Summary of Surrealist Film
Surrealism revolutionized the art of cinema with new techniques and approaches that freed it from traditional story-telling, transforming the medium into one that could explore, reveal, and possibly even replicate the inner-workings of the subconscious mind. Surrealist films often leave us with shocking images that lodge themselves into our psyche and deprive us of easily legible narratives, while at the same time prove compelling in their deep, ultimately neo-romantic expressions of desire. The movie screen becomes a portal through which the viewer can journey where the traditional common constructs can no longer be reliable guides, from a clergyman's sexual dreams to a poet's quest through a mirror, from an obsession with a starfish to a wound that emits live ants.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- Surrealist films created a revolution in cinema by dispensing with linear narratives and plots, thereby freeing cinema from a reliance on traditional story-telling borrowed from literature. Surrealism creates the possibility of cinema itself as an independent and unique visual art form.
- Surrealist films do not merely retell dreams or stories but replicate their very processes through illogical, irrational disruptions and disturbing imagery, uncensored by normal wakeful consciousness or morality. Surrealist filmmakers found new techniques to convey the atmosphere and incongruous states of dreams. Like dreams, many Surrealist films resist interpretation. As in actual dreams, characters in Surrealist films display a lack of will, even a certain impotence. There is a forfeiting of control and a complete submission to the dream state.
- Surrealist films often use shocking imagery that jolts the viewer, imagery that had not been seen in films prior to 1928. This challenges the notion of cinema as mere entertainment; the viewer can no longer be passive or complaisant. Surrealist film attempts to change cinema so that audiences experience more than the standard visuals.
- Surrealist films often assault traditional institutions in society, such as religion, family, or marriage, exemplified in Luis Buñuel's attacks on the Catholic Church or David Lynch's depiction of a married couple with a deformed child, thus changing a traditional mode of mass entertainment into one full of revolutionary potential at the social and political level.
- Many surrealist films are driven by strong feelings of longing, love, and sexual desire, what the founder of Surrealism, André Breton called "insane love," amour fou. This love or desire, while appearing self-destructive or illogical to the rational world, leads characters in surrealist films - and viewers in real life - to realizations they may not have otherwise had.
- Unlike Surrealist poetry, which ultimately could only create abstract linguistic metaphor, Surrealist film could show even the most incongruous or absurd images as visual, concrete facts. It could show the marvelous or uncanny as real---the material strangeness of reality. And though Surrealist paintings could depict dream-like scenes, they were still single, frozen illusions, while Surrealist cinema could show actual objects in motion, as they move in dreams, the paradoxical realism of Surrealism.
Overview of Surrealist Film
The first expressions of Surrealism took place in the early 1920s not in painting or cinema but in the poetry of André Breton, Paul Eluard, Philip Soupault, and Louis Aragon, all of whom explored automatic writing (writing in an almost hypnotic state, without the filtering of traditional poetic forms, morality, or rational meaning).The first to use the term "surrealist" was actually the older innovative poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire, as a subtitle to his scandalous 1917 play, The Breasts of Tiresias. Apollinaire, who had been a major figure in the Cubist movement and had perished in World War I, was much admired by the younger poets, and so they named their movement "Surrealism" in his honor. Interestingly, one of Apollinaire's last projects was the screenplay for a movie, which was never produced, titled The Breton Girl (1917).
Important Art and Artists of Surrealist Film
Directed by Germaine Dulac from a screenplay by Antonin Artaud, The Seashell and the Clergyman is considered by most critics to be the first true Surrealist film. Dulac was already a successful and innovative filmmaker, best known for the way in which her early films set moods through atmospheric camera shots, reminiscent of French Impressionist paintings. Many of her films are also psychological portraits, such as Spanish Fiesta (1920) and The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923). The Seashell and The Clergyman was a major departure from her established style. Dulac was a persuasive writer on cinema theory and declared the independence of film from literature and other visual arts.
Antonin Artaud was an actor, poet, and dramatist, and one of the most important figures in modern theater. As an actor, he is perhaps best remembered for his role as a sympathetic priest in Carl Dreyer's classic film, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). In 1927-28, Artaud was still affiliated with the official Surrealist movement as Director of the "Bureau of Surrealist Research," a small office in Paris where the general public could submit accounts of their dreams and surreal experiences. Artaud would later be expelled from the Surrealist movement by Breton, who objected to Artaud's drug-use, which to Breton was an inauthentic way of attaining the oneiric or revelatory state.
The film recreates the nightmare of a young clergyman and his repressed sexual desire for a beautiful, aristocratic woman (played by Genica Athanasiou, a former lover of Artaud's). The clergyman is thwarted by an older, more powerful man, who appears in the dream at times as his superior in the priesthood, or as a sword-bearing general. The clergyman tries to destroy this imperious father-figure, but his attempts are futile, and the slow-motion scenes of the clergyman trying impotently to strangle him are among the most disturbing in the film. The clergyman's impotence is also embodied in his crawling, like an infant, along the streets of the city, as well as in his absurd repetitive act of filling test-tubes with blood from a seashell (a symbol of female sexuality) and then dropping the tubes to the floor, creating a pile of smashed glass. The clergyman's erotic frustration is contrasted with the joy of dancing couples, kissing as they spin in a dizzying rhythm.
When the film appeared, Artaud accused Dulac of butchering his screenplay, and, along with his fellow-Surrealists, possibly staged a riot at the film's premiere at the Ursulines Theater on February 9, 1928. And yet, Dulac did follow Artaud's screenplay very closely. What Artaud might have objected to in the film is a certain "psychologizing" in the close-up shots and in the gestures of the characters, creating interpretable, "linguistic" meaning, attempts at coherence, whereas Artaud had hoped for images free from any possible interpretation, a true recreation of the mechanics of dreams in which "psychology itself is devoured by the acts." Nevertheless, Dulac herself advertised the film as "Not a dream, but the world of images itself taking the mind where it would never have agreed to go, the mechanism is within everyone's reach."
The pioneering film was a crucial influence on future Surrealist films. The techniques that Dulac developed for his film - superimpositions, montage, displacement shots, hallucinatory, spectral imagery - would be found in later, better-known Surrealist films such as Un Chien Andalou and Blood of a Poet. While Artaud feared that Dulac's film had created an easily interpretable dream narrative, the British Board of Film Censors deemed the movie "so cryptic as to be almost meaningless. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable."
This 17-minute film, directed and photographed by Man Ray, stars Alice Prin, Ray's lover, better known as Kiki de Montparnasse, a veritable muse to modernist writers and artists in the 1920s. The film is subtitled "a poem by Robert Desnos as seen by Man Ray." Robert Desnos was one of the most notorious of the Surrealist poets, renowned for his "daymares" and his ability to go into deep instant trances and issue forth poetry that struck his fellow-surrealists as magical. Desnos appears in this film as "the other man."
The film seems shot mostly through a blurred or frosted lens, so that figures seem dreamlike and spectral. Only at certain moments does the lens sharpen to full clarity. The words of the Desnos poem appear on the screen mostly separate from the images - the film makes no attempt to "illustrate" the poem, and the poem itself is not narrative, so there is no creation of a coherent plot or story beyond images that suggest a romantic encounter between a man and a woman. Although the woman strips before him, there is no sexual consummation, suggesting loss, futile desire, or impotence.
The starfish (of the title of the film) appears in a jar and at other times palpitates over the woman's wrist. Close-ups of the starfish show its limbs moving in slow-motion in a submarine realm, strange and somehow erotic, even vaginal. At one point the woman climbs the stairs with a drawn knife, a murderous look in her eyes; at other times, she sells newspapers or sits near a fire at night, eating chestnuts: she is both dangerous and disarming. The poem offers no meanings: "You are not dreaming" it says, despite the dreamlike atmosphere.
The use of the frosted lens creates an oneiric state and a typical Surrealist mood of powerlessness, thwarted desire, and disjointed imagery. In total, the film is memorable for its transformation of a linguistic artefact, Desnos's poem "The Starfish," into purely visual imagery.
Un Chien Andalou, one of the most shocking films ever made, is disturbing for its acts of irrational physical violence, raw sexual desire and attempted rape, rotting animal carcasses, insects emerging from a wound, a host of incongruous images, and a complete violation of the fundamental rules of story-telling. The very title is misleading: there is no dog, let alone an Andalusian one, in the film at all, although the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, a friend from student days of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, took offense, believing the title to be an unflattering reference to him. Inspired by the dreams of Buñuel and Dalí, as well as by their reading of Sigmund Freud's theories of the repressed unconscious, this work (and L'Age d'Or, produced the following year), achieves a simulacrum of pure automatism and nightmare, unfettered from the constraints of reason and morality, significantly expanding the possibilities of cinema itself. No longer would cinema be obligated to follow the rules of literature and narrative construction. Dalí wrote that the film "consists of a simple notation of facts... enigmatic, incoherent, irrational, absurd, inexplicable."
In his Poetics, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle had written that a dramatic narrative must consist of actions that arise logically out of each other, as well as preserve a unity of time and place. These rules of plot structure had dominated Western literature and theatre for centuries and had been adopted by the new art of cinema in the early-20th century. But from the beginning, as they worked on their script at Dalí's home in Cadaques, Buñuel and Dalí agreed that nothing about this film would or could have a rational explanation. The resulting film is free of the literary model, has little to no coherent narrative or linear logic. Skipping arbitrarily through time, "eight years later" and "sixteen years earlier," the film mocks and subverts the "title cards" that were used in silent movies to fill in temporal and narrative breaks. The film also used and expanded the cinematic techniques of dislocation, slow-motion, and montage introduced by Germaine Dulac to recreate the mechanics of the dream-state even more convincingly.
For all its lack of plot, however, the film, at its core, focuses on the terrible tension and alienation between a man and a woman enclosed in a small apartment. We do not know if they are married or to what degree they are romantic partners. Some critics have suggested that she is a mother figure, turning the film into an Oedipal nightmare. The male attempts to rape the female. While he gropes her breasts and buttocks, the man's face becomes gaunt and frightening, a trickle of blood oozing from the side of his mouth. In the only momentary respite that the film offers the viewer, the woman exits the confines of the apartment and is immediately in a liberating space, caressed by the refreshing breeze of a beach. She smiles and waves to a new lover, as if she has found a new life instantly. This happiness is brief: the film ends with a shot of her and another man immobilized, half-buried in sand, eroding in the sun.
Several of the film's images are among the most disturbing ever produced in the history of cinema: a razor slicing through a passive woman's eyeball; a woman's armpit hair turning into a man's beard; an amputated hand probed by a stick; a transvestite run over by a car; and many others. The opening razor scene, with its oozing eyeball, literally fulfils Antonin Artaud's call for a cinema made of "purely visual sensations...from the very substance of the eye." This infamous scene is particularly disturbing and revolutionary at multiple levels: first, in its very physicality, by exploiting the innate human fear of being blinded, the eyes among the most precious but also most vulnerable of bodily organs - most people do not want anything close to their eyes, let alone a razor; second, in its allusion to castration - male testicles share the vulnerability and even roundness of eyeballs; third, in the passivity with which the woman consents to having her eye slashed, and the meaninglessness of the act itself, unprovoked, executed calmly by the male (Buñuel himself in this scene). Unlike the shocking scene in Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925), in which a politically naive woman is shot directly in the face during a protest march, this scene, by being presented out of any narrative context, cannot produce any feelings beyond undiluted horror; the viewer cannot feel, as in Eisenstein's film, the additional emotions of political outrage or empathy. The viewer is not given any means of transcendence; no "lessons" are learned (e.g. one should never be politically naive). Where Eisenstein sought to educate through shock, Buñuel sought shock as an assault on the complaisant viewer - he once even compared film to a rape of the viewer.
In anticipation of a riot at the premiere in Paris, Buñuel filled his pocket with rocks to hurl at protesters - he later expressed his disappointment that a film aimed at offending the bourgeoisie was actually applauded by it. Dalí and Buñuel became overnight sensations, invited to the social and intellectual society of Paris after the success of this film. "For the first time in the history of the cinema," wrote the film critic Ado Kyrou, "a director tries not to please but rather to alienate nearly all potential spectators."
Useful Resources on Surrealist Film
- Surrealism and PaintingBy André Breton
- Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André BretonBy Mark Polizzotti
- Mad LoveBy André Breton
- Manifestoes of SurrealismBy André Breton
- NadjaBy André Breton
- EarthlightBy André Breton
- Antonin Artaud: Blows and BombsBy Stephen Barber
- Last Year at Marienbad (screenplay)By Alain Robbe-Grillet
- Film (screenplay)By Samuel Beckett
- The Shadow and Its Shadow: Surrealist Writings on the CinemaOur PickBy Ed Paul Hammond
- Dalí, Cinema and SurrealismBy Elliott H. King
- Surrealism and CinemaOur PickBy Michael Richardson
- The Screen in Surrealist Art and ThoughtBy Haim Finkelstein
- Dada and Surrealist FilmBy Rufolf E. Kuenzli
- Figures of Desire: A Theory and Analysis of Surrealist FilmBy Linda Williams
- Mirror Images: Women, Surrealism, and Self-RepresentationOur PickBy Whitney Chadwick
- The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical ReproductionOur PickBy Walter Benjamin / UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television / 1936
- The Film Theory of Antonin ArtaudOur PickBy Lee Jamieson / Senses of Cinema / August 2007
- The Untamed Eye, Surrealism and Film TheoryBy Ramona Fotiade / Queen Mary, University of London / September 25, 2015
- Surrealism in CinemaBy James M. Magrini / Senses of Cinema / August 2007
- Ghosts before Breakfast (1929) - Hans Richter
- Un Chien Andalou (1929) - Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí
- L'Age D'Or (1930) - Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí
- The Blood of a Poet (1930) - Jean Cocteau
- Rose Hobart (1936) - Joseph Cornell
- Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) - Maya Deren, Alexander Hammid
- Dreams That Money Can Buy (1947) - Hans Richter
- Last Year at Marienbad (1961) - Alain Resnais
- Carnival of Souls (1962) - Herk Harvey
- Film (1964) - Samuel Beckett
- Poetry and the Film (Cinema 16---a fascinating audio conversation on underground film by Willard Maas, Maya Deren, Dylan Thomas, Parker Tyler, and Arthur Miller, 1953)
- David Lynch: Surrealist Film-making
- Virtual Reality: Step inside a Dalí Painting