There are moments in Pamela B. Green’s “Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché,” a documentary on the pioneering filmmaker, where the form and construction of the film feel oppressively didactic, the ideas presented with a trying-too-hard energy as if to appeal to a child or a particularly checked-out student who thinks classic films are those made pre-Y2K.
Director Green and her co-writer Joan Simon are undeniably fighting an uphill battle if their goal is to get younger people interested in a movie about the first woman filmmaker. Perhaps it’s no wonder why they feature faces like Andy Samberg among the myriad interview subjects who become walk-on cameos — “Recognize this person?!” — more than substantial conveyors of information. Despite these misfires, the breadth of detail about not just film and Guy-Blaché’s body of work but also the actual process of how a woman’s work gets erased is jaw-dropping, and “Be Natural” has the potential to completely upend the canon of international cinema.
Green opts for a frenetic pace (she also edits) that toggles between talking-head interviews of varying quality, archival footage, digitally transferred nitrate film clips, and cute, instructive graphics that sometimes don’t offer up enough information to justify their existence in the film. “Be Natural” begins with what seems like a hundred different clips of famous people and film industry folks saying they’ve never heard of Guy-Blaché, which is both overkill and also probably necessary to get laypeople to understand that there is a cinema canon and that even those who consider themselves experts, like director and film writer Peter Bogdanovich, are unfamiliar with her work and contributions.
Where the film really picks up steam is in the actual historical retelling of Guy-Blaché’s life, which includes voiceover courtesy executive producer Jodie Foster, whose French pronunciation of names is impeccable. There’s an energy to her voice, and it’s honestly quite surprising to see the basic facts of a person’s life become more compelling than what any commentators could offer in exposition.
Guy-Blaché wasn’t just the first female filmmaker, but one of the first filmmakers ever, having started her career with the first film company, Gaumont, directing one of the first narrative films ever, “The Cabbage Fairy,” a magical-realism tale about babies being plucked from giant cabbages. Unfortunately, this film has been, over time, either misdated or misattributed to a man, and though we hear stories about this happening to women creators quite a bit, there are rarely explanations of how it happened, as though we’ve all collectively agreed that women were magically erased, and what’s done was done, not by specific people but by ambivalence.
Green doesn’t buy that excuse and attempts, much like a criminal investigator, to piece together the exact moments when Guy-Blaché was disappeared. One man publishing one book, begets another man publishing another book, slowly whittling away Guy-Blaché’s credits, until there’s nothing left of her in the history books. A heartbreaking sequence recounts the moment when Guy-Blaché thought her work and efforts would be restored through an article in a magazine. We see and hear her correspondence with the article’s writer, so hopeful, so glad she might finally be recognized. And then we see the final article: Guy-Blaché was never mentioned at all.
It’s jarring at first when the filmmaker inserts herself into the story, but there’s real payoff as the film continues returning to the hunt for Guy-Blaché’s work, relatives, and personal anecdotes. At one point, we hear the audio of a phone call with one of the late filmmaker’s relatives, who then dials in cousin after cousin, each one of them offering little bits of information. Even when they do track down, for instance, an interview with Guy-Blaché on an old-format tape, another hunt must begin for someone who can restore the tape enough even to play it. It is the simplest thing to erase a woman — just omit her from your book — but the most arduous task to bring her back.
Another revelation of the film comes from Guy-Blaché’s work itself. Green smartly lets some clips of these run on the longer side to get a sense of the filmmaker’s mastery of form, specifically in her slapstick comedy, like “The Drunken Mattress,” about an alcoholic who’s accidentally sewn into a mattress and a woman who wrestles with it all across town. Her sense of comic timing is erudite but bawdy. As mentioned in “Be Natural,” another comedy of hers, a gender-swap farce called “The Consequences of Feminism,” turned out to have inspired legendary director and editor Sergei Eisenstein. Green juxtaposes “Consequences” with scenes from “Battleship Potemkin,” drawing parallels between the two artists.
If Green’s interviews with the famous talking heads are at all successful at all, it’s at film’s the tail end, after every subject (including Geena Davis, Peter Farrelly, Julie Delpy among countless others) has had time to view Guy-Blaché’s films and share their reactions. What Green captures is astonishment that these silent pictures were so damned good, even by today’s standards, and clearly influential on male creators. Every subject shares genuine enthusiasm after watching Guy-Blaché’s work, and as messy as “Be Natural” can be at times, with that frenetic pace of info delivery coming from all directions at once, it’s actually the natural tone and pace of a creator who’s excited by their subject matter. “Be Natural” is the formal equivalent of wildly gesticulating with your hands while screaming that women matter.