In 2019, the film critic Manohla Dargis contributed to The New York Times’ Overlooked No More series of obituaries (for prominent individuals who died in the 20th century but did not receive an NYT obituary). Dargis wrote about Alice Guy-Blaché (1873-1968), the pioneering French film-maker who became one of the first creators to shoot narrative fiction as well as the first woman to direct a film. In all, she produced, supervised and/or directed (often all three) over a thousand short films across the first two decades of the 20th century.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in Guy-Blaché’s work, as evidenced by the 2018 documentary Be Natural: The Untold Story Of Alice Guy-Blaché, narrated by screen legend Jodie Foster. Now, the London-based publishers SelfMadeHero have released a graphic novel titled Alice Guy: First Lady Of Film, written by José-Louis Bocquet and drawn by Catel Muller (the two publish under the name “Catel and Bocquet”).
Drawing from her memoir as well as a range of secondary sources, the book condenses Guy-Blaché’s eventful life into a series of impeccably framed, beautifully illustrated key moments—her father dying when she was just a teenager, the first time she shot a dramatic scene, setting up the famous Solax Studios in the US, and so on. In an email interview, Bocquet and Muller speak about the making of the graphic novel, as well as the heady early years of film-making.
“At the end of the 19th century, science was at the service of industrial and social progress (the two being linked through the invention of the consumer society),” Bocquet says. “Science was the first engine of the industrial revolution in Europe. The first wave of inventors of cinema were researchers and the Lumière brothers were the prototype. They industrialised and commercialised their own invention, the cinematograph, wanting to show the world to as many people as possible.”
The “second wave” included performers like the illusionist Georges Méliès and Guy-Blaché herself. She was fond of what she called her “amateur theatricals”, dreamt up with friends, and once she started working with the inventor and film-maker Léon Gaumont (the initial encounters between the two have been reimagined delightfully in the graphic novel’s early pages), she had the perfect opportunity to use the cinematograph as a tool of popular entertainment. As Guy-Blaché’s ambition and her influence on the nascent film-making world grew, her paths crossed with those of the Lumière brothers as well as the American inventor and industrialist Thomas Alva Edison.
“Edison was a special case,” Bocquet says. “He was a visionary and an industrialist. He was interested in everything. In his laboratory, 40 researchers surrounded him. He had visions that others would help realise later. The kinetograph (an early motion picture camera) was invented and manufactured by (William) Dickson from Edison’s sketches. The Lumières and Edison thought the same thing; that scientific research in combination with industrialisation will make a better world.”
The visual style and scene progression in Alice Guy: First Lady Of Film has been inspired, in part, by the cinema of Guy-Blaché herself. Muller describes the film-maker’s influence through some of the Guy-Blaché films she was inspired by in her artwork. Like the now lost film La Fée Aux Choux, or The Fairy Of The Cabbages (1896), where a pair of newlyweds walked through a cabbage patch, plucking “babies” (these were pictures of babies glued to cardboard pieces). There’s also Madame A Des Envies (Madame’s Cravings), where we see a pregnant woman giving in to the “cravings” associated with pregnancy.
“La Fée Aux Choux had a mixture of flesh-and-blood characters and ‘illusions’,” Muller says. “Through the décor, there is a clever combination of illusion and reality. Madame A Des Envies featured close-ups of facial expressions. Les Résultats Du Féminisme (The Consequences Of Feminism) was also an influence because of the way its thematic sequences were shot.”
The artist describes the process of recreating early 20th century Paris for the book. “As far as architecture is concerned, Paris has not changed much since 1900,” Muller says. “And I do my research on the spot! The beginning of the 20th century is also the beginning of the visual century. Between the photographs and the films of that time, I was able to reconstruct the atmosphere of the period. I also used books on clothing and vehicles (such as the first-ever automobiles) from my personal library.”
Alice Guy: First Lady Of Film presents an accessible, smartly written slice of cinema history. It’s a must-read for film scholars as well as those interested in the intersections of science, industry and film-making.
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.