Tami Williams (University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee)
ReViewing 1920s Cinematic Impressionism: Germaine Dulac’s Adaptation of Ibsen’s “The Master Builder” or the False Ideal of a Cinema without Theater
Belle Époque Paris was the epicenter of a diverse reevaluation and reconfiguration of suggestive forms that galvanized the art world, bringing innovative musical compositions, exhilarating dance forms, new pictorial models and widespread theatrical renovation. Germaine Dulac, an early theater critic, feminist filmmaker, and pioneer of an aesthetics of suggestion and sensation, made over 30 fiction films, many marking new cinematic tendencies, from impressionist to abstract. A look at the mid-1920s genesis and context of her unrealized film adaptation of Ibsen’s iconic theater play, The Master Builder-1892, renews our perspective of French cinematic impressionism.
Dulac’s Solness le Constructeur/The Master Builder was written in mid-1920s Paris, at the height of avant-garde calls for “cinematic specificity,” and “pure cinema,” a conversation during which notions of “aesthetic idealism” were playing out against “modernist skepticism,” as they had for Ibsen prior. Yet, historical accounts of the 1920s French avant-garde around issues of medium specificity, or the “false ideal” of a cinema without theater, tend to erase a crucial distinction between the traditional and the modern, boulevard theater and symbolist theater, and obscure cinema’s assimilation of modern theater forms, exemplified by Dulac’s Ibsenian adaptation.
Symbolist theater’s minimalist acting, its disjunction of word and image via off-scene narration, and its emphasis on abstraction, suggestion, and sensation, are just a few of the critical influences on the suggestive stylistic practices of a socially progressive 1920s French art cinema. Taking inspiration from her unrealized project, The Master Builder, and the Ibsenian notion of a “false ideal,”—for Dulac, that of a cinema without theater, this essay attempts to redress this historiographic disjuncture and to reestablish the influence of Symbolist theatrical scenography and performance on 1920s French Impressionist cinema.
Tami Williams is Associate Professor of Film Studies and English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and president of Domitor – the International Society for the Study of Early Cinema. She is the author of Germaine Dulac: A Cinema of Sensations (2014), co-editor of Global Cinema Networks (2018), editor of The Moving Image, 16.1: Early Cinema and the Archives (2016), and co-editor of Performing New Media, 1895-1915 (2014). She also is a coordinator for the Women Film Pioneers Project (France) and the Media Ecology Project: Library of Congress Paper Print Pilot (Dartmouth).