Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché

 

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A vital if imperfect documentary about a largely overlooked pioneer of cinema's silent era.

 
Be Natural

  

Pamela B. Green's film about cinema's first female director is invaluable but also - albeit to a much lesser extent - irritating. Indeed, it is just because a film about a largely forgotten figure as important as Alice Guy-Blaché is so welcome that Green's misjudged approach feels so very unfortunate. As it happens, the credits for the film render its subtitle slightly misleading since, although additional research may have been involved, Be Natural is stated to be based on Alison McMahan's book Alice Guy-Blaché, Lost Visionary of the Cinema and that suggests that her story is not exactly untold. Nevertheless, this film brings us a biography interspersed with clips from the films which Alice made in France and later in America during the silent era and they reveal an undoubted talent.

 

"Be Natural" was in fact an instruction to Alice's players which was posted up for she advocated realism in acting as well as developing cinema as a storytelling medium in the course of which she embraced such developments as close-ups, hand-tinted colour and synchronised sound. Born in 1873 she lived to the age of 94 and one of the great pleasures here is to be able to see the woman herself in frequent extracts from a detailed filmed interview that took place in 1964. There is another valuable link to her family on show here too since her daughter Simone is featured on an old tape found and restored.

 

Alice's story is fascinating on many levels: it spotlights the early work of women in cinema, shows how readily they could later be sidelined or ignored in records of film history, reveals much of filmmaking in that  period (it is reckoned that Alice taking on duties as writer, director, editor and producer was involved in at least a thousand films) and also seeks to be a full bio-pic (Alice would marry a British-born filmmaker Herbert Blaché but he treated her badly and the marriage would end in divorce).

 

There are three reasons for describing Green's film as misguided. First of all, there is too much material for a single feature without it feeling crammed and it would all have worked better as a two or three-part work for television. Having ignored that fact, Green puts in far too much and does so at a pace that often makes it difficult to take in all the detail (that is no fault of Jodie Foster's narrative delivery). Then, to make matters worse, Green incorporates unnecessary scenes about her own researches while maps, animated images and family trees add tiresomely to the on-screen elaboration. Thirdly, the film features a whole range of famous names (many but not all of them women including directors, players and film historians) and then allows them no time to say anything very much at all when more detailed comments from fewer and more knowledgeable contributors would have been far more rewarding.
In the circumstances and with a rival film on the subject unlikely to emerge, one cannot but wish that Alice Guy-Blaché's story had been better told. But that doesn't in any way lessen the importance of us now having a film which turns the spotlight on a figure who should never have been out of it.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  Tatiana Page-Relo, Catherine Hardwicke, John Bailey, Marc Wanamaker, Kevin Brownlow, Agnès Varda, Ben Kingsley, Walter Murch, Gillian Armstrong, Ava DuVernay, Julie Delpy, Diablo Cody and with the voice of Jodie Foster as narrator.

 

Dir Pamela B. Green, Pro Pamela B. Green, Screenplay Pamela B. Green and Joan Simon, based on research and on the book Alice Guy-Blaché, Lost Visionary of the Cinema by Alison McMahan, Ph Boubkar Benezabet and others, Ed Pamela B. Green, Music Peter G. Adams.

 

Wildwood/Artemis Rising Foundation/Foothill Productions-Modern Films.
103 mins. USA. 2018. Rel: 17 January 2020. Cert. PG.