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Alice Guy’s La Vie du Christ: A Feminist Vision of the Christ Tale


aliceguy

By Gwendolyn Audrey Foster.

Alice Guy is a filmmaker whose body of work is still a site of contestation for modern critics; after all these years, her name is nearly unknown. Yet her output was prodigious. Of the nearly four hundred films Guy directed between 1896 and 1920, Guy has two main periods of work as a director: for Leon Gaumont’s studios, where she began her career after breaking out of the secretarial pool in 1896 to become, within a short space of time, the principal director for the studio; and in the United States for her own company, Solax, which flourished for a few brief years after the turn of the century in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Yet much of her work is lost. For a long time, only a handful of Guy’s many films were thought to have survived, among them Les Cambrioleurs (1898), Surprise d’une maison au petit jour (Episode de la Guerre de 1870) (1898), Les Maçons (1905), Le Fils du garde-chasse (1906), Le Noël de monsieur le Curé (1906), and La Course à la saucisse (1907).

The Consequences of Feminism (1906)

The Consequences of Feminism (1906)

However, in 2009, Gaumont released a shockingly well-preserved DVD of more than sixty of Alice Guy’s films made between 1987 and 1913, including Baignade dans le torrent (1897), Chez le magnétiseur (1898), La bonne absinthe (1899), her remake of her 1896 hit La Fée aux choux, ou la naissance des enfants (1900), Faust and Mephistopheles (1903), The Consequences of Feminism (1906), On the Barricade (1907) and La Vie du Christ (1906), at 33 minutes one of the most ambitious films made up to that point in cinema history, long before D.W. Griffith even stepped behind the camera to direct his first one-reel film, The Adventures of Dollie (1908). But history has not treated Alice Guy kindly, or even fairly; even with the release of the 60 films on this disc, she is still marginalized from most conventional cinema histories, and new articles appear on an almost annual basis “discovering” her for the first time, even as her films go unscreened in film history classes.

Yet Alice Guy is in the forefront of cinema history by any measure, working in sync-sound, hand tinted color, and making films of relatively epic length when the medium was still in its infancy. Indeed, close readings of the films of Alice Guy place her work at the center of cinema history. For the most part, the films of Alice Guy have been overlooked by film historians who incorrectly assume that Guy’s films represent a footnote to film history, rather than being one of the first major bodies of work in narrative cinema. Indeed, as one of the first persons to direct a film with a narrative structure, and thus to direct actors to convey the essence of the narrative through gestures and actions, Alice Guy is one of the originators of filmic acting, both in theory and in practice. Indeed, she is the first real auteur of the cinema.

La Fée aux choux (1896)

The Cabbage Patch (1896)

Alice Guy was born in Paris in 1873. She was raised in a middle-class family, the youngest of four daughters of a bookseller. Educated at a convent in Switzerland, she was hired as a secretary by Leon Gaumont. It was not very long afterward that she began to take on more duties at the studio. In fact, she would later help her employer build the first Gaumont studio in France. Gaumont experimented with moving cameras and projectors, eventually building a 35mm (standard theatrical gauge) camera combined with a projector. In 1896, Alice Guy directed The Cabbage Patch, or La Fée aux choux, one of the world’s first films with a plot. Best described as a picture postcard that springs to life, the film tells the story of how children are “born” in a cabbage patch; the French version of babies being delivered by a stork in American culture. Alice Guy shot the film with the help of her friend Yvonne Mugnier-Serand, in the garden of Gaumont’s house, with a few backdrops for sets, and the help of some friends as actors. The film displayed the French style of light humor, and an appreciation for magic and the fantastic, similar to that of Georges Méliès and other early French film directors. (The Cabbage Patch was remade by Guy in 1900 when the original prints from 1896 wore out. The remake has been the cause of much confusion by film historians.)

Alice Guy on the set, circa 1899.

Alice Guy on the set, circa 1899.

After her first narrative film, Guy began to make films with well-known French opera singers and clowns. She tackled many different genres: fairy-tales, fantasy films, horror films, comedies, and trick-films, making dozens of films for Gaumont. For example, in her 1904 film, The First Cigarette, or La Prèmiere cigarette, Alice Guy was already using close-ups to heighten dramatic effects. She also included “reaction” shots, that is, shots showing actors reacting to one another. In another short film, Pierrot’s Christmas (1900), Alice Guy used novel cinematic devices such as “masking” and “double exposure.” In short, Alice Guy was one of the originators of filmic grammar, syntax and structure, as well as one of the first directors to conceive of the idea of modern film acting, instructing theatrically trained performers on how to effectively address the camera. In this, she was very much against the stylized, pantomime approach to direction that she perceived in her nascent contemporaries of the era. In instructing her actors, Alice Guy asked them to behave as “naturally” as possible, that is, to incorporate the performative strategies of everyday social intercourse into the infant fabric of filmic narrative signification. She intuitively began blending nineteenth century theatrical acting styles with more “naturalist” twentieth century modes of cinematic performance.

Among the numerous works that Alice Guy directed during her early years, one of her major accomplishments was the production of La Vie du Christ (1906). The film was an ambitious spectacle that utilized lavish budgets, large crews, and hundreds of extras, in settings designed and executed by Henry Ménessier. Alice Guy managed to skillfully incorporate the use of extras to give added depth to her work, the same way that the American director D. W. Griffith did many years later in Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). Indeed, for its period, La Vie du Christ was considered an exceptionally lavish production, on which Guy spared no expense to bring her vision to the screen.

La Vie du Christ

La Vie du Christ

Alice Guy’s La Vie du Christ was released in Paris in April, 1906, and subsequently released with newly translated intertitles in May, 1907 in the United States. Seen today, the film seems brief, running 2,164 35mm feet, or slightly more than an half an hour in length. It is divided, like Jean-Luc Godard’s much later films, into 25 separate scenes, from the arrival in Bethlehem, in which Joseph and Mary are turned away from the stable (this sequence runs 131 35mm feet in length), to the burial of Christ, (which is the longest sequence in the film, at 147 35mm feet). Nevertheless, by the standards of the period, La Vie du Christ was both ambitious and lavish in production, as well as epic in running time, in an era in which most films lasted only a few minutes. In each of the sequences of La Vie du Christ, Guy seeks to formalize and ritualize the life and death of Christ as a series of naturalistic, humanist sequences, told through gesture and silence alone, in which the stations of Christ’s life can be segmented into a series of tableaux.

In addition to the film’s formalist concerns, Guy’s version of the life of Christ betrays a feminist perspective towards the subject, which blends spectacle and realism in an unprecedented manner. I view this film within a theoretical and historical perspective, which highlights Alice Guy and her role in the development of a cinematic style that embraces and problematizes notions of “realism” and “artifice” in gendered performativity. Like many other silent films of the era, Guy readily mixes staged studio settings with natural location shooting, a practice which continues to the present day. However, the extreme stylization of Guy’s vision in La Vie du Christ effectively creates an alternative universe, in which the protagonists of the film seem enshrined by each of the carefully framed compositions. Indeed, Guy’s film is almost a moving painting, in which the prescient naturalism of the performers seems at times strikingly removed from the constructed settings which dominate most of the production.

In La Vie du Christ, women are foregrounded as central characters and witnesses to the spectacle of Christ’s birth. Christ himself is feminized and eroticized. In general, performances are unlike those of other films of the same period. Characters are suffused with familiarity, carnality and corporeality. Sets combine highly artificial indoor tableaux vivantes with outdoor scenes and neorealist staging. This skillful use of diegetic space is accented by widely differing acting styles. Scenes of family life are intercut with scenes of pageantry, yet the naturalistic acting in La Vie du Christ disdains theatrical performativity and artifice. In this departure from recognized classics of the period, Guy refigures the performance of gender in the Christ parable, emphasizing and privileging women and children as active participants who perform in a spectacle that combines theatricality with an almost neorealist and decidedly feminist vision.

La Vie du Christ

La Vie du Christ

Artists and filmmakers whose work dares to step out of the boundaries of critical schools and artificially defined aesthetic codes often find themselves categorically removed from the center of discursive fields of inquiry. One example of just such an artist is Jacques Joseph Tissot, a nineteenth century painter who is celebrated for his Victorian renderings of elegant women, but who is casually derided for his extensive, highly successful, and influential Bible illustrations. These Bible illustrations, published in the highly popular and influential Tissot Bible, were the inspiration behind Alice Guy’s lengthy filmic portrayal of the life of Christ, known alternatively as La Vie du Christ, La Passion, and La Passion du Christ. Tissot’s Bible and Alice Guy’s La Vie du Christ share a preoccupation with performing the life of Christ in a style that combines realism, spiritualism and literalism that perhaps seems crude, violent or graphic compared to other films of the period. The flogging of Christ by the centurions, for example, is presented in a near-documentary manner, despite the conscious artificiality of the settings and costumes. This unusual juxtaposition of the real and the constructed is emblematic of Guy’s directorial style in La Vie du Christ.

Looking at the film, one is struck by the manner in which Guy combines the elements of “natural” or “real” with “artificial” and “theatrical.” Obviously, Guy expects her audience to accept the casual mixing of outdoor photography and natural lighting with beautifully rendered and highly stylized interior set designs, for example. From a twenty-first century perspective, the variation of design and performance styles in the film is jarring, but nevertheless compelling. Perhaps this accounts, to some extent, for the paucity of scholarship or interest in Alice Guy’s life of Christ. But it is important to remember that Alice Guy, like many other silent film pioneers, straddled the aesthetics of the old world and the new, and the public and private spheres. Guy’s ability to combine these two disparate spheres of performance is indicative of a cultural moment that is an essential point of transition in understanding the cultural changes between the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

James Tissot, What Our Lord Saw from the Cross (between 1886 and 1894).

James Tissot, What Our Lord Saw from the Cross (between 1886 and 1894).

Tissot’s Bible was perfectly acceptable to his nineteenth century audience precisely because it accurately performed the hybridity that viewers were experiencing in the nineteenth century culture, which was split between science and religion. As Christopher Wood notes of Tissot’s scene of the Passion, “although it may seem in dubious taste today, it is precisely this brand of vulgarity, realism and mysticism that appealed to the Catholic faithful of the 1890s” (1986: 150). Tissot himself underwent a spiritual conversion during the late nineteenth century Catholic revival in France. His work displays its cultural origins in a mixture of Catholicism and spiritualism that was deeply concerned with realism and authenticity and oddly enough its opposite, spirituality and the sublime. Just as Tissot traveled to Egypt, in order to copy the “original sites” of the New Testament, Alice Guy used the Tissot Bible to capture a sense of the “real” and/or “authentic” life of Christ. As Guy remembers in her memoirs:

“I had long wanted to make a film about the fine drama of the Passion. At the 1900 Exposition [Universelle in Paris], Tissot had published a very beautiful Bible illustrated after the sketches he had made in the Holy Land. It was ideal documentation, for decors, costumes and even local customs.” (Guy 1986: 42)

Indeed, Guy borrowed and appropriated Tissot’s compositions. She found outdoor exteriors in the forest of Fontainebleau that mimicked Tissot’s sketches. She also instructed Henri Ménessier to construct twenty-five sets after Tissot’s Bible. She employed hundreds of extras, and with her assistant, Victorin Jasset (who was later falsely credited as the director), Alice Guy began to film her lavish production of the life of Christ for the Gaumont company.

La Vie du Christ

La Vie du Christ

The staged tableaux vivant scenes in La Vie du Christ are, as Judith Butler notes in another context, “performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs” (1990: 136). The corporeal signs of Jesus as a living being are stressed by the use of scores of children, obviously non-actors, who pervade the entire spectacle. The baby Jesus is just that, a baby brought onto the set and surrounded by onlookers. Jesus and Mary are distinctively unkempt, human; they reek of sensuality and corporeality. Women and children predominate in the composition. The viewer is startled by the degree to which Alice Guy portrays the spectacle of the birth and life of Christ as a family affair, with children present at all times. Children and women witness and take part in events, as do Africans. Guy goes to great effort to use and fill space with humanity, and humanity is not defined here as white male.

Alice Guy designed shots that use deep screen space within the frame. Actors enter scenes from the reverse and from the angle of the camera itself, effectively breaking with the traditional theatrical fourth wall. Although the camera moves little and adheres to the style of proscenium arch directing (popularized in the early twentieth century), the development of multi-planed spaces that are populated by hundreds of onlookers and participants is impressive. The sets highlight the use of forced perspectives, reminiscent of illuminated medieval manuscripts. Actions often take place at the borders of the frame, to further the sense of extra-diegetic space. The shot compositions are often unusually complex and involve staged designs that center around columns, arches, and multiple-level platforms with extraordinarily complex designs. The only use of a close-up in the film is a tight close up of the face of Christ, again emphasizing the corporeality of the subject.

La Vie du Christ freely juxtaposes images that partake of the supernatural with scenes of the mundane. In this manner, the nature of the film articulates the nineteenth century Christian opinion that seeing is believing, or, as Michel de Certeau writes, “the ancient postulate of the invisibility of the real has been replaced by the postulation of its invisibility” (1984: 187). The scenes of the life of Christ are performed in an arena of the real and the sublime. The design of the film demonstrates de Certeau’s postulate that “the fabrication of simulacra provides the means of producing believers” (1984: 186). The fabrication of the simulacra of Jesus Christ is a central preoccupation of the film, but the simulacra, the copy without an imaginable original, is here a complicated matter: here Jesus is both human and ordinary and sublime and extraordinary as are the events in his life. Perhaps this is one of the most significant achievements of the film. Theologians have long struggled with the question of how to emphasize the mundane corporeality of Christ and convincingly portray the fantastic and miraculous life of Christ. La Vie du Christ as spectacle is productive, or, as Miranda Joseph notes, “performance is just as well able to bear value (use, exchange, surplus, status) and to produce subjects and social formations as any material commodity, arguably better able” (1998: 53).

The intrinsic value of Alice Guy’s La Vie du Christ is not only important because of its ability to corporealize Jesus Christ but, I’d argue, it is one of the few times that the life of Christ is infused with the life of women and children as spectators, actors and performers of the spectacle itself, as angels, or as common women. Guy’s images explode with light and movement, as hundreds of extras flow through the frames of La Vie du Christ on a variety of simultaneous planes of action. The large number of women and children further encourage audience identification with the film, and open up the finished production to a wider viewing audience.

La Vie du Christ

La Vie du Christ

Instead of being centered on the figure of Christ, with all the other performers drifting into the background, Guy constructs a living world in which all the participants are equally important to the gaze of the camera. Guy populates the symbolic imagination of her Biblical illustrations with a female gaze that includes the manufacture of a life of Christ that is significantly feminist in nature and takes place in the feminized, privatized home-like sphere. Women and children are numerous and ever-present in Guy’s interpretation of Christ’s life. One could easily view this as Guy’s apparent response to the absence of women and children in then-contemporary cinema, and the stereotypical renderings of women and children in the Victorian era. In contrast to the idealization of the feminine and infant forms in other films of the period, Guy’s women and children are fully human; they look at the camera, directly address the viewer, and engage in interactions between themselves that are entirely incidental to the film’s central narrative. In addition, Guy’s performers range across a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds, which constitutes a further departure from Victorian pictorial signification.

Guy’s feminism may seem unusual to the late twentieth century viewer. The film is populated by women and girls as angels, much in keeping with proscribed notions of femininity, yet these angels carry along the plot; they are not devoid of subjectivity. Perhaps La Vie du Christ may be viewed as a site of transformative value in its depiction of performing women. As Lynda Hart notes,

“One response to the impossibility of the feminine taking a place within the symbolic has been an effort to recover, or postulate, a prediscursive body, a critical effort to free the female body from its overdeterminations as a body saturated with sex, site of pleasure for (an)other, subjected and devoid of subjectivity. (1993: 5)

Thus, Alice Guy’s women move away from overdeterminism, though they are certainly not devoid of subjectivity. The subjectivity of women and children is rendered in a striking design of female enunciation. Indeed, this life of Christ is told through the eyes of the girl angels who guide us through the story. Each tableaux begins with a title card held up by three girls dressed as angels. This is a life of Christ told not only from the point of view of these angels, but a tale that is performed and enacted by women and children throughout the entire narrative. In the scene of “Le Sommeil de Jesus” (in the American version, “The Infant Jesus’ Sleep”), there is only one male adult to be found. The baby Jesus is surrounded by eight girl angels and one woman figure (presumably Mary).

These girl angels are reminiscent of the Angel of the House of the nineteenth century. They are not passive, fainting, impossibly ethereal presences, but instead diligently hard-working musicians in an unusual rendering of the common icon of the sleeping baby Jesus. These young women look directly at the viewer, as if to invite her/him into the manufactured spectacle of realism, in a display of the redemptive possibilities of performance and decorative film space. Between the real and the fantastic, the angels invite the participant to witness an event that is both sublime and familial, earthy and unearthly.

In the tableaux of the Garden of Olives, or “Au Jardin des Oliviers,” we find another manifestation of the female gaze of Alice Guy, as she works to place women in the symbolic logocentric arena. Here the outdoor setting is brilliantly illuminated in natural light. Nature itself is presented as a site of redemption, but, significantly, a young girl, dressed as an angel, presides over the life of Christ. Here, the collision of artifice, theatricality, and the obviously constructed filmic corporeal female meets the space of real and “authentic” nature, perhaps best illustrating Alfred Jarry’s unusual pronouncement that “decor is a hybrid, neither natural nor artificial” (1996: 210). In her construction of the film’s decor, Alice Guy renders a “natural” outdoor setting as a hybridized, artificial space.

La Vie du Christ

La Vie du Christ

In the fluid simulation of events of Christ’s corporeality, Alice Guy values the painted backdrop as much as she does the natural “backdrop” of the forests of Fontainebleau. Similarly, Guy values the supernatural girl “Angels” as much as she does the other numerous “real” women and children in the film. Indeed, the sheer number of women in the twenty-five scenes of La Vie du Christ seem designed to convey the feminization of the life of Christ. Similarly, Christ’s crucifixion is attended by scores of women and children. When Christ rises from the dead, the spectacle of the resurrection is seemingly facilitated by several young girls, who apparently will the event through the power of their gaze. As Guy recounts in her memoirs, this scene was also a technical challenge, involving multiple superimpositions to achieve the desired effect: “The Angel presenting the chalice to our Lord, the climb up Calgary, the Entombment, all these scenes succeeded. Jesus rising from the sepulcher was one of our best superimpositions” (Guy 1986: 43).

Indeed, Alice Guy was so successful in her melding of the real and the fantastic in La Vie du Christ that the film was later credited to other directors such as Victorin Jasset, who was in actuality the assistant director. Guy herself straddled the world of the Victorian Angel of the House and the newly emerging New Woman, and she seems to have been able to draw, in life, from these seemingly incongruent models of feminine comportment. She has been unfairly dismissed by some critics as a non-feminist, apparently because her practical, direct feminism does not fit categorically within prescribed late twentieth century models of feminist discourse. In performing her own style of feminism, Guy, like many other women of her time, was able to embody both the archetype of the New Woman, and also of the Angel of the House, paving the way for the modern woman of the twenty-first century.

Alice Guy near the end of her life.

Alice Guy near the end of her life.

In fact, Alice Guy transcended these proscribed binaries. She continues to transcend them in her work, leaving a legacy of filmmaking that began with the dawn of cinema and continued until the early teens. As an early French filmmaker, and later an early American filmmaker, she was able to skillfully combine the real and the fantastic. In her now famous essay, “A Woman’s Place in Photoplay Production,” reprinted in her memoirs, we can view her as a performing self that draws together the Angel of the House and the New Woman. It is the same woman who is now credited with having directed some hundreds of films who uses the Angel to sweep the New Woman in the door of the motion picture industry in a wonderful example of female rhetoric: “A woman’s magic touch is immediately recognized in a real home. Is it not just as recognizable in the home of the characters of a photoplay?” (Guy 1986: 128).

The home of the photoplay is the home of the performing woman in La Vie du Christ, which itself is a “homey” version of the life of Christ. It beckons to the gaze of the female audience and invites her to make herself at home in the symbolic arena of the celestial, even as it represents the celestial as decidedly familial and home-like. Thus, Guy’s film offers a useful counterpoint to such patriarchally dominated narratives as Cecil B. De Mille’s The Ten Commandments (both the silent 1923 version, and the 1956 remake) or Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1961). In re-envisioning the Christ tale as a fable in which the re-gendered Christ is seen as the savior of all humanity, not just a male-defined and dominated cultural and pictorial landscape.

An earlier version of this essay originally appeared in the journal Film Criticism. A good biographical source on Alice Guy is the 1995 documentary The Lost Garden: The Life and Cinema of Alice Guy-Blaché directed by Marquise Lepage. The film includes footage of interviews with Guy and her family members as well as film historians. It also features a plethora of previously unseen clips from her films in all genres, many of them sound and color tinted. Also see the Gaumont Treasures, Vol I DVD box set from Kino (2009). Alongside the work of Louis Feuillade and Léonce Perret, the box contains La vie du Christ as well as many of the previously “lost” films of Alice Guy. Many are handtinted and some are sound films recorded on wax cylinder. The Consequences of Feminism, 1906 is a hilarious send up of feminism itself and a must see. The set does not include the original La Fée au choux, but it does include the remake of 1900.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster writes frequently for Film International.


References

Acker, Ally (1991), Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema. New York: Continuum, 1991.

Bachy, Victor (1993), Alice Guy-Blaché (1873-1968): La Première Femme Cinéaste du Monde, Perpignan: Institut Jean Vigo.

Bowser, Eileen (1990), History of the American Cinema 2: The Transformation of Cinema, New York: Scribners.

Butler, Judith (1990), Gender Trouble, New York: Routledge.

De Certeau, Michel (1984), The Practice of Everyday Life, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Flitterman-Lewis, Sandy (1990), To Desire Differently: Feminism and the French Cinema, Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey (1995), Women Film Directors: An International Bio-Critical Dictionary, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Gates, Harvey (192), “Alice Blaché: A Dominant Figure in Pictures,” New York Dramatic Mirror, November 6, p. 28.

Guy, Alice (1986), The Memoirs of Alice Guy Blaché, edited by Anthony Slide, Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.

Hart, Lynda (1993), “Introduction” in Hart and Peggy Phelan (eds.), Acting Out: Feminist Performances, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, pp. 1-12.

Heck-Rabi, Louise (1984), Women Filmmakers: A Critical Reception, Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.

Jarry, Alfred (1996), “Of the Futility of the ‘Theatrical’ in Theater,” in Michael Huxley and Noel Witts (eds.), The Twentieth Century Performance Reader, New York: Routledge, pp. 209-215. Originally published in 1896.

Joseph, Miranda (1998), “The Performance of Production and Consumption,” Social Text, 16.1, Spring, pp. 25-61.

Lacassin, Francis (1971), “Out of Oblivion: Alice Guy Blaché,” Sight and Sound 40.3, Summer, pp. 151-54.

Mayne, Judith (1990), The Woman at the Keyhole; Feminism and Women’s Cinema, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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

Rhodes, Lis and Felicity Sparrow (1994), “Her Image Fades as Her Voice Rises,” in Diane Carson, Linda Dittmar and Janice Welsch (eds.), Multiple Voices in Feminist Film Criticism, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 421 – 431.

Simon, Joan (ed.) (2010), Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Slide, Anthony (1977), Early Women Directors, South Brunswick, NJ: A. S. Barnes.

Wood, Christopher (1986), Tissot, Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

11 Comments for “Alice Guy’s La Vie du Christ: A Feminist Vision of the Christ Tale”

  1. Finally, another woman fascinated by the notorious Ms. Guy (Sorry, couldn’t help but lift the title of one of my own articles)!
    My particular interest is more from a societal perspective, in regard to Guy’s use of fabric. I’d love to hear your opinion about the closeup image of Christ transferred to Saint Veronica’s fabric.

  2. Alice Guy’s work may not fit categorically within established models of late twentieth century feminism, but it is feminist nonetheless. The author mentions Guy’s ability to “transcend” the proscribed binaries, and that choice of words is perfect for the natural ease with which the feminist dialogue runs through La Vie du Christ. Not only does the film make the bold statement that women and children are a natural and realistic presence in religious narratives, but it also points out in its feminization of Jesus himself that gender roles are human, earthbound social constructs. I have never seen feminization of Jesus in religious imagery as taking away masculinity to add feminine characteristics so much as altogether transcending the idea of gender and being bound to a human body. Alice Guy may not convey conventional ideas about feminism, but perhaps in this instance she reaches for something beyond it.

  3. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

    Thanks for the brilliant comments, Daisy!

    There is a project in the works to make a film about Alice Guy entitled, “Be Natural.” I hope this project succeeds. Alice Guy had been “rediscovered” continually and cyclically since the late 70s and early 80s, only to be again forgotten or reduced to a footnote in film history.

    I have been teaching the history of Early women film directors including Alice Guy for decades. I made a documentary on the subject and I have written many volumes and essays about female film directors in history. The film textbook I co-wrote with Wheeler Winston Dixon, entitled A SHORT HISTORY OF FILM integrates the story of Alice Guy Blaché as well as many minority and female directors–they are incorporated into the text, not as a special ghettoized sidebar, but as part of the fabric of history. [We also include some white male directors of note who are often given short shrift in film books, such as Augustin Le Prince — an inventor who shot the first moving pictures on paper film using a single lens camera.]

    The curious and frustrating thing about the case of Alice Guy Blache is that she is constantly being “rediscovered” and then subsequently forgotten because, unfortunately, some film historians are blatantly sexist and firmly entrenched in a male dominated canon of the great white male directors. Unfortunately, I have found, this is almost impossible to change until they retire and make way for a new generation.

    You would not believe how difficult it is in our field of film history to establish the importance of Alice Guy Blache and other female directors, such as Lois Weber, who were once very well known and very prominent and successful in their day. Most people don’t know it, but women absolutely flourished in the capacity of writer/director in the earliest days of cinema and it was NOT unusual to be a female director. Yes you read that sentence correctly. We have gone backwards….

    But many influential archivists and historians simply waive female directors off as if they cannot possibly be bothered to rewrite their textbooks. Look Guy up in a typical film history book. If she is mentioned at all, it usually says she made a few domestic comedies that are “lost.” The same thing goes for Lois Weber and a long list of women who directed hundreds of films in the silent era….

    There are myriad ways these pioneering filmmakers are demeaned and lost to history despite the efforts of many researchers, including the efforts, in this case, of Alice Guy herself. I have been to the Gaumont Archives in Paris to see the actual letters she sent to the powers that be — to try to put herself in the canon where she belongs — next to the well known names of Melies, Edison, the Lumieres and DW Griffith.

    In the early 80s, I read Anthony Slide’s groundbreaking research on early women directors in the silent era. I made my film, The Women Who Made the Movies, a documentary on early silent female filmmakers. Ally Acker did a great deal of tireless work in the area, including a volume on early women directors, as did Louise Heck-Rabi. But despite the evidence, it was very difficult to prove her significance without most of the ACTUAL FILMS…..I knew that they existed in the Gaumont archives and I travelled to the New Zealand Archives to view more newly discovered prints of Guy Blache films. What I saw floored me: films in just about every genre and capably made, often female centered. but it was not until fairly recently that these films were made available on DVD.

    I thought, surely with the release of the Gaumont Treasures, Volume I. and the many Alice Guy Blache films popping up on YouTube– SURELY BY NOW her name should be a significant part of film history, but she is still a footnote, with some exceptions.

    In the 1990s Jane Gaines, Sandy Flitterman Lewis and a number of others began a project called the Women Film Pioneers Project, which seeks to recognize the work of female directors in the silent era. Alison McMahan pub;ished a significant volume on her….again there was a lot of media attention for a time….but many stubborn old film scholars absolutely refuse to change their view that she is simply a footnote in film history.

    I do not see how she CANNOT be reclaimed given the restoration and dissemination of her work on DVD. Perhaps people cannot see beyond her gender? She was more than the first FEMALE director. She was arguably the first auteur or certainly one of the first directors of any type of moving picture. Some claim that she made the first film with a narrative, The Cabbage Fairy. She made the first early sound films on wax cylinder. She made hand painted color tinted films. She made trick films. She single-handedly INVENTED many of the genres we have come to love. She made some of the first longer length films, moving us towards feature length films.

    I do hope this isn’t yet another wave of passing interest in the novelty of a female director. I hope this time the history sticks….but I am not holding my breath.

    And yet, I have such great hope for the rediscovery and reclamation of the place of women in cinema history, especially in the early days when they had a great deal of power. It was only when the guilds came to Hollywood that women were moved out of the directors chair. And they are still treated like complete novelties in the 21st century.

    It seems notable to me that we are clearly ready for a female President, yet we are apparently not ready for equal representation in the field of film direction. This seems pretty unusual to me, and it speaks to the significance of the role of film director as a sort of God….

    I feel personally connected, in an odd way, to Alice Guy. This amazing french writer/producer/director — a woman who had once built her own studio and ran her own film company at one time– and had accomplished so much — when she died she was living in Mahwah, New Jersey. I lived in Mahwah too. Sometimes I wonder of I ran into her at the A&P ;)

    I love your point, Daisy, about how Alice Guy may not fit into modern notions of feminism, but it doesn’t make her any less of a feminist. She was a feminist in her behavior and her worldview. But taking a look at HER life of Christ is a real eye opener! With the exception of a few roles, this is a female dominated story where women and children seem to run the show. They crowd the frame and overwhelm the narrative and inject an undeniable female presence and power. Jesus is very attractive here–he is foxy (!) –no doubt this is intended for a female audience. The film is breathtaking, as are many of her films. I hope people check her work out on YouTube and on DVD and I am sure one day she will cease to be treated as a footnote in film history.

    Cheers; Gwendolyn

  4. If I can say the least, Alice Guy’s “La Vie du Christ” sounds like an intriguing and relatively groundbreaking film for it’s time. I’ve never been into silent film all that much (perhaps it is because I am relatively young), but am heavily intrigued by cinema and exploring the many individuals who helped bring life into film by using their minds and their cameras. From what I can gather, this particular film seems to break boundaries with the story of Christ that few modern films even attempt to. Considering the source material is so heavily patriarchal, and some historians and amateur readers may even consider it sexist at points, for a woman to create a film depicting this otherwise patriarchal world with emphasis on the female characters is intriguing. As an individual disinterested in religion, I find retellings of the Gospels such as this to be far more interesting than the often watered down Christ-tales we see every couple of years. The descriptions of “La Vie du Christ” hint at this film being some sort of surreal yet corporeal translation of the story, which in my eyes is the perfect representation considering how Christ himself is said to be all man, yet all god as well.

    In the feminist context, I can understand the appeal of Guy who you say is more than just one of the first female directors, but the “first auteur.” Strangely enough, I can’t think of too many female-centric films that are not terrible romance films. I like the idea of the female presence being important, even when standing in the same room with Christ, who is not only a man, but a god (according to religious beliefs, anyways).

    Honestly, at the end of the day, there is a lot to take in with regard to Alice Guy. She is complex, but I’m afraid we’ve just touched the surface with this article. Still, a great piece!

  5. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

    Thanks Chris,

    Yes, indeed this is surely an unusual film. I am not usually drawn to bible stories, but I saw this many years in a private projection at MoMa. I was amazed at how feminized and potentially feminist it seemed, especially given the patriarchal nature of the church…..but I was also taken with the unusual use of space,the natural acting style (for the time period) and the painterly qualities of the film. But to tell you the truth, what knocked me out the most was that this christ figure seemed pretty foxy and human, very much a human of beauty and manliness—always surrounded here by children and women—- a Jesus who seemed molded for the then-predominant female audience for motion pictures. How Guy straddles the Victorian lady of the House and The New Woman is really interesting to me. There is a great photo of her looking all dainty and yet she is dressed in male clothing and smoking a big fat stogie cigar — kinda captures her essence in a nutshell.

    Thanks for writing, Chris.

  6. Gwendolyn,

    You make a good point about the appearance of the Jesus in this film. I don’t think we could really judge the nature of the gender roles on display in this film without seeing how Christ himself is portrayed. Not only because Jesus is a man, but because what he represents in this biblical story. He is a symbol for something greater than mankind, and in so many representations of this story he is placed in a very patriarchal role; while it seems that in La Vie Due Christ he becomes something else…maybe a sex symbol of sorts. On one hand, the movie seems sort of extreme, almost like it’s early feminist porn. But, on the other, it only seems this way because of how women are so commonly perceived in society, even moreso during the time when this film was conceived. In the least, the film has me intrigued. It is definitely interesting from the perspective of someone studying and learning about film, wherein Alice Guy becomes a hugely interesting character like you point out in your post and follow up comments!

  7. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

    No, Chris, don’t think feminist “porn” for crying out loud! ….I do not mean to suggest anything so extreme….You gotta remember, Chris, we are talking about a much earlier time in history….but in Guy’s version we see a very humanized and feminine Christ figure who is surrounded at all times by women and children, many of whom look directly at the camera….this mixes the public spectacle in the private sphere in an unusual way.

    The home, or the ‘private sphere,’ was primarily the domain of women in the Victorian era … but the major events in the film take place largely in the male dominated public sphere, which is where the “New Woman” was finally taking a space and emerging as an independent and less docile creature who could manage her own affairs quite well and was not tied to the home.

    The unusual mixture of the spheres, or the feminist twist on a traditionally patriarchal tale is very much in keeping with Alice Guy Blache’s hybrid version of feminism. She was very French and very Catholic, but she also quickly adopted to the new roles opening for women, even as she herself helped paved the road for women to follow in her footsteps.

    Lois Weber is a perfect example of a woman who benefited from knowing Alice Guy Blache and working with the Blache’s. She had a role model in Blache. Later, Lois Weber ultimately became wildly successful running her own production company and was one of the most successful and highest paid triple threats in the young industry as an actor/writer/director/producer. Weber initially worked with the Blache’s and later became the highest paid producer/director in early Hollywood. Though she is now largely written out of film history, Lois Weber was as wildly famous and successful as Cecil B. DeMille….but that is another story for another time….

    Alice Guy Blache was, by her very nature, in many ways old fashioned and Victorian, and yet she was also the embodiment of the emerging “New Woman,” as an independent businesswoman who worked unchaperoned outside the home and had the ability to boss around a film crew and smoke in public – and yet remain “ladylike.”

    The New Woman broke with the mold of the Victorian “Angel of the House,” but this revolutionary change in gender roles did not happen overnight. Alice Guy Blache is but one example of women who straddled the generations and gender roles that came with them.This comes through very strongly in her film work, which is one of the things that makes her films so interesting.

    Guy’s film, The Consequences of Feminism is a good case in point. While it hilariously ridicules men as unable to cope with gender role reversals, it also critiques feminism itself. Only a subversive comic wit who was aware of the politics of the rapidly changing gender roles during this time could make such a funny and wry commentary and funny film. I love to teach this film, because there are many ways to take it– like any rich joke–and my students enjoy arguing about the myriad ways it can be read.

    Guy was a very smart businesswoman who wisely catered to an enormous female audience in her aesthetic choices and mis en scene. The mixing of public sphere and private sphere elements in the many frames of La vie du Christ is tantamount to putting women and children smack in the middle of the normally male-dominated public sphere. This was a smart business decision and one may argue that it reframes the story of Jesus through a female perspective.

    It is also gestures to much earlier historical artistic depictions of Jesus as more human, more attractive and beautiful, and much more feminine. These types of images of Jesus are commonly found way back in the medieval period and earlier, when women, perhaps surprising to some, once had much more prominence in the Catholic church as saints and martyrs, and Jesus was much more commonly associated with the feminine, as was divinity and spirituality and closeness to God.

    You can spare a few minutes to watch La vie du Christ online and see that it has many frames that are jam-packed with women and children, unlike most filmed bible stories or later biblical epics, which usually only figure prominent women primarily in the role of the fallen woman or whore, with some exceptions.

    Blache’s depiction of the life of Christ as a female driven spectacle not only appealed to female audience members but it both conformed to Victorian notions of the feminine and at the same time subverted those very notions.

    Thanks for writing in Chris.

  8. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

    Many people are e-mailing me to ask what happened to all the female directors working in the silent period? How/why did they get eased out of the directors chair?….There are a variety of factors and it is a pretty complex and important development in film history.

    Rather than try to explain this all here in a small space, I should direct you to Karen Ward Mahar’s 2006 book from Johns Hopkins Press, WOMEN FILMMAKERS IN EARLY HOLLYWOOD. While there are myriad reasons, Mahar demonstrates that the introduction of the guilds in early Hollywood, and the unwillingness to allow women into the guilds, that led to women being pushed out of the field of film direction. Read Mahar’s book for the full and complex story though.

    Another burning question people have is just how did so many accomplished and well known female directors get left out of film history? That, too, is a rather complex question — but it is pretty common across all areas of art and other fields to find that women and minorities are routinely written out of history. A great place to start is by reading HOW TO SUPPRESS WOMEN’S WRITING by Joanna Russ. Though her book is about women writers were left out of history, Russ’s reasoning and evidence can easily be applied to female directors left out of the canon of film history.

    Indeed, one of the ironies I find in studying both film and literature, is that it is far easier to reclaim the legacy of early women writers than lost and neglected women filmmakers. This has to do with a lot of factors, but the biggest factor is that, in order to revise history to include what has been deliberately omitted, one must have full access to the artwork in question. It is easier and less expensive to republish lost and neglected books than it is to find and distribute early films— many of which are only located in archives, lost, destroyed, or not yet restored.

    It is easier, bizarrely, for example, to reclaim the legacy of a Medieval female writer than it is a once well-know very successful female who directed in the past century…..Access to the material and widespread distribution are crucial factors.
    Also, English literature professors and literary historians are much more open to the idea and practice of challenging the canon and revisiting literary history. This is not yet true of film history, though it is changing — ever so slowly…….

  9. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

    Amy, thanks so much for your comment.

    For those of you who are interested in reading about Alice Guy’s early experimentation work in film, check out this article on the subject by Amy R. Handler:

    http://www.filmthreat.com/features/20709/

    Here is Amy R. Handler’s review of Gaumont’s DVD Treasures for Cineaste:

    http://www.cineaste.com/articles/emgaumont-treasures-18971913em

    It is really great to see so much interest in the work of Alice Guy Blache.

    Thanks, Amy!

  10. Thank you, Gwendolyn! Yes, I do love learning more and more about the brilliant Alice Guy Blache, and was thrilled to learn of your interest. I’ve seen all of
    Guy Blache’s available films and read much of her writings. What particularly fascinates me, is her attraction to fabric as a medium for her socio/political statements. I also enjoy her gender bending, which is of course, highly feminist for her time (and any time), but also, so much more. Another subject of interest to me (which you discuss), is her use of the audience within her films—and how Louis Feuillade runs with this concept in his work.

  11. Gwendolyn, Thank you for a great article on Alice Guy Blaché! I was thrilled to see that the film ‘Be Natural’ made its funding minimum (and then some)… hopefully it will come to fruition and get Guy the credit she deserves. I do know the link to the kickstarter was floating around my Facebook New Feed from several friends (and upworthy.com).

    It’s been a while since I studied with you and Wheeler, but I’m very glad you taught us about Guy, especially since she was a third of my thesis! I’ve found my education in the Film Studies department has been quite helpful as I make my way through the screenwriting/production worlds. THANK YOU!!!!!

    I really liked your exploration of the feminism in La Vie du Christ. Every scene WAS very painterly and the inclusion of women, children, and other races is even a bit extraordinary in comparison to today’s casting! This is something I attempt to keep in mind and it seems it will forever be an uphill battle for women to be seen and be remembered. But we keep on….

    Guy was truly before her time!

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