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

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Eurhythmy or the Sound of an Arabesque? The Musicality of Gesture and Bodily Expression in Germaine Dulac’s Early Silent Films
Tami Michelle Williams

Last modified: 2010-03-01


This paper is part of an archive-based critical history that examines the subversive strategies of feminist pioneer of the 1920s French cinematic avant-garde, Germaine Dulac (1882-1942). Gesture, as a means of expressing the immaterial or spiritual, and ultimately the social, is a constant in Dulac’s work of the 1910s and 20s, both in its figurative form and in its more abstract linear and arabescal renderings. This paper retraces and recontextualizes Dulac’s cinematic use of gesture, bodily expression, and in turn mobility and spatiality, as a means of promoting progressive gender roles in a conservative post-war France. Of particular interest here is the relationship between music, dance, and the phenomenon of eurhythmy—gesture and bodily movement as forms of ‘visible speech’—or as components of a complex system of communication using non-verbal gestures.

Beginning with her first silent films, Dulac uses gesture and bodily movement to express progressive ideals through cross-medial analogies with other arts, such as symbolist theater, poetry, music, and modern dance. Dulac’s approach is influenced early on by the Ballets russes, 1910s Italian cinema, Hinduism, as well as by her contact with women dancers, actresses and poets, including Stasia Napierkowska, Ida Rubinstein, Alla Nazimova, and Irene Hillel-Erlanger. Following a modernist impulse, figurative and abstract metaphors are carried over to the films’ formal and narrative structures, on the level of performance (gesture, blocking), mise-en-scène (decor, cinematography), and editing. Using original documents from three archives in Paris, this paper retraces, recontextualizes and reexamines how Dulac employs gesture and body movement in her early films to express the “inner life” of the New Woman, to subvert conventions of gender and sexuality, as well as to transport the spectator on a voyage of self-realization. Moreover, Dulac’s approach and its correspondences in contemporary anthropological research on visual perception and the arabescal form in ‘primitive’ art are also revealing.



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