Be Natural is the extraordinary story of Alice Guy-Blaché. Born into a bourgeois French family, she learned stenography, as being a secretary was the most that a nineteenth century woman could hope to achieve. She lucked out in that her boss was Louis Gaumont, and in 1896, one year after the Lumière brothers brought film to the world, she was directing The Fairy of the Cabbages, a strange film in which a fairy produces babies from a cabbage patch.
She continued to direct and produce films, some of which took on serious social issues. Many of her films had strong female leads, not least the cross-dressing The Consequences of Feminism. Other films tackled birth control, industrial action and child abuse. She also was not afraid of new techniques. It is a shock seeing films which are well over a century old which use colour, sound and split screens.
Guy-Blaché moved to the US where she continued her pioneering work, including founding the Solax film studios. It is argued that she was able to have such success because film was seen as a passing fad, which was trivial enough to let women have a go. Yet as film started to show no signs of dying off, and especially after she moved back to France, she found it difficult to find new films to direct, and many of her old films were attributed to other people (men, natch).
A story like this is bound to be fascinating, and its certainly worth your while trying to see it. Which makes it all the more frustrating that the story is told so badly.
First, there’s the obsession with celebrity. Near the start of the film, we see a montage of famous actors and directors admitting their ignorance of Guy-Blaché. Fair enough, but these are the same people used as talking heads telling us how great she was. Now I’ve always got time to listen to Peter Bogdanovich, Julie Delpy and Agnès Varda talking about anything, but it seems wilfully obtuse to have them talk about someone they admit they know nothing about.
Actually, that’s probably a bit unfair to Varda. Being dead, she appears in old filmed interviews, and she does seem to know what she’s talking about. Of the living celebs, only two admit to even having heard of Guy-Blaché. One of these is Ava DuVernay, who explains that Guy-Blaché directed A Fool and his Money – the first film to contain Afro-American characters. DuVernay finds this ground breaking, but does concede that she finds parts of it problematic.
So what were the problems with A Fool and his Money? We don’t get to hear, as the film rushes on to fawn at another celeb. Similarly, we hear in passing that Guy-Blaché directed a film about antisemitism, followed by “The Strike”, which presumably does what it says on the tin, but then no more. The film about the director who broke down so many barriers often appears to show little interest in the content of the films that she made.
Then there are the sweeping statements made without any great justification. Guy-Blaché ensured that film survived because she was the first director to concentrate on story and not just pictures of trains and horses. That sounds interesting, please tell us more (we are told no more). Several talking heads explain how funny her films were. Quite possibly, but the clips which are shown to confirm this are a little less than hilarious.
We are told that Guy-Blaché influenced the greats like Scorsese and Eisenstein, and here indeed is a clip of Scorsese acknowledging his debt. Eisenstein may too have paid tribute, but the evidence we are given of her influence is a clip of one of her films which has a pram in it. And of course there’s also a pram in the Odessa Steps scene of Battleship Potemkin.
- None of this prevents us from being captivated by the enthralling story. Archive interviews with Guy-Blaché show her to be an entertaining thoughtful character. And while it’s usually senseless to moan that someone has made a film other than the one you want to see, here there is a point. This is a good film which had the potential to be a great film. Unfortunately, it just falls short.