#11. The Smiling Madame Beudet (1922)

I’m living with my dad at the moment in the house where I grew up and we get along fine, talk for a while when I get home each night and if I make a DiGiorno he’ll come out and have a slice with me, but even apart from that, on the weekends, we share lotsa meals and for a while after the divorce in January we’d sit together watching TV and drinking the fancy wine and scotch he used to share with my mom while conversation, whatever the topic, would dance toward this and then dance toward that but then always, after a silence, spiral back toward the same dark thing. But it’s a good time. We get along.

I haven’t seen my mom in almost a month but I met her for lunch today and afterward, as we were walking out of a department store, she palmed me some money that I didn’t ask for but definitely needed, though I was too proud to say so, because the paycheck I’ll be getting in two days will be the first one in a month. I was down to $11. So I’ve got some breathing room for the moment, financially. After we parted ways I went to Starbucks and watched The Smiling Madame Beudet on my laptop. TSMB is basically a short film. Forty minutes or so. It’s about a woman who hates her husband and devises a plan to get him killed.

smiling madame beudet laugh.gif
Her husband laughs at his ongoing gag (“the suicide parody”) of pulling an unloaded gun from his drawer and pretending to shoot himself.

Germaine Dermoz, as Madame Beudet, does a great job of wearing this very nuanced contempt on her face, even when she’s smiling, and it’s clear from the beginning that she’s disgusted by her husband, that she wants him dead, and while that definitely wasn’t the case with my own parents — who on the rare occasion that they do speak to each other are perfectly amicable — it did get me thinking about not just their situation but about marriage in general and about the quiet domestic misery that I was for some reason obsessed with in high school, and for most of college, where I’d read huge amounts of fiction about marital discontent. Carver and Cheever and Updike and even Stephen King to an extent. Philip Roth, Franzen. The Smiling Madame Beudet is an unremarkable story about an unhappy marriage, but it’s made gripping by merit of its execution. The power of its lighting (the way darkness falls until a single thing is spotlit in the room) and the acting, particularly by Dermoz, elevate the material so that, for the smallness of its scope, the movie comes across as an exploration of some tough universal stuff.

But I like how unremarkable the actual story is. There’s no spectacle, but we realize nonetheless that what’s unfolding on the screen is a matter of life or death for those involved. Here with the Thousand Movie Project, similarly, I’m writing about my own life, which is absolutely flat and uninteresting on the page unless I can make the sentences dance and put their ankles behind their ears, but it feels very serious to me. Not severe, necessarily. Things are pretty calm at the moment. But there are days like today where, for no reason, I’ll be on my way home from Starbucks at dusk, where the evening routine of DiGiorno and chit-chat and YouTube will commence, and a vague kinda dread will settle in. I desperately don’t wanna do it again. I’ll think of eating another frozen pizza while my dog stares at me and my breathing will start to change. And so with five new twenties in my pocket I’ll turn toward the mall down by my house and there, as the sun goes down, buy a ticket for a 9:40 movie (Hell or High Water) and take up a stool at a nearby bar where I’ll write this essay while drinking a little and then I’ll text my dad to say I’m coming home late.

smiling-madame-beudet-misery
Her husband compares women to puppets on the basis of their fragility, but he’s ultimately the one who breaks, needs to be reassured.

A night on the town with a hundred dollars from Mom. Worried about things that are vague and hard to articulate, and so I dodge them. Run away from home and get a little drunk and then sit in the dark at 10:00 on a weeknight with a handful of strangers to look at a screen, hear a story.

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