James Bridges Theater, UCLA campus, Westwood, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, (310) 206-FILM
"Death of the Sun" and
"The Seashell and the Clergyman,"James Bridges Theater, 7 p.m. Sunday
"Two Soldiers," American Cinematheque's Lloyd E. Rigler Theatre at the Egyptian,
6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday,