Review: Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache

Because of its function as a recording medium, cinema’s entire history is fairly well represented. Pamela B. Green’s documentary purports to bring to the public’s attention a woman filmmaker whose pioneering accomplishments, because she was a woman, have mostly been ignored, though if you run a cursory Google search you’ll find lots of information about Alice Guy-Blache, including extensive collections of her works available for sale and streaming. This isn’t to say that Guy-Blache has received her due at the same level as her male contemporaries and heirs, but only that if her story is approached from the standpoint of the development of cinema, she’s already, relatively speaking, something of a star. Even Hitchcock was a fan.

Her tale is certainly fascinating. Born in France to Chilean parents, Alice Guy was hired as a secretary in 1894 for a camera company that was eventually bought out by four men, including the early entrepreneur Leon Gaumont, who started using the company to produce films. Guy worked her way up to the production side of the business and, frustrated by the company’s fixation on film as a novelty, she became one of the first visionaries to see it as a story-telling medium. She started directing films, but Gaumont neglected to give her proper credit for her contributions, even after she ascended to head of production after the turn of the century. She eventually moved with her husband, Herbert Blache, to the U.S. to head Gaumont’s American operations, but in 1910 they struck out on their own and set up Solax Studio, first in Flushing, New York, and then in Fort Lee, New Jersey, which, thanks to her efforts, became the center of film production in America, well before the emergence of Hollywood. Her success as both an artist and a businessperson was notable, though her husband took much of the credit for her work. By the time she divorced him and the studio became insolvent in the 1920s, she had made about 1,000 movies and in the process invented many of the narrative film techniques that we now take for granted.

Much of Green’s film is narrated by Jodie Foster, whose command of French, especially while reading the epistolary materials, gives the doc a gravity it might not otherwise have. Green manages to talk to almost every scholar who has a stake in Guy-Blache’s legacy, but she also talks to well-known actors and filmmakers whose input mostly comes down to, “Wow, I never knew about this woman!” She also frames the development of the second half of the film around her detective work in tracking down relatives of Guy-Blache who may still have relevant artifacts hidden in boxes in the attic. None of this is boring, but it tends to reduce Guy-Blache’s story to a mystery that, in fact, was solved years ago, even if Green’s own sleuthing uncovered several film fragments that were thought to be lost. Of course, any movie nut who knows nothing about Guy-Blache will definitely want to check out Be Natural, but it sometimes feels a bit cluttered, like one of those attics. 

In English and French. Opens July 22 in Tokyo at Uplink Kichijoji (0422-66-5042)

Be Natural home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2018 Be Natural LLC

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