Be Natural: The Untold Story Of Alice Guy-Blaché

*****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Be Natural: The Untold Story Of Alice Guy-Blaché
"Green's richly detailed documentary is a portrait of a remarkable woman, a love letter to early cinema and a fascinating detective story all in one." | Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Alice Guy-Blaché is one of those pivotal figures in the history of film who, when one is familiar with them, seem so fundamental that it's impossible to imagine that others haven't heard of them; yet at the outset of Pamela B Green's film one person after another reveals their ignorance of her work. It's evident that this film really needed to be made if only to do away once and for all with the myth that female directors are a recent invention. What makes Guy so important? It's not just that she was a woman. It's not just the quality of her films. It's that she single-handedly invented narrative cinema.

Would we even have cinema without her? It's probable that somebody would have thought of using it for storytelling, sooner or later, but quite possibly much later, after numerous opportunities had been lost. It might never have attained the level of cultural importance that it has today. Before she came along it was used merely to present spectacle - to show people real world phenomena they'd be unlikely ever to see in real life - or to showcase optical tricks. It was a gimmick, a fad. When she stepped out onto the studio terrace to shoot The Cabbage Fairy in the 1890s, Guy changed that forever.

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Green's richly detailed documentary is a portrait of a remarkable woman, a love letter to early cinema and a fascinating detective story all in one. Until recently the bulk of Guy's archive was thought to be lost - like all too many creative artists, she never thought of trying to preserve it herself until it was too late - and longstanding fans of her work will be thrilled to see how much has now been recovered. Here there are tales of trawling through film libraries, working with experts to determine authorship, tracking down the grandchildren of people connected with the films to see if they had anything hidden away, and much more besides. The result is like watching a withered flower suddenly come back to life. Careful restoration is gradually restoring these treasures to their rightful place.

There are clips from many of Guy's films here and what will instantly strike the viewer is how watchable they remain today - not merely on the basis of historical fascination but because they're beautifully made and, well, fun. Guy's wit, naughtiness and playful social commentary have lost none of their charm. This will also serve as a reminder that people in the past were not as uptight as w often assume them to be and that pre-Hayes Code cinema was a place where sexuality - including women's sexuality - was represented as freely as any other part of life. Guy took it a little further at times, subverting gender roles and even (in a way that still falls far short of what most modern audiences will be comfortable with) challenging attitudes to race. Amongst her works is the first ever film to feature an all-black cast and it's a relief to see that it has survived in good condition.

Guy's own story would be intriguing enough in its own tight even if shorn of all this other material. The bold way she established herself as a secretary and quickly worked her way into creative roles is impressive by any standard, and the film goes on to look at her leading role at Gaumont and the subsequent establishment of her own studio (the title comes from a notice she had pinned on the wall there), as well as her troubled marriage and her eventual tragic decline. It takes in her numerous additional innovations, many of which remain vital in today's industry, and finds an extraordinary amount of archive material to support its contentions.

Key to this is an interview with Guy herself, conducted late in her life, a rare opportunity to learn what she thought about her own achievements and their legacy. As elegant and as fierce as ever, she commands the viewer's attention as she once commanded cast and crew. She never got er due in life but one hopes that Green's film will get the attention it deserves. Sometimes real life narratives are every bit as fantastic as the stories we tell.

Reviewed on: 02 Dec 2019
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Documentary about the first woman director, producer and director of a studio in the history of cinema.


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