issue 35 > nonfiction > stone
The Divine Sarah: Seeking Immortality through Filmby Judith E. Stone
Manifest in the wealth of photographs taken of Sarah Bernhardt, the legendary Nineteenth Century tragédienne - on stage and off, in Paris and abroad on tour, from adolescence to old age - is Bernhardt’s heightened awareness of the nascent medium’s ability to confer immortality on its subjects.The canny actress knew well, of course,that even the most compelling stage performance was by its very nature ephemeral, and would ultimately be lost to collective memory, if not rescued by solid, durable visual record.Initially photographed in 1863 by the legendary Nadar, on her own, 17-year-old initiative, the Divine Sarah went on to commandeer the camera skills of many other established photographers of the period.
But even the profusion of photographic images could not fully satisfy Bernhardt’s need to secure immortality for both her dramatic achievement and for her person, or put more accurately, her outsized personality, a need that intensified as she aged.To that end, she turned to film, still in its infancy at the start of the 20th Century.William Emboden notes that, from 1909 to 1918, “Sarah concentrated on establishing herself as the first motion picture star...”, a grandiose ambition by any standard.Urging us to take lightly her “oft-quoted aversion to film-making”, Emboden emphasizes instead her contemptuous dismissal only of films produced atthe turn into the 20th Century, which she branded “those absurdphotographic pantomimes.” (Emboden 143)Certain she could do better, Bernhardt saw pictures that literally moved as her best chance at immortality,since cinema “ ‘exorcised the old curse on the actor’s art -- its impermanence.’ “ (Emboden 143)
Deep in middle age at 56, Bernhardt made her film debut as Hamlet, one of her favorite, if most controversial roles, and one that best exemplified her exceptional gift for playing young, dynamic, sometimes internally conflicted male characters. Perhaps, given her well-documented insight into her own psychological mainsprings, playing a vigorous male character allowed her an outlet for what she very likely perceived as her natural androgyny, and certainly her masculine cast of mind.Horville expands on this hypothesis in the following observation: “...Sarah Bernhardt saw in the masculine mental processes a particular theatrical manifestation for which her theatrical style was especially apt.”He goes on to quote Bernhardt herself, in a lecture given on February 7, 1914: “ ‘I do not prefer men’s rôles’, she declared, “ ‘but I do prefer men’s brains: Hamlet, L’Aiglon, Lorenzaccio...I maintain that these rôles will gain in being played by an intellectual woman.’ “The implication here is clear: while Bernhardt was not an educated woman in the formal, academic sense,her faith in herself rested, in part, on her self-perception as an “intellectual.”
Ironically, however, her inaugural appearance in film as the melancholy, ruminating Dane was limited to Hamlet’s brief, wordless dual with Laertes in the tragedy’s Fifth Act, in which the re-energized Prince, freed of his crippling ambivalence, springs into action. Absent the calcula- tions of Sarah’s singular way with dialogue, not to mention the eloquence and force of Shakes- pearean verse itself, the film’s only sound was the “clanking of swords recorded on Edison wax cylinders and played in synchronization with the film from behind the screen.” (Menefree 90)
David Menefree’s description of Bernhardt’s“Hamlet” gives an indication of both early approaches to filmingnarratives specifically created for the stage, and to the actress’s penchant for climactic moments in drama that invited, or more accurately demanded, melodramatic gesture.“The film begins with the characters from the play standing motionless in tableau.Sarah is seen in manly attire on a small stage. The dual with Laertes begins, and after fierce swordplay, ends with the stabbing death of Hamlet’s adversary.Sarah swoons into the conve- niently waiting arms of Hamlet’s attendants, then is lifted and carried off screen, to the left, exhausted by the ordeal.” (Menefree 97)
Implicit here is the attitude toward film-making advocatedby many in cinema’s first decade, a restrictive, wrongheaded attitude, when viewed in hindsight.“Some thought it a serious mistake to have any character appear on the screen without entering the scene full length, feet and all,” so that scenes were only shot “...straight on as if from the front row of a theater.” (Menefree 92)Indeed, the first three of Bernhardt’s films - “Hamlet”, “La Tosca”, and “Camille” - were filmed in this manner. From one standpoint, this method of shooting scenes shielded an ageing actress playing youthful parts from all-too-revealing close-ups. From another, the method accounts for the static quality of Bernhardt’s first three cinematic appearances and for the monotony of these films in general. In addition, the films’ frequent use of tableaux, with immobilized players posed in groups, as in panoramic 19th Century history paintings, were a direct throwback to the Divine Sarah’s most lauded onstage performances.
Created“more as a technological experiment than a work of art,” (Menefree 89-90) Hamlet was one of three films in a program devised by Mme. Marguerite Chenu for the Phono-Cinéma-Theatre, an innovative event that drew sizeable crowds on the Champs de Mars fairgrounds of the 1900 Exposition Internationale.Audiences for Mme. Chenu’s films were doubtless as seduced by the groundbreaking “moving pictures”, primitive and laughably jerky by our stan- dards as they were, by the innovative Art Nouveau furnishings in Siegfried Bing’s French Pavilion.
Bernhardt’s’s first substantial cinematic venture took the form of a one-reel, 12- minute versionof “La Tosca”, like Hamlet, a safe and sensible choice, since the role had been among her most successful on stage.Based on a play by Victorien Sardou, the plot of “La Tosca” turns on the heroine’s suspicion that Mario, her lover, is having an affair with the model for his sculpture of Mary Magdalene.Involving much duplicity and treachery - as those familiar with Puccini’s wrenching opera know - the dramaculminates in all manner of violence: gunshots, stabbings, and leaps to death from high places.
Bernhardt had refused many film offers following her brief foray into the medium in 1900.However,in 1908, she accepted the role of Flora Tosca, at the invitation of André Calmettes, Director of the production company, Film d’Art.In the vanguard of the “highbrow” movement in film-making,the company’s stated aim was to produce cinematic versions of famous plays, a goal that was surely a determining factor in Sarah’s decision.Moreover, Film d’Art occupied an elaborate Paris studio, comprising glass-covered shooting stage, photographic laboratory, dressing rooms, storage areas for scenery and costumes, and administrative offices.That Film d’Art’s headquarters so closely resembled the impressive, multi-use theatrical setting in which the imperious actress had held sway for so many years, was surely an added inducement.
Calmette issued his invitation ten years after Bernhardt had assumed control of the theater that was, in fact, her namesake:“Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt”.As she had during her tenure at the “Théâtre de l’Ambigu”, (1890 - 1893) and the “Théâtre de la Renaissance”, (1893-1898),Bernhardt insisted on the “right to supervise everything that went into the presentation of a play”: recruiting actors, organizing tours,selecting the plays to be performed, taking an active part in set design.No doubt, she expected her unquestioned authority in the live theatrical context, her right to the have “the last word” (not always the right word, given her taste for extreme,some say vulgar melodrama), to be perpetuated in the cinematic realm.And, to a great extent, it was.
In his approach to shooting scenes, Calmette, initially subscribed to the inflexible, frontalmethod defined above. And logically so.The company’s mission, after all, was to replicate first rate plays in cinematic form, for an audience accustomed to the time-honored relationship between viewer and performer in high-end, live theater.As a result, Film d’Art’s productions were inevitably“...static in the extreme, photographed from a single angle as if from the front row of a theater, with little or no intercutting of shots within the scene,” (Menefree 99) (Intercutting was one of many advances made by filmmakers in the eight-year, intervening period between the filming of “Hamlet” and the production of “La Tosca”.)As Menefree notes, even as Calmettes was directing the Divine Sarah on the company’s shooting stage, his more experimental peers, those not only at ease with, but stimulated by technological change, were already mobilizing elements of the screen syntax still in use today.close-ups; long shots; scenes shot from multiple angles;intercutting.By 1908, the movie camera had become “an instrument of expression, rather than of mere record,” (Menefree 91-92) for directors more willing thanCalmettes to explore its potential.
Bernhardt herself was horrified by the Sarah she saw in “La Tosca” and, with the death of Sardou, publicly renounced the film. She attempted to buy up all the existing prints and demanded that the negatives be destroyed, only to learn a few years later that “others who saw value in the production had thwarted the attempt.” (Menefree 99) The critic G.F. Blaisdelle, writing for “The Motion Picture World” was among those who saw great dramatic power in Sarah’s onscreen performance, a response at odds with the actress’s loudly voiced, undisguised dissatisfaction.Blaisdelle lay emphasis on the film’s tightness and compression, the very qualities that Sarah herself found disturbing:
“ ‘...Without question, the one scene that stands out above all others is where Scarpia, the chief of police, approaches La Tosca and puts out his arm to embrace her.La Tosca drives a knife into his breast. The passport is torn from his stiffening fingers, two greatcandlesticks are placed at the head of the body, and a large crucifix is taken from the wall and laid on the breast of the man who stood between La Toscaand happiness.’ ”
The action is fast.That it is interesting is proved by the fact that the two reels seem unusually short.There is no sterner test than this of the holding quality, ... thegripping quality of a film.To compress into forty minutes [sic] the essentials of this great story necessarily involves the elimination of minor factors.So we have preservedthe really vital scenes.” (Menefree 100)
Clearly, while Bernhardt took issue with the film’s unseemly brevity and the excision of slower-moving scenes that prepared audiences for climactic moments, Blaisdelle welcomed their omission.Indeed, we in the 21st Century recognize in Blaisdelle a critic of modern, somewhat shorter attention span than was the norm in his own day.
By 1911, undeterred by what she judged her abortive first try, Bernhardt had set her sites on the filming of a sectionof“La Dame aux camélias” - predictably the most emotionally devastating section - beginning with the consumptive Marguerite’s separation from her lover, Armand.Once satisfied with Film d’Art’s offer of $30,000 to play the lead role - note the sum in dollars, rather than francs - Bernhardt proceeded to acquaint herself with the technical arcana of film-making, through data-gathering conversations with actors, directors, and cameramen, and with current cinema,in visits to motion picture shows throughout Paris.As had long been her modus operandi in the theater, she involved herself in all aspects of the production, driven by the symbiotic engines of curiosity and perfectionism.
Of course, what Bernhardt could count on from the outset was her intimate understanding of the play’s characters and plot, as conceived by the legendary novelist and playwright Alexandre Dumas Fils. The actress was meticulous in her preparation for each performance.“She immersed herself in a profound study of the script she was to play and in the author’s inten- tions,” so that “...realisation of her rôles was preceded by a thorough analysis which was most detailed.” (Horville 44)
Scripted and directed by Calmettes,“La Dame aux camélias” was filmed in one extended take and printed in two 12-minute reels. Although disgruntled with Film d’Art’s alteration of the play’s title, now reduced to “Camille”,Bernhardt was elated with the outcome of her second cinematic effort..Writing to her American manager William F. Connor, she proclaimed“ ‘Ihave conquered a new world -- that of the photoplay.’ “ (Emboden 144)Interesting to note here is Bernhardt’s use of the term “photoplay”, a quaint descriptor in an otherwise cutting-edge theatrical context that is nonetheless in line with Film d’Art’s stated intention: the transfer of her stage roles to the screen.
Emboden notes that in her early films,Bernhardt “regarded this technical invention [the movie camera] only as a means to record theater as she knew it...she declamed the French texts as she would in any theatre,” (Emboden 144) Younger actresses, on the other hand,alert to the negative impact of excessively histrionic gesture on audiences for film, and doubtless fearing ridicule, tailored their interpretations to the new medium. That said, however, one must add that at least one critical observer found Sarah’s intransigent theatricality, her very staginess in the role of the play’s consumptive heroine, Marguerite Gautier, both entirely appropriate for cinema, and deeply moving.Writing for “Moving Picture News” in March, 1912, he states, with unabashed hyperbole, that“‘Camille [Marguerite] was never more pitifully eloquent than in this dumb record.She played with wonderful fire and expressiveness.Great genius that she is she suited herself to her medium[italics mine] and the result is a long series of photographs that are staccato in their expressiveness.’ “ (Emboden 144-145)
In 1912,her self-confidence buttressed by the success of “Camille” , Bernhardt contracted with Film d’Art for the production of her first full-length motion picture, “Elisabeth Reine d’Angleterre”, alternatively titled “Les Amours de la Reine Elisabeth”. In view of the plot’s romantic emphasis, the latter title far better fits the film’s trajectory, as well as Bernhardt’s personal take on her part.The role of a dominant female political figure in history, a revered ruler enmeshed in a doomedromance that is her undoing, suited her perfectly.(Elizabeth’s virginity, well, not so much.)As Horville notes, Bernhardt had always had a predilection for royal characters, and, by extension, for formal costume appropriate for a regal presence: “...she heightened her various rôles with a sumptuous figure in ceremonial dress.”
The final version of “Les Amours de la Reine Elisabeth”, four reels and 50 minutes long, was indeed the first full-length film ever made with a focus on characters, rather than sweeping histo- rical events. What is more, as Emboden boldly states it, “with “Elisabeth”, Bernhardt all but single-handedly “established the star system.” (Emboden 145)
“Elisabeth” follows an intricate plot line that traces to its end Elizabeth’s storied relationship with the Duke of Essex, a liaison reputedly never consummated.In the film, in fact, Essex is seen openly carrying on a full blown, consummated affair with the Countess of Nottingham, a passionate affaire de coeur that at once ignites her husband’s jealousy and subverts Elizabeth’s trust in Essex’s expressed affection.The plot thickens further with the suspicious disappearance of a ring given to Essex by Elizabeth, to be returned to the Queen if he ever needs help.Falsely accused of treason by the vengeful Nottingham and unable to summon the Queen’s assistance with the return of the missing ring, Essex is ultimately, and summarily, beheaded.
The loss of Essex. who was never truly hers to start with, condemns Elizabeth to an unhappy life ever after. “She becomes a vain, old woman, at once wishing flattery and despising it, forbid- ding the presence of mirrors at the court for fear of learning from the truthful leaded glass the sad revelation of her faded charms and her approaching end.She dies of a broken heart, falling forward from her throne onto a mass of broken pillows.”(Menefree 112)
For a celebrated actress as resistant to failure and defeat, as unwilling as was Bernhardt to acknowledge the wages of fading charms and old age, assuming and playing to the hilt the role of the Virgin Queen in her declining years constituted a feat of courage that should impress us even now.Bernhardt’s achievement in portrayingphysical and psychological deterioration on screen was surely informed by the deep-seated, genuine fear of ageingthe 60-something actress hid from her public, if not from herself,in her day-to-day life.Nevertheless, however pathetic, however downright wretched Bernhardt’s “Elisabeth”appeared on the screen, her creator was all business on the shooting stage.“Reckoning with the fact that, whereas a play tells the story primarily by dialogue, a motion picture relies primarily on pictures,” she aggressively managed the entire production,taking full charge of the arrangement of the 23 scenes. (Menefree 112)
Ensuring the film’s commercial success, together with that of its lead actress, the Hollywood impresario Adolph Zukor, bought the American screening rights for $18,000. “Elisabeth Reine d’Angleterre”opened on July 12, 1912 at Broadway’s Lyceum Theater, under the auspices of Zukor’s Enghandine Company, “Famous Players in Famous Plays.” That two such apparently disparate figures in the performing arts - an ageing French tragédienne with the greater portion of her experience in classical theater and a shrewd American businessman with ancestral roots in Hungary -should join forces does give one pause.On close examination, however, one can locate significant underlying similarities between the two: vaunting ambition; dauntless enterprise; exceptional foresight in their willingness to stake all in the new medium of film;andfinally, a shared, lifelong sense of alienation in their respective societies - for Bernhardt, French society, for Zukor, American society - as outsiders, as Jews.
In New York, “Elisabeth Reine d’Angleterre” opened to mixed reviews, but uniformly enthusiastic audiences, for whom the mouthed dialogue in French presented no obstacle. The film was after all silent, relying on pantomime and subtitles to convey both dialogue and plot, the subtitles, unfortunately, often stating the obvious.Following its Manhattan debut, “Elisabeth” toured regionally throughout the United States, as Bernhardt herself had done numerous times in the past.Purchased for $8000 by theater owners throughout the country, on a state-by-state basis, the film eventually earned $80,000 for actress, director, and Zukor himself.
The reviewer for “The Theater Magazine” referred to “Elisabeth” as“a remarkable moving picture exhibition of a photoplay in 21 scenes,” the camera as a “mechanical contrivance”, and the film projector as a “cinematograph”. (Emboden 147) These odd, albeit charming appellations may indicate relative backwardness in cinematic matters in the United States, at least in the case of one American critic.Nevertheless, in his prescience regarding the future of film, the New York reviewer - a hayseed at best, a Philistine at worst, in the minds of European cinephiles - was on the money.Defining the new medium as “poor man’s theater”, he believed that film would lead to better theater through competition with the stage, and that motion pictures might someday talk. (Emboden 147)
As to the Divine Sarah’s cinematic presence, her image for posterity, he noted that the actress“‘did not merely pose mechanically for a mechanical contrivance, but proceeded to give one of her finest performances of which this great living artist is capable.’”(Emboden 148) Most impressive, he noted, was her “ ‘slow, sinuous walk’ “.Reading this critical accolade, one may infer that, by the time the filming of “Elisabeth” was underway, director, star, and Film d’Art executives hadshed their initial assumption that a film should merely duplicate a stage play in celluloid.Instead, in “Elisabeth”, they seemed to take greater advantage of the camera’s ability to do more than merely shoot a series of declamatory speeches, poses and gestures held too long, and rigid tableaux.
Bernhardt’s increasing fervor for film, her recognition of the medium’s potential for securing her reputation and very visibility long after her death, extended into the realm of documentary. And what she documented was her own life, or at least her own life as she wished the public to see it.Also produced by Film d’Art in 1912, a frenetic year for the actress now nearing 70, “Sarah Bernhardt at Home” was shot at Belle-Isle, her vacation retreat off the Brittany coast.
Ever conscious of the power of illusion, indifferent, if not averse to factual accuracy, she made sure that she was filmed “hiking on rocky cliffs, looking after lobster pots, feeding chickens, ducks, geese and pigs with her own hands.” (Emboden 149)The intention was obvious: she was intent on depicting herself not only as a theatrical divinity, “a tragedy queen”, onstage (absent the weight of sarcasm the term carries for us today), but as a woman of the people, as willing as ordinary women to get her hands dirty.To that end, Bernhardt is seen rising at dawn to carry out her rural chores and conversing with the local fisherman she has befriended during times of famine on the island. (Menefree 107)Admittedly sabotaging the “common woman” image, she is also seen bestowing gifts on island natives during an evening of folk dancing, gifts that, as the subtitles tell us, will be treasured by recipients as “sacred relics”. (Menefree 109)In this particular scene, the spirit is certainly not one of social equality, but rather of noblesse oblige.
Compounding the complexity of this multi-faceted image are brief cinematic glimpses of Sarah the Sportswoman, fishing in Belle-Isle estate pools that were, in truth, stocked for her, and Sarah the Athlete, swinging a tennis racket in matches “which, according to understood protocol, she always wins, bad leg notwithstanding.” (Emboden 149) Finally, completing a cinematic portrait of a woman of virtually limitless capabilities are scenes of Bernhardt sculpting a bust of Edmond Rostand, author of“Cyrano de Bergerac”, in a studio cluttered with paintings and sculpture that - due credit to their maker - reflect her substantial artistic gift and technical skill.
There was undeniable bravado in Bernhardt’s cinematic contrivances, as there was in her deployment of photography throughout her 60-year career. A psychoanalytic bead on her filmed deceptions might well point to neurotic desperation, a consumingneed to disguise the wages of time, age, and illness, both to her public and to herself.Indeed, the array of glimpses into Bern-hardt’s supposed daily routine on Belle Isle seem, to our jaded modern eyes, not only profoundly, even hilariously corny, but downright duplicitous.But to her peers,women of her own period, they might instead have presented another, more admirable female persona: a remarkable woman of many accomplishments not so much ageing as ageless and in full charge of her life.
In 1917,as World War I raged on battlefields in northern France, the protean Sarah Bernhardt starredin the film that signaled her willingness to let go at last of any pretense to youthfulness, glamour, erotic allure, or aristocratic hauteur.“Mères Françaises”was a patriotic propaganda film, in large part financed and promoted by the French government.Directed by Louis Mercan- ton, with dialogue by Jean Richepin, “Mêres Françaises” boasted a screenplay created specifi- cally for the film.Since, until then, Bernhardt’s narrative films had all been adaptations of stage plays, the originality of the screenplay was an added factor in the uniqueness of “Mères Françaises” in her cinematic body of work.
In “Mères Françaises”, Bernhardt plays Mme. d’Urbex, wife of a provincial squire whose estate rests on the fertile fields of Meurcy, France.The couple have one son, Robert. The d’Urbex farm, a central factor in the family’s regional primacy, is managed by the Lebron family, father, mother, daughter Marie, and an adopted son,the orphaned Nonet.Marie is engaged to Guinot, the local schoolmaster, but essential to the plot is the competing romantic attachment between Marie and the 19-year-old Nonet.We are introducedto this interlocked cast of characters, each occupying his or her predictable rung on the French socialladder, in autumn, harvest time. Sadly, but crucial to the film’s significance and potency, the calm, bucolic Muercy setting is being inexorably destabilized by the imminence of war.
We are made aware of the looming conflict early in the film, through scenes of soldiers parting from their loved ones.These painful scenes, now all too familiar to 21st Century film-goers, are rapidly succeeded by heroic shots of the leading male characters in wartime, their status in the military matching their relative positions in France’s peacetime social hierarchy:M. D’Urbex is a general; Victor Lebron, pater familias, is a corporal; Guinot, the schoolmaster, is a sergeant in the commissary; Nonet is a foot soldier, a grunt in the ranks.
Students of Bernhardt’s long career will experience a frisson of recognition when they learn that Mme. d’Urbex will become a nurse in the military hospital at Reims, a market town domina- ted by its imposing Gothic cathedral.An important, even critical moment in Bernhardt’s biogra- phy is bound to surface in our memories here.In 1870,the idealistic, fearless actress had mobilizedher financial and organizational resources, such as they were at the time, with the goal of turning L’Odéon theater into a hospital for casualties of the Franco-Prussian War.Her gallant efforts were, in the most literal sense, both heroic and self-sacrificing, to the extent that she even went hungry,reserving her own meals for the wounded troops she cared for.The antagonists in 1871 and 1917 were the same - although the loosely allied German states would not be formally unified until one year after the war’s end- and the bloody battles were, once again, being fought on French soil.One might, then, go so far as to say that, in playing Mme. d’Urbex as a wartime angel of mercy, Bernhardt was closing a circle.
Mme. d’Urbex is destined to endure a series of horrific personal losses.The first involves her son.While still at home at the D’Urbex estate, she learns that Robert has been mortally wounded, and insists on being taken in a military supply truck through a “labyrinth of trenches” (Menefree 130), in search of her son.She finds Robert at dawn in Reims, in a shell-riddled building serving as first aid station, reaching him only in time to hold him in her arms as he dies.Consumed bygrief, but courageously remaining at the hospital to care for the other wounded, Mm.d’Urbex next witnesses the arrival of the Guinot, who has been permanently blinded in battle.
Tending to Guinot leads Mme. d’Urbex to a second horrendous discovery. When by chance she finds her husband’s pocketbook secreted under Guinot’s pillow, the schoolteacher is forced to tell her that her husband has been killed by an exploding land mine.So the lady-of-the manor- turned- nurse is doubly bereaved, her fortitude and self-discipline put to extreme test.
With patriotism her avowed motive, Mme. d’Urbex leaves the hospital and returns to the village adjoining her family’s estate, in hopes of consoling other stricken women whose personal losses equal her own.As we watch these scenes, we are bound to assume that the suffering, yet dignified and compassionate widow has an advantage over the others: a reservoir of emotional strength that will sustain her personally, and eventually nourish her curative relationship with Guinot.No doubt, the persona of Mme. d’Urbex,a sensitive, but dauntless woman functioning as emotional pillar in a societal upheaval characterized by violence and grievous human loss, was informed by Bernhardt’s own evolving view of herself.
Back at his Meurcy home, Guinot releases Marie, many years his junior, from their engage- ment, after overhearing a conversation in which a despairing Nonet, back from the trenches, determines he will return to the front. The younger man’s abiding love for Marie seems to him a hopeless one.(The audience, of course,knows that Nonet’s love for his stepsister is requited.) With Guinot’s act of selfless generosity, the young couple are free to marry, while the schooteacher faces an empty future.He’s lost his sight fighting for France and his personal happiness, through his gesture of fairness to Marie and Nonet.
Mme. d’Urbex, however,will bail him out, at least at one level - or so the screenplay will have us believe - in persuading him to return to the classroom, where he will function both as educator in the conventional sense and as exemplar of sacrifice to France.“Mères Françaises” ends not on the d’Urbex estate, with its backdrop of lush, verdant fields, and not in Reims, a critically important town in Medieval French history, but in the modest village schoolhouse, where we see Mme. d’Urbex inscribe patriotic words of astonishing militancy on the classroom blackboard.
“So that the mothers shall no longer suffer, it is necessary that France carry on the war -- war upon war -- and that the glow of the future paradise shall illuminate itself from the bayonets of France.”(Menefree 132)
In contrast with Bernhardt’s other films,“Mères Françaises” was shot on location,in Reims and in Challons, in field hospitals dangerously close to trenches on the war’s front lines.Its 73-year-old star, “still the personification of Gallic emotion,”(Menefree 132) played her scenes either seated or propped up against some element of the scenery.Like the casualties in the film and in the actual hospitals nearby, Sarah was herself “crippled and enfeebled”, the stump of her now-amputa-ted leg, long chronically infected from a fall on stage in 1905.During the filming, her weakened condition notwithstanding, she spent six days at Challons, approximately 15 miles from German lines.On each of those days, she was driven, in military automobiles, to locations near the zone of battle, with the protection of two staff officers from field headquarters.Under fire during two of the six excursions, she was close enough to hear French machine gun projectiles pelting German planes and to witness two planes shot down.Sarah reputedly remained poised, calm, and stoical throughout the experience.
The Reims Cathedral itself, a looming, symbolic presence in many scenes, had long been routinely sand-bagged against shelling when “Mères Françaises” director, actors, and crew, arrived in the embattled town.Temporarily removed for some scenes, the bags were immediately replaced when the 15 minutes the town fathers allotted for each shoot were concluded.It is crucially important to emphasize that, in one of those rapidly shot scenes, Bernhardt/Mme. D’Urbex throws herselfbefore the statue of Jeanne d’Arc, stony of visage and stalwart on horseback, installed near the cathedral.
Once again, the implications of this scene,, not to mention the irony, will not be lost on Bernhardt scholars. In younger, more agile days, the Divine Sarah had played Jeanne d’Arc on stage.The legendary figure in French cultural history had actually been, despite her gender, an inspirational military leader and a martyr for her insistence on the divine source of her visions, for which she was accused of heresy and burned at the stake. An illiterate, 19-year-old peasant woman at her death, in art history she had been more commonly depicted in armor than in feminine garb. In painting, sculpture, and graphic imagery, her appearance and bearing best embody the archetypal male virtues: bravery in combat and implacable moral courage.Throughout her life, Bernhardt had manifested those very qualities - although the “combat” took a verbal, argumentative form - and continued to do so into her eighth decade, even when, in constant pain, she could barely walk or stand.
Shown in New York City in mid-March,1917,“Mères Françaises” earned the following critical comment from the New York Times reviewer, who clearly both knew of Bernhardt’s physical handicap and grasped the dual advantages of film:to disguise undesirable concrete realities and, at the same time,reveal those necessary for dramatic effect, such as the actress’s extraordinarily expressive face.
“ ‘The power of the movies to obliterate space removes the handicap of her [Bernhardt’s] inability to walk freely; she is always revealed standing or sitting, and one is conscious only of the wonderful expressiveness of the her countenance and gestures.In one scene in particular, in which she stands before the portrait of her dead husband, the poignancy of grief expressed seems to lose nothing through its inarticulateness.’ “ (Menefree 136)
The Times critic also emphasized an aspect of the production that may have been taken for granted by audiences and critics engrossed in the relentlessly high emotional pitch of its story line: the staging and shooting of “Mères Françaises” on the very battleground of the war that, it was then hoped, would end all wars..In some scenes, the audiences saw real sandbags protecting real and majestic cathedral walls.The D’Urbex family occupied a genuine château on a genuine plot of fertile land.The cameraman shot scenes of real peasants toiling in the fields and real smoke from firearms clouding the skies.The film, unlike others that preceded it,provided a simulacrum of lived reality no stage play could duplicate, a reality ‘ ’no amount of paint and plaster villages and trenches filled with tin soldiers hired at a dollar a day could ever hope to approximate.’ “ (Menefree 136)
Further, while director, cameraman, and actress shot each of the film’s scenes numerous times, always on location, only one interpretation of each scene made the final cut.In the filming process, Bernhardt hadn’t the advantage she’d had for decades in long-run stage productions, of altering gesture, movement, even dialogue each night, to suit her own shifts in mood, her sense of the mood of each new audience, and her evolving understanding of the author’s intentions.She did have, in fact, a reputation for playing the same role in different ways on successive nights.
But in her film performances, that of Mme. d’Urbex, as well as others that preceded and followed “Méres Françaises”, only one interpretation constituted the wrap for the silver screen.The decision regarding the best interpretation fell mainly to Bernhardt, and probably most fully reflected the intense introspection for which this otherwise flamboyant, blithely outrageous performer was known by those closest to her.
According to Horville, whose only sources are first-hand accounts from the period, Bernhardt insisted in her pronouncements that she always inhabited her roles and had a difficult time disenga- gaging herself from characters she played, once a night’s work on the stage was over.Indeed, she would have had us believe that she was “carried away’ by each performance“...an exhausting procedure, a sort of semi-conscious state which enabled Sarah Bernhardt to live in actuality that which was only a fiction.”“It seems, therefore,” he continues, “that she employed the technique of improvisation giving her imagination full rein, submerging the character she played in her own personality.”As a result, her harsher critics, lighting on the occasional “over the top” result of her submersion in each part, complained that her performances “were only effective if there was some point of correspondence between her own experience and that of her character.” (Horville 42)
One might then pose the following question: exactly what role, or roles, did Bernhardt inhabit during the filming of “Mères Françaises” ?The obvious answer comes easily: why, Mme. d’Urbex, of course.However, on further reflection, the obvious answer may not be the fully accurate one, if we take into account Bernhardt’s intricate thought processes, her life-long habit ofplumbing both the role and the context of each role she played, and the historical backdrop for “Mères Françaises”,a propaganda film funded and promoted by the French Government.
Student of French history that she was, Bernhardt surely knew that Reims Cathedral had been the traditional site of the coronation of French monarchs since 816 A.D.For that matter, not only Bernhardt, but the film’s director, actors, cameraman, and entire production crew surely knew as well that the Dauphin Charles had been crowned Charles VII in Reims Cathedral on the morning of July 11, 1429.His coronation followed the reversal, in 1415, of the victory at Agincourt by Henry V, King of England, through the surrender of the pro-English Burgundian forces at Orléans. Lastly, they knew that the standard bearer for the French army at the critical siege of Orléans, which nominally ended the Hundred Years’ War, had been Jeanne d’Arc, a peasant girl not yet twenty, from the small town of Domrémy, near the border with the province of Lorraine.
It would be stretching the point to suggest that Bernhardt perceived herself as a direct spiritual descendant of Joan - that she became, in her own mind, Joan of Arc - as the actress threw herself before the equestrian statue of the Maid of Orléans, mounted on a pedestal backed by Reims Cathedral’s facade.Joan was a healthy, strapping 19-year-old when she was burned at the stake for heresy at Rouen in 1431, while Bernhardt, in the role of Mme. d’Urbex, was an ill and feeble 73-year-old in 1917, probably sick with septicemia throughout the shooting of the film.Moreover, Joan, erect on horseback and brandishing the banner for France, had worn military armor, as she led her troops at OrléansIn contrast, Bernhardt, swathed in layers of feminine clothing, had been driven to the front lines for her scenes, relatively secure in the protection of armed French officers.
Joan’s belief in the divine provenance of her visions, her intransigence regarding her claim that the Archangel Michael, Saint Margaret, and Saint Catherine had exhorted her to help the Dauphin Charles drive out the English and bring him to Reims for his coronation, rested entirely on what we would now term “blind faith”.Bernhardt,on the other hand, was a highly literate, autodidactic pragmatist and a woman of the world.She had, after all, toured not only Western and Eastern Europe, but also the continental United States, at the helm of her own theater troup. It is true that, although the oldest child of a Dutch Jewish prostitute, she had been raised in a convent and routine- ly ascribed to the Catholic Church her decision to devote her life to the theater: “ ‘Even as a child, my imagination was struck by ecclesiastical chants, the contemplative attitudes of the congregation, the mystical quality of the ceremonies...’ “
But dedication to an other-worldly Supreme Being was not what Bernhardt brought to her role in the film, or to the World War I battlefield. What she did bring was supreme confidence that the presence of a gutsy old woman, an old famous woman at that, in a military vehicle on the field of battle would very likely lift the morale of soldiers fighting their way through the “fog of war”and fearing for their lives.
Some accounts of Joan’s trial at Rouen, a legally suspect trial dominated by the duplicitous priest Pierre Cauchon, look to her insistence on having had direct communication with three Catholic saints as the source of the accusations levelled at her by the Tribunal.In bypassing the Church hierarchy and operating as an independent agent on a self-declared “sacred mission”, she had, in effect, committed heresy, according to a biassed,pro-English clerical body.Other accounts, however, emphasize the issue of cross-dressing as her focal transgression. An Old Testament prohibition against cross-dressing was cited as justification for the accusation.
It is more than passing strange for us moderns, to read of the possible primacy of the cross- dressing charge in the Tribunal’s compendious list of accusations. (For a choice of clothing, she would be burned at the stake?)Joan had been disguised as a man during her initial journey through enemy Burgundian territory, to meet with the Dauphin Charles at Chinon. She had worn armor, always reserved for always-male soldiers, when she led Charles’ Armagnac army into battle with the Burgundians, Frenchmen themselves in league with the occupying English forces.Finally, she had refused women’s dress during her imprisonment, while her trial progressed(Joan was confined in a secular jail, guarded by English soldiers, rather than an ecclesiastical prison, supervised by nuns, during the long weeks of the trial.Herrefusal of woman’s clothing resulted simply from fear of rape, since male clothing obviously provided better protection.)
Of course, we in the 21st Century are most prone to view cross-dressing, or in contemporary terms, a “bi-sexual” or “transgender” appearance,- make-up, hairdo, and mannerisms inclusive - as at best curious, at worst discomfitting oddity, but by no legal standard a crime.Nevertheless,it should be noted that Medieval Catholic doctrine, fundamentally outrageous and absurd as it now seems, based the degree of criminality in cross-dressing on context, as stated byThomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica.Clearly, in the three situations descibed above, Joan had been entirely justified in wearing male clothing.(In fact, she was said to return to wearing a dress when not on campaign.)So the Maid of Orléans had in the end been tied to the stake and sent up in flames on false charges, in a feebly disguised act of political revenge against the Crown.
How much knowledge Bernhardt had of the niceties of Jeanne d’Arc’s trial is up for grabs. And how much psychological connection she felt with the rigid, expressionless statue fronting Reims Cathedral is also open to dscussion.Nevertheless, a persuasive argument can be made for the Divine Sarah’s instinctive empathy with a determined outlander like herself, for a young woman donning the clothing of a man - in enemy territory, in battle, in prison - simply in the interest of reaching an objective that couldn’t be reached any other way.As Mme. d’Urbex, she played the quintessential maternal figure, a patriotic maternal figure to boot: generous, caring wife and mother to other women’s husbands and sons, even as she grieved the loss of her own.(In real life, Bernhardt’s marriage to a sybaritic bounder had been a disaster; moreover, her one child, her son Maurice, was alive, well, and feeding off his mother’s good-natured largesse.)
Nonetheless,as the filming of “Méres Françaises” proceeded, Bernhardt must surely have “inhabited” or entered into Joan of Arc’s persona as well. She had, after all, in younger years,successfully playedthe role of Joan on stage, dressed in tights, loose-fitting shirt, and, for battle scenes,chain mail, to full houses.More important still, even into middle age, she had played an assortment of young male characters, Hamlet chief among them (the part of the brooding Danish prince having been her first on screen.)The popular reception for her male “impersonations”, in terms of ticket sales, had been more than satisfactory, but the critical reception by the conservative Parisian press less than flattering...bristling with ridicule and paired with humilating caricatures.What was this brazen Jewess of lower class origins, doing on hallowed Parisian stages, bounding about and declaming in male garb?Bernhardt not only survived, but, on the face of it,seemed to thrive on negative journalistic response.Decades later however, the recollection of the searing ridicule was vivid,the emotional scars permanent, for the exhausted 73-year-old actress on location in Reims, as she leaned heavily on the equestrian statue of the Medieval heroine, martyr, and ferociously independent child-woman, who had lived, fought, and died 600 years earlier.
Virginia Woolf memorably asserted, in “A Room of One’s Own”, that great artists are inevitably androgynous.The descriptor undeniably applies to Sarah Bernhardt.Perhaps it applies as well to all the women in history who have conducted their lives against the grain of their societies as well.
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