La coquille et le clergyman

In November of 1927, Germaine Dulac wrote a letter to the editor of La Nouvelle Revue Française, to lament that, in publishing the scenario of La coquille et le clergyman—the film she had recently directed from a script by Antonin Artaud—the journal had omitted to mention her as the “author” (1). In her missive, Dulac stressed that she did not mean to attack the journal nor Artaud, who had on other occasions voiced his dissatisfaction with her adaptation and in this issue prefaced his script with an article that clarified his position in relation to the film (2). Her elegantly phrased complaint ended with a reminder about a conversation that she had had with the editor, in which both had hoped that “les intellectuels et le cinéastes se rapproches, or, ce sont des nuances de mots qui les séparent irrémédiablement” (the intellectuals and the filmmakers should develop a closer kinship to one another, for it is only nuances between words that irremediably keep them apart) (3).

This letter addresses a concept—authorship—that was not prominent in French film discourse at the time. As such, Dulac’s objection to the journal’s omission of her authorial status points to a more general issue at the centre of her—and of other avant-garde filmmakers of the timeapproach to cinema: how to translate subjective expression and account for an artist’s creative input in a collective and mechanical art form such as cinema. This question—which ultimately stands at the origin of Dulac’s disagreement with Artaud—is at the heart of auteur-oriented approaches to cinema and reveals the difficult articulation of authorship in film discourse. Indeed, Dulac’s film theory and practice arguably anticipate some of the positions that some 1950s French critics developed: the auteur as a source of cinematic expression and a reference point for their aesthetic appreciation of films. Like these critics, Dulac conceived cinema as a cultural activity placed at the intersection of artistic and industrial interests, as well as different—although interconnected—film modes and movements. Moreover, like many auteur-informed filmmakers—the critics at the Cahiers du Cinéma who went on to become film directors, including Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, and François Truffaut—Dulac was also a film critic and theorist, a cine-club patron, and a promoter of film events. In drawing this comparison, my purpose is less to suggest Dulac as an auteur-modelled theorist and filmmaker, than to place her within a long-standing tradition in French cinema, a continuity that Alan Williams and Susan Hayward, among others, have underscored (4).

Dulac’s preoccupation with defining the filmmaker as an auteur coincides with her effort to characterize cinema as the medium that allows a full expression of human emotions and experiences, as well as a direct rendition of reality. This view of the auteur also enables Dulac to disentangle the figure of the filmmaker-author from a system of representation and signification that identifies the auteur as an enunciative mark of subjective positions, a view that has, as Judith Mayne has remarked, distinctly patriarchal connotations (94). Dulac never proposed a feminist-oriented or a gender-specific model of the film auteur. However, her films and her writings propose a tactic of disengagement from the premises of the 1920s film and art contexts and offer a viable alternative to the patriarchal affiliation of auteurism with male-informed artistic practices and cultural contexts. My examination of Dulac from an authorial perspective is based on the analysis of some of her writings, which I would argue constitute a valuable complement to the scholarly discussion of Dulac as an important auteur of the French avant-garde (5).

Inside/outside the French avant-garde

Sandy Flitterman-Lewis has noted that Germaine Dulac’s production, although characterized by its diversity in categories and genres, “is rooted in the profound unity of her theoretical conceptualizations about the cinema” (1984, 32). That Dulac participated in different film modes is also a result of her association with the French avant-garde, particularly the Impressionist Movement, and its participation in various film modes and circles. This multiple involvement in artistic and commercial film practices was also due to the situation of the French film industry at the time. Since the end of World War I, French cinema was hindered by an economic and institutional crisis, struggling to counteract Hollywood’s emergence onto the international film scene. The fragmentation of France’s film industry into various film companies, many of them small and independent, and the crisis of the national system of film distribution and exhibition coincided with the expansion of alternative circuits of film production and distribution by avant-garde filmmakers.

Germaine Dulac

As Paolo Bertetto notes, Dulac’s participation in the French avant-garde remains both external and internal. According to Bertetto, Dulac’s conceptions and personal experimentations of “pure cinema” and “integral cinegraphy,” indicative of her rigorous commitment to the definition of a new film aesthetic and language, allowed her to play a part in different avant-garde projects and movements, without being exclusively associated with any of them (6). I argue that this internal/external role also identifies gender-specific possibilities of self-orientation within the cultural and professional environment of 1920s French cinema.

The milieu of avant-garde film practices has proven favourable for the acknowledgement of female authorship in the cinema. Yet, the subordination of gender concerns to aesthetic imperatives within this context of film practices has raised some questions among feminist scholars. This situation reflects a more general quandary in feminist discourse: how to account for female subjectivity in social and cultural contexts where women have no position or voice and femininity is inflected by the concept of “otherness.” Feminist film theorists and filmmakers have come to terms with this epistemological deadlock in various ways. The first wave of feminist approaches and practices concentrated on the notion of “alterity” to explore oppositional models of aesthetic agency and forms of expression, situated in critical and subversive markers of enunciation or in feminine types of écriture. The spectre of essentialism has haunted and eventually prevailed over these inquiries, which implicitly validate the recognition of a dominant context or counterpart. In The Woman at the Keyhole Mayne notes that

[w]hile virtually all feminist critics would agree that the works of Germaine Dulac, Maya Deren, and Dorothy Arzner (to name the most frequently invoked “historical figures”) are important, there has been considerable reluctance to use any of them as privileged examples to theorize female authorship in the cinema, unless, that is, such theorizing affirms the difficulty of women’s relationship to the cinematic apparatus. This reluctance reflects the current association of “theory” with “antiessentialism.” (90) (7).

The patriarchal premises of auteurism and the peculiar development in which the concept of the auteur has been theorised in film studies have restrained many feminist film critics from discussing women in relation to auteurism. According to Mayne, “whether authorship constitutes a patriarchal and/or phallocentric notion in its own right raises the specter of the ‘Franco-American dis-connection’”(95). Within this framework of discussion, American theorists consider authorship a form of feminist appropriation of cinematic culture, while French/Anglo theorists “would find ‘authorship’ and ‘appropriation’ equally complicitous in their mimicry of patriarchal self, expression, and representation” (95). From this perspective, auteurism has mostly encouraged symptomatic approaches to the female auteur, like, for instance, that of Claire Johnston to Dorothy Arzner (95-96).

In proposing Dulac as a prototypic auteur critic and filmmaker, I do not intend to suggest that she offers an oppositional or feminine version of auteurism, aligned with a female cultural tradition or a feminine sensibility (an argument which would implicitly place me in essentialist territory). My view of Dulac’s position as an auteur within the cultural and professional environment of 1920s French cinema involves a notion of female agency in terms of dialectical relations with different types of film modes and systems, set at the intersection of personal expression and professional orientation (8). For, as Flitterman-Lewis stresses:

…[I]t is never a question of films having been made by individual men or women or of a specific content speaking to the needs of a particular sex. Rather, as Stephen Heath maintains, “What one has is always a structure of representation in and from the terms of which position enunciations can be engaged, specified as ‘masculine,’ ‘feminine,’ with the possibility of reappropriating the latter as a site of resistance to the domination, the definitions, the assignments of the former.” (2000, 19)

Cinema as apprenticeship of professional subjectivity

Germaine Dulac describes her approach to cinema as a progressive discovery of her personal interests through an amateurish apprenticeship in various artistic disciplines (9). In a 1924 article published in the magazine Eve, titled “Comment je suis devenue ‘metteur en scène cinématographique’” (“How I Became a Film Director”), Dulac describes the story of an unconscious vocation in which gender appears as an implicit—although decisive—factor in the education and life-preparation of the children of the upper-bourgeois classes of late nineteenth century France. Gender is not mentioned when she recounts the transition from a youth imprinted with cultural and artistic activitiesthe study of literature, theatre, and musicto her experiences as a journalist and an editor of feminist magazines and newspapers (La Française and La Fronde, respectively). She views her work as a journalist and a critic mainly as a consequence of her cultural interests and an attempt to effectively express herself in spite of her innate shyness.

When she comments on her discovery of cinema, Dulac also undercuts gender issues by down playing her role as a woman involved in filmmaking in favour of the exaltation of cinema as the art in which she has found her most congenial means of expression. Her testimony turns frankly misogynistic when it touches upon the role of women in the cinema. She says that a woman filmmaker is an exception to a “natural” rule and that cinema cannot offer a new career to women, being a job that: “demande une énergie physique et morale considérables. Une résistance aux fatigues de toutes sortes, des dépenses nerveuses énormes, en un mot des forces qui sont plutôt l’apanage masculine” (“demands a considerable physical and moral energy, a resistance to all kinds of stress, and enormous nervous expenditures: in a word, a strength that is rather the endowment of a man”) (44).

Dulac’s “feminine” (in the sense of a gender-biased notion of female essence) consideration of her position as a filmmaker and of women in film practices substantiates a central concern for feminist approaches to women’s cinema, which Patrice Petro defines as follows:

As the history of feminist film theory so clearly demonstrates, the very attempt to ‘find’ a female subject has led to a paralyzing situation in some feminist film histories, which tend either to affirm a socially constructed feminine identity or to reject any attempt at self-naming at all. (67)

La souriante Madame Beudet

In Dulac’s work, femininity marks a strategy of representation that explores women’s fantasies and desires, most prominently in what is generally considered Dulac’s most explicitly “feminist” film, La souriante Madame Beudet (1923). Yet, as Flitterman-Lewis has argued, although Dulac’s “incisive exploration of a fictional woman’s fantasies and desires in La souriante Madame Beudet is useful to traditional feminist criticism, in some sense it remains locked within the autonomous imaginary world of the film” (1984, 33). Alternatively, Flitterman-Lewis considers The Seashell and the Clergyman (1927) “a more intriguing field of inquiry, for it thematizes woman as a force of desire within the production of the filmic writing itself” (1984, 33). A similar observation could be made about Dulac’s writings, in which artistic expression and professional control offer perspectives from which to assert a subjective position generally denied to women in late nineteenth and early twentieth century France.

Auteurism, differently

In an interview with Paul Desclaux published in Mon Ciné in October 1923 Dulac states:

J’avais en effet le désir de devenir auteur dramatique, mais quand des circumstances pécuniaires m’ont obligée à abandonner cette première voie pour choisir celle plus lucrative alors du cinéma, je n’ai eu aucun regret. Tout d’abord cependant, il ne m’a pas été donné de comprendre toute la portée de l’expression cinématographique. Ce n’est qu’en maniant moi-même les idées, les sensations, les lumières, l’appareil, qu’au bout de mon premier film, j’ai compris ce qu’était le cinema, art de la vie intérieure et de la sensation, si étranger au théâtre et à la literature, expression nouvelle donnée à la pensée … un art non tributaire des autres arts, un art original avec son sens propre, un art qui fait de la réalité, s’en evade en faisant corps avec elle: le cinéma esprit des êtres et des choses!

(I actually had the desire to become a dramatist, but when some pecuniary circumstances obliged me to abandon this first path to chose that, at the time more lucrative, of the cinema, I had no regrets. However, in the beginning I did not understand the importance of the cinematographic expression in its entirety. Only by using ideas, lights, and the camera was I able, by the time I made my first film, to understand what cinema was, art of interior life and of sensation, new expression given to our thought … an art non-tributary to the other arts, an original art with its own meaning, an art that makes reality, evades from it while incorporating it: the cinema spirit of beings and things!) (27-28).

In the same interview, she presents the film director as a unifying source of subjective expression, affirming:

Je crois que l’oeuvre cinégraphique doit éclore d’un choc de la sensibilité, de la vision d’un seul être qui ne peut s’exprimer qu’en cinema. Le metteur en scène doit être scénariste ou le scénariste metteur en scène. Le cinéma , comme toute oeuvre d’art, vient d’une émotion sensible … Cette émotion pour valoir quelque chose et “porter”, ne doit venir que d’une seule source. Le scénariste qui “sent” son idée doit pouvoir la mettre en scène. La technique vient par surcroît.

(I believe that cinematographic work must come out of a shock of sensibility, of a vision of one being who can only express himself in the cinema. The director must be a screenwriter or the screenwriter a director. Like all other arts, cinema comes from a sensible emotion … To be worth something and “bring” something, this emotion must come from one source only. The screenwriter that “feels” his idea must be able to stage it. From this, the technique follows.)

The fusion of technique and expression was fundamental to the segregation of the figure of the film author from the scriptwriter/director team upon which most narrative cinema of the time was based and which Dulac fiercely opposed. In this respect, some of her attacks against the figure of the screenwriter stand hand-in-hand with Truffaut’s later crusade against the screenwriters of the “tradition de qualité” in “Une certaine tendance du cinéma français.” (10) Yet Truffaut’s criticism against script-dominating and literary-based cinema offered only a partial redemption from adaptation. His films, as well as those of other auteur-oriented filmmakers, were still very dependent on literary sources and did not propose, as Dulac had, a radically alternative conception of the place of writing within film practices.

Most importantly, though, Dulac’s attention to the definition of the film author with respect to the specificity of her/his relationship with the matter of cinema betrays a gender-specific agenda. Her wish to unify creative responsibilities in the figure of the filmmaker insists upon the need to break away from the literary and theatrical notion of authorship in French culture. For Dulac, abolishing the expression metteur en scène (which she considered reductive because indebted to its theatrical origins) would have meant dispensing with a concept that at the time was, even more so than in literature, almost exclusively identified with male authorship.

Dulac’s conception of cinema from different cultural perspectives is another instance in which we can detect an anticipation of auteurism. Her films and writings establish an exchange between high and popular culture, art and commerce. The politique des auteurs and auteur-oriented filmmakers applied nineteenth and twentieth century aesthetic concerns to directors and film forms traditionally disregarded by film critics because of their close relationship with commercial film practices and standardized styles. The interrelation of different film modes was always inherent to Dulac’s personal experience and career. She could participate in exclusive artistic movements and produce commercial films, write about cinema as the expression of pure thought and create visual symphonies, while, throughout the 1930s, she was the director of the newsreels department for Gaumont. If her eclectic interests perfectly fit into the practices of many Impressionist filmmakers and into the contexts of 1920s and 1930s French cinema, her artistic and intellectual coherence in this regard is quite unique and remains a constant in her writings and in her professional roles.

Most significantly, by adopting the position of a practitioner/theoretician/avant-garde experimentalist, Dulac was able to avoid the imposition commonly placed upon the auteur in the pre-studio period in which she was active, whereby an aesthetic view of cinema is forced upon an industrial model of film practices. She maintained an ongoing dialogue between different models of cinemas that the auteur and the European art cinema would later crystallize into oppositional clusters, despite their interrelations in the film industry and in the production and distribution policies of European governments. She established a more consistent correspondence between film theory and practice, personal view and formal expression, aesthetic and technical considerations. Although her filmmaking career ended relatively early and she subsequently pursued a more administrative role at Gaumont, she continued to write and lecture on film, maintaining her intellectual and aesthetic commitment to cinema until her death.

Dulac avoided the contradictory intentions of auteur critics and filmmakers by keeping the contradictions in check through a dialectical position in her filmic and theoretical practices. From this perspective, her auteurism also invites one to reconsider the conceptualization of the auteur in different historical and critical frameworks.

Works Cited

Abel, Richard, French Film Theory and Criticism: A History/Anthology. 1907-1929, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1988

Aitken, Ian, European Film Theory and Cinema: A Critical Introduction, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2001

Bertetto, Paolo, Ed, Il cinema d’avanguardia 1910-1930, Venezia: Marsilio Editori, 1983

Bruno, Giuliana, Streetwalking on a Ruined Map: Cultural Theory and the City Films of Elvira Notari, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993

Dozoretz, Wendy, “Dulac Versus Artaud”, Wide Angle 3.1 (1979): 46-53

— “Madame Beudet’s Smile: Feminine or Feminist?”, Film Reader 5 (1982): 41-46

Dulac, Germaine, Ecrits sur le cinéma, 1919-1937, Prosper Hillairet, Ed., Paris: Paris Expérimental, 1994

Flitterman-Lewis, Sandy, “The Image and the Spark: Dulac and Artaud Reviewed”, Dada/Surrealism 15 (1986): 110-127

— “Theorizing ‘The Feminine’ Woman as the Figure of Desire in The Seashell and the Clergyman”, Wide Angle 6.3 (1984): 32-39

— “To Desire Differently: Feminism and the French Cinema: Femininity and Authorship”, Film and Theory: An Anthology, Stam, Robert and Toby Miller, Eds., New York: Blackwell, 2000: 16-19

Greene, Naomi, “Artaud and Film: A Reconsideration.”, Cinema Journal 23.4 (Summer 1984): 28-40

Hayward, Susan, French National Cinema, London and New York: Routledge, 1993

McMahan, Alison, Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema, New York: Continuum, 2002

Martin-Márquez, Susan, Feminist Discourse and Spanish Cinema: Sight Unseen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999

Mayne, Judith, The Woman at the Keyhole, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990

Petro, Patrice, “Feminism and Film History.” Multiple Voices in Feminist Film Criticism, Carson, Diane, Linda Dittmar and Janice R.Welsch, Eds., Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1994: 65-81

Rabinovitz, Lauren, Points of Resistance: Women, Power and Politics in the New York Avant-garde Cinema, 1943-71, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991

Rollet, Brigitte, Coline Serreau, Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press (St. Martin’s Press), 1998

Williams, Alan, Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking, Cambridge, Massachusetts-London, England: Harvard University Press, 1992

Williams, Linda, Figures of Desire: A Theory and Analysis of Surrealist Film. Urbana, Illinois: Urbana University Press, 1981


  1. The scenario was published in La Nouvelle Revue Française, No. 170, November 1, 1927. As Flitterman-Lewis specifies, Artaud’s article was originally meant for a previous issue of the journal (1984, 39).
  2. The literature on the Dulac/Artaud dispute over La coquille et le Clergyman is vast. Among the most significant contributions from a feminist-oriented perspective are Dozoretz, Flitterman-Lewis, Greene, and Linda Williams.
  3. The typed letter, dated November 8, 1927, is in the collection of documents and writings by Dulac of the Fond Malleville, donated to the library of the Cinémathèque Française in 1973, now Bibliothèque du Film (BIFI), in Paris. All translations are those of the author, unless otherwise noted.
  4. Hayward comments the continuity in the debate between “scenario and auteur-led cinema” which, she argues, “points to a cycle in French filmmaking practices […] and signals one aspect of the specificity of French cinema.” To be sure, Hayward dismisses any interpretation of this debate in terms of a dialectic between script- and auteur- oriented film practices, from the Pathé’s script-led period of the teens to the auteur-led period of French Classical cinema (79). Abel and, more recently, Aitken have stressed this continuity also within French film theory and criticism. In his introduction to an anthology of French essays on cinema from 1907 to 1929, Abel underlines how film discourse has traditionally dismissed French film practices and theories before the late 1940s as “irrelevant” and considered France’s contribution to the cinematic avant-garde less systematic than that of other nations, including Germany (xiii). Only recently, he notes, has film scholarship reviewed this bias and developed an increasing interest in this literature, of which Abel proposes an “archaeological” rediscovery, in the Foucaultian sense of the word.
  5. Flitterman-Lewis makes several references to Dulac’s writings in her analysis of Dulac’s oeuvre. Yet she views them as statements of her authorial and artistic vision and work. A comprehensive collection of Dulac’ s reviews and theoretical writings was first published in France only in 1994 (52 years after her death) and has only partially been translated into English.
  6. Like other theorists (including Flitterman-Lewis, Greene), Bertetto views Dulac’s troubled rapport with the Surrealist movement—Artaud in particular—as not entirely negative and partially reconstituted by a 1932 letter in which Artaud defends the film as superior to the other avant-garde films (112).
  7. Quoting Roland Barthes, Mayne also reminds us that “the auteur theory in cinema reinstated the ‘formidable paternity’ of the individual creator threatened by the institutions of mass culture of which the cinema is a paradigmatic and even privileged example” (94).
  8. Some feminist scholars view women’s authorship in early, avant-garde, and classical cinema from a perspective that stresses professional agency. It is the case of Lauren Rabinovitz’s book on North American avant-garde filmmakers Maya Deren, Shirley Clark, and Joyce Wieland; Giuliana Bruno’s book on Elvira Notari; and, more recently, Alison McMahan’s book on Alice Guy-Blaché. As for new authorial approaches to contemporary women filmmakers, the most significant examples include Brigitte Rollet’s book on Coline Serreau, and Susan Martin-Márquez’s on Spanish women filmmakers and the representation of women in Spanish cinema.
  9. Germaine Dulac was born Charlotte Elisabeth Germaine Saissets-Schneider. Dulac was the name of her husband, with whose financial participation she founded her first film company in 1914, the D.H. Films, with the writer Irene Hillel-Erlanger as her partner. On Dulac’s career see, among others, Alan Williams (146-49) and Hayward (109-11).
  10. The article originally appeared in Cahiers du Cinéma no. 31, January 1954

About The Author

Rosanna Maule is Assistant Professor in Film Studies at the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema Concordia University, Montréal. She has published articles on contemporary European film authorship, women's authorial film practices, recent Spanish authorial cinema, and reception practices in early Italian cinema.

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