There’s a wonderful moment in “Avengers: Endgame” when the female heroines of Marvel’s cinematic universe band together to battle Thanos. The scene carries a frisson of novelty, providing a feminist, forward-thinking corrective to imagery more often cast as monolithically male.
It turns out that what looks brand-new is actually a return to first principles: In “Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché,” we learn that the woman of the title, a pioneer of cinema who began making movies in France in the 19th century, always cast women as protagonists in her silent films, whether they were action adventures, westerns or garden-variety dramas.
“Be Natural” tells the story of a young woman who started out as a secretary at the nascent Gaumont studios, where she became a respected contemporary of such innovators as Georges Méliès and the Lumière brothers. Within a short time, she was named head of production at the company, where she wrote, cast and directed films that pushed the newly minted medium into new forms of visual and narrative sophistication. After marrying, Guy-Blaché and her husband moved to the United States, where they founded a hugely successful studio in Fort Lee, N.J., then a bustling filmmaking hub.
So why isn’t Guy-Blaché’s name as lionized as Méliès, Lumière and her Fort Lee neighbor Thomas Edison? Filmmaker Pamela B. Green seeks to find out in “Be Natural,” in which she interviews dozens of present-day directors, and plumbs her subject’s own films and past interviews to gather clues. (Guy-Blaché died in 1968 at the age of 94.)
Green overplays the mystery story and procedural angles of “Be Natural,” and tries to gin up the energy of the film with way too many rapid-fire edits. Viewers may find themselves wishing she would slow down, the better to allow Guy-Blaché’s sublime sense of framing and humor to play out. But the sometimes frenetic pacing doesn’t detract from the enormous value Green provides in bringing to light some of the finest, most groundbreaking work of early cinema, by an artist who helped invent a language we’re still using today. (The title is taken from a banner that Guy-Blaché hung at her Fort Lee studio as a reminder to her actors — four decades before Marlon Brando would make that advice a Hollywood watchword.)
Perhaps the most important and unsettling truth “Be Natural” reveals is how easy it is to erase people and their work from the canon, resulting in a skewed, unjust vision of what the world looks like, on screen and off. The fact that Guy-Blaché isn’t a household name — even after making nearly 1,000 films — is due pure and simply to sexism, and literally being written out of history, either through animus or laziness. Thank goodness “Be Natural” is here to set a brilliant, distinguished, invaluable record straight.
Unrated. At the AFI Silver Theatre. Contains nothing objectionable. 103 minutes.