LFF review: Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché

This is a guest post for Silent London by filmmaker Alex Barrett (London Symphony, Life Just Is).

Although the subtitle of Pamela B Green’s new documentary might be something of a misnomer given the publication of a number of books on the same subject, notably  Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer, edited by Joan Simons, there’s no denying that Guy-Blaché remains a marginalised figure in cinema history. The first female filmmaker, and one of the first directors of either sex to tell a fictional narrative on film, Guy-Blaché has never quite gained the fame of, say, Louis Feuillade, whose career she helped launch. Straining to prove this point, Green pulls in a large raft of famous faces, including the likes of Catherine Hardwicke, Patty Jenkins and Peter Bogdanovich, to declare they’ve never heard of her. It’s a saddening state of affairs, and one that the film seeks to interrogate: how could a figure who played such an important part in the birth of cinema become so forgotten?

Using flashy animation, a voiceover narration by Jodie Foster, and a plenitude of interviews, including some with Guy-Blaché herself, Green presents an overview of Alice’s life: from her early work as secretary to Léon Gaumont, through to the first films she made for Gaumont’s fledgling company, her marriage to Herbert Blaché and their emigration to the United States, the formation of Guy-Blaché’s Solax Company (then the largest film studio in America), and the eventual dissolution of Solax and her marriage.

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Guy-Blaché’s story, of course, is also the story of early cinema, and Green’s film is as much a history of a medium as it is of a woman – indeed, even scenes showing Green and her team desperately trying to recover an interview from an old, decaying U-matic tape become a comment on the fragility of archive material, and a reminder of the importance of restoration and preservation.

As early as the 1930s, Guy-Blaché was already being written out of cinema history, notably in the official narratives being published by Gaumont, the company she helped build. It’s therefore refreshing, delightful even, to see Green’s documentary give Guy-Blaché the recognition she so deeply deserves. As a film, Be Natural, makes for slightly exhausting viewing – it’s a little too fast paced and quickly cut – and some longer excerpts from Guy-Blaché’s films would have been nice. But, ultimately, these are minor quibbles and, given the importance of Guy-Blaché’s story, Be Natural should be required viewing for anyone with even the slightest interest in cinema history.

By Alex Barrett

  • Be Natural screened at the 2018 London Film Festival and is currently playing the festival circuit. Read more here.
  • Pordenone Silent Film Festival director Jay Weissberg reviewed Be Natural for Variety here.
  • Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page.
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