Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

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“From Boudoir to Street”: Naturalism and the Suffering Female in International Silent Cinema
Robert L. Singer

Last modified: 2010-05-11


The foundation of the naturalist aesthetic was principally espoused by Émile Zola in two texts, Mes haines (1866) and Le Roman expérimental (1880), and then in his Rougon-Macquart series of novels. As 19th century literary naturalism evolved into a historically-based, politicized discourse system in multiple narrative formations, the internationalization of this modern, observational mode of representation immediately appealed to the nascent art of film. Naturalism is a key aesthetic and critical category in film studies yet remains one of the most under-represented areas of film studies. Too readily linked to or mistaken for realist film, with which it shares select structural precepts, the naturalist film has a unique and significant history.


Beginning with its earliest representation in silent film, such as Griffith’s Biograph melodramas (1908-1913), and Capellani’s Germinal (1913), the naturalist film traverses the formalist proscriptions of language, genre, and movements. Naturalism's foundation in narrative realism alerts the reader to social and historical contexts that mobilize the suppositions of verisimilitude. Naturalism indicates an interpretive range that frames the meaning of human nature and conditions, whether depicting the rage of the worker, abuse of the prostitute, desperation of the indigent, or violence of the alcoholic. This is especially evident when discussing the deleterious effects of naturalist causalities on women.


In my presentation, “From Boudoir to Street”: Naturalism and the Suffering Female in International Silent Cinema,” I will examine four silent film narratives: D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919), Jean Renoir’s Nana (1926), G.W. Pabst’s Tagebuch einer Verlorenen  (Diary of a Lost Girl) (1929), and Yonggang Wu’s Shennü (The Goddess) (1934), to establish the naturalist female as a gendered trope of modern suffering. Each film narrative uniquely represents naturalist ideology: the portrayal of social and psychological verisimilitude, issues of genetic/environmental causality, and an anti-romantic/anti-supernatural "objective" observation of the working world. Whether set in some historical or contemporary era, in the “underbelly” of Berlin, London, or Shanghai, these naturalist films express a desperate vision of Zola’s la bête humaine. The silent naturalist cinema’s intertextual “DNA” remains Zola’s dynamic interplay of milieu, environment, and genetics as it is realized in numbing and inexorable experience, the gendered grinding down of the individual, from the boudoir to the street.

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