La Mort Du Soleil (Death of the Sun)
The following is a college paper for UC Berkeley Film Studies course: Film History
Originally submitted on Sept 14, 2003
La Mort Du Soleil (Death of the Sun)
PFA Theater, 5:30pm, 9/14/03
La Mort Du Soleil is a masterful film that shows us how one can rise to meet the challenges of life when torn between family and career. Filmmaker Germaine Dulac uses simple, evocative imagery to allow the audience to see, almost feel the emotions of her characters. Made in a period of tremendous change in both France and the World, this film is a remarkable achievement of cinema and should be hailed as a classic. I feel fortunate to be amongst the (possibly) first American audience to view the (near) complete picture in over eighty years.
In the opening sequence of La Mort, intertitles describe how tuberculosis spreads through a society. A sneezing, infected, drunkard staggers through a street stretching into the background, framed by two rows of buildings. This is an example of the noncomplex imagery Dulac uses to construct the emotional and here, physical state of her characters. The drunk is dying, his world is smaller, this visual metaphor, shows what is happening to this man, indeed to this society. The buildings create a frame within the movie frame, which becomes a motif used throughout the film. Dulac uses this elegantly simple imagery to not overwhelm her picture with unnecessary action or clutter. Instead, she employs generous use of contemplative images; shadows crawl and candles flicker, characters linger and think before acting. This slow often-methodical direction allows the audience to view and explore the deepest emotions of the film.
Dulac applies motivated transitions and optical effects in the film to further the audience’s understanding of the characters’ state of mind. The frame within the frame or masking of the image is a visual motif used through the picture. Characters are centered on screen bordered by two vertical bars to the left and right. This mask, or frame within the frame, literally isolates a character from the world. Isolation and separation is a theme running through the story and this optical effect is used by Dulac to allow the audience to feel the psychological state of her characters. A character may not be literally separated from the rest of the world, but in their heart they feel a deep rift, and the frame within the frame shows it. A second optical effect employed through the film is the dissolve. Dulac uses the dissolve to juxtapose images or to allow a moment to persist. One example of this comes half way through the film. When the ‘good’ doctor believes his assistant has gone forever he rises from his seat to follow her. The doctor rises in one shot followed by a dissolve to a close-up of the doctor rising a second time. The action is repeated via the use of a dissolve to depict the weight of the doctor’s decision. These two shots can be interpreted as spiritual; the doctor’s soul rises to meet the challenge, followed by the will of his body. By using dissolves Dulac is successful in further bringing the audience into the emotions of her characters.
La Mort Du Soliel is a cinematic triumph and miracle it was not lost. Germaine Dulac creates a masterful and thoughtful picture that transcends any society or period. More amazing than the picture itself is the fact that Dulac is a woman filmmaker. There are still too few women making pictures today, but to have a woman make a film in the 1920’s was almost unheard of. After seeing a film like La Mort I can strengthen my belief that modern cinema is in the dire need of a woman’s touch.