Surrealist Film Artworks
Progression of Art
The Seashell and The Clergyman
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."
L'Etoile de Mer
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
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."
Buñuel's second collaboration with Dalí expanded the means and scope of Un Chien Andalou by adding the new technical innovation of sound: now audiences could have the tonal effects of a dream, not merely the visuals. If Un Chien Andalou showed the uninhibited human actions of a dream, L'Age d'Or (The Golden Age) could now also present the uncensored speech and sounds of dreams: we can now hear the female character thank her partner for "killing all our children," or the sound-effect of a toilet flushing as the male thinks of his beloved. In addition, music plays a role in the film, including Wagner's Liebestod from his opera Tristan and Isolde.
L'Age d'Or also pushed the boundaries of traditional decency even further than Un Chien Andalou by attacking the institutions that were considered the pillars of society: church, state, and family. The attack is through rhetoric or argument but through the purely visual means of debased imagery. We are shown smoking, shifty-eyed clergymen, the manhandling of an Ostensorium (one of the most sacred objects in the Catholic Church, the vessel that holds the Eucharistic host), depictions of Jesus Christ as a sexual libertine, a father shooting his little son for a ridiculously minor infraction, and lovers sucking each other's fingers ecstatically (and even cannibalistically) instead of engaging in traditional coitus. The Church, police detectives, older family members all appear as figures of oppression, against which the male character seems to rebel, sometimes through abuse of those even weaker than himself, beating up a blind man or kicking around a dog (perhaps a reference to the "Andalousian dog").
If a continuous theme or narrative can be found in this film it is a couple's crazed desire for sex, which is persistently thwarted by absurd interruptions and petty annoyances. Their brief moments of joy are accompanied by Wagner's deeply romantic music. "This film remains," wrote Breton in his book Mad Love (1937), "the only enterprise of exaltation of total love such as I envisage it."
Buñuel, disappointed by the lack of scandal created by Un Chien Andalou, achieved his desire of provocation with this film: while its premiere on November 29, 1930 seems to have been successful, on December 3, members of a French right-wing group called The League of Patriots disrupted the screening, fomenting a riot and destroying works of Max Ernst and other Surrealist artists that were being exhibited in the cinema lobby. Le Figaro newspaper called the film "obscene, disgusting and tasteless." The anti-Catholic themes were so upsetting that Dalí - who became a devout Catholic later in his life - refused to work with Buñuel again, and the Vicomte de Noailles, who had financed the project, was threatened with excommunication. The film was subsequently banned until 1979 in France) and supposedly confiscated, yet it was smuggled across the world to be shown in London, New York, and elsewhere. It must have been seen by David Lynch, whose Eraserhead (1977) achieves a similar degree of shocking, uncompromising imagery.
Breton interpreted the film's title as a golden age of amorous freedom, but the film might be said to inaugurate a new golden age of cinematic freedom as well. Buñuel unlocked cinema's potential to generate imagery the way that dreams do, creating films that reproduce the processes of the subconscious mind. But Buñuel also awakens viewers themselves to their own freedom, for although an individual Surrealist film is a representation of only one subconscious, the film can lead the viewer to a greater understanding and embrace of his or her very own psyche and their own ability to generate revelatory, liberating images. In Buñuel's hands, cinema also became a new visual weapon that critiqued society by undermining and dislocating society's images and symbols of authority, transforming film into a tool of considerable revolutionary power.
The Blood of a Poet
This film introduces a new trend in Surrealist film, the reawakening of myth, particularly of the Orphic myth. Jean Cocteau was one of the most important figures of the early avant-garde in Europe. Artist, poet, novelist, ballet librettist, essayist, and major filmmaker, he seemed to unify the arts into a Gesamtkunstwerk ("Total work of art."). He saw himself primarily as a poet and all of his work in various media as forms of poetry. The poet in the film is never seen writing poetry but instead making visual art - the definition of poetry encompasses all forms of creativity, to which the new art of cinema is now added.
Filmed in the same year as L'Age d'Or, The Blood of a Poet was financed by the same patron, the Vicomte de Noailles, and proved almost as scandalous, causing the Vicomte to be expelled from the Jockey Club. The film was also accused of being anti-Christian, though Cocteau himself had become a Catholic in 1929 as a part of his rehabilitation from a nightmarish opium addiction.
The film has four distinct episodes, though it would be difficult to articulate a unifying plot beyond that of the poet's journey through life and death. Like most Surrealist films, time is relative - in some scenes, the characters are dressed in 18th century garb, while in the others they appear to be contemporary. Among the most surreal images in the movie is the mouth that appears on the nameless poet's hand. After trying to erase a mouth from a drawing, the poet discovers the living, breathing mouth has latched onto his palm, a mouth that is both wound-like (recalling the palm-wound in Un Chien Andalou) and a whispering voice begging for air. The poet succumbs to its sexual (masturbatory) potential and allows the mouth to stimulate his breast. He kisses it passionately but finally rubs it off onto the face of an animate female statue (played by American photographer Lee Miller).
The other intensely surreal episode is the poet's journey through a mirror. The statue encourages the poet to plunge into a mirror, and the poet follows its dark corridor to a strange hotel, where he is allowed to witness mysterious, impossible scenes, such as an execution in Mexico, a little girl learning to fly, a hermaphrodite surrounded by half-real half-drawn furniture, and a Chinese opium addict. At the end of the corridor, the poet is encouraged by a voice to kill himself. He is handed a gun and shoots himself, but instead of dying becomes immortal, wound round with laurel. Later, the poet, now a cardsharp, commits suicide again, to the applause of aristocrats watching from their opera boxes.
The film is a powerful, magical exploration of the myth of Orpheus, who journeyed to the underworld to rescue his wife Eurydice from death. In this film, the poet's journey through the mirror recalls the orphic journey to the realms of death, which in Western culture only a great poet is privileged to make (Orpheus, Dante, and Virgil). Myths are stories, subjected to the rules of plot and narrative construction; Cocteau frees the myth from its linear story in an exhilarating way, re-imagines it, revitalizing the myth itself through unprecedented images that simultaneously make the ancient tale contemporary and timeless. Many of the themes and images of this film would reappear in Cocteau's more conventional, yet no less compelling film, Orpheus (1950). Cocteau's orphic films, his most lasting works, would have a strong influence on the American filmmaker Willard Maas, particularly evident in Maas's 1956 movie, Narcissus, but we can even detect its traces in much later films, such as David Lynch's Eraserhead (1977).
Unlike the previous films, Rose Hobart, created by the American artist Joseph Cornell, is actually more of a collage: a splicing together of various older films, most of them featuring the actress Rose Hobart, but also scenes from a documentary about solar eclipses. (We recall that L'Age d'Or used a documentary - about scorpions - at the start of the film.)
Originally, Cornell had intended only to shorten an otherwise long, tedious film titled East of Borneo (1931), which Cornell liked to watch with his brother Robert, who suffered from cerebral palsy. Cornell was obsessed with the actress Rose Hobart, as he would be with other romantic females, including Lauren Bacall and various ballerinas. Cornell was given the opportunity to screen this unique film at Julien Levy's New York Gallery, which exhibited other Surrealist artists. For this screening, Cornell placed a blue-colored lens over the projector, giving the scenes an intensely nostalgic look. . While the film was being projected, Cornell played a phonograph record of Nestor Amaral's Holiday in Brazil, creating a further "disconnect" from the film's original plot.
Cornell achieves the Surrealist goal of oneiric simulacrum: the film is a dream of a hauntingly beautiful woman in an exotic locale, yet at the same time disjointed, its linear plot cut up and made incomprehensible.
Interestingly, Salvador Dalí was in attendance at the premiere. Halfway through the film, he rose and in a rage knocked over the projector, screaming: "He stole it from my subconscious! He stole my dream!" Cornell was shocked and refused to show his film again until the experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas persuaded him to allow a public screening in the mid-1960s.
Meshes of the Afternoon
Ukrainian-born Maya Deren's first film, Meshes of the Afternoon made her the undisputed leader of experimental cinema to younger American filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, Willaard Maas, and Jonas Mekas. Much of this movie was actually filmed by Deren's second husband, Alexander Hammid, a pioneer of Czech cinema and later the creator of the first IMAX film, To Fly!, in 1976.
Meshes of the Afternoon is like a lemniscate that links inner and outer, self and other, male and female, sex and death into a seamless whole. The beautiful young woman, played by Deren herself, who attempts to enter her locked house, finds the key within herself (literally, it comes out of her mouth). The key at times metamorphoses into a deadly, shiny, butcher's knife, the knife into a mirror. The young woman is inside the house but simultaneously sees herself outside, running to catch a death-like, ominous, black-veiled figure.
To a viewer familiar with previous Surrealist films, it is not difficult to detect resemblances in certain scenes to Man Ray's The Starfish and to Cocteau's Blood of a Poet. The inside space of the house closely recalls in its very configuration the house in The Starfish, particularly the stairway. The young woman goes up the stairs with knife in hand in a manner almost identical to Alice Prin in Ray's film. In various scenes, the young woman attempts to climb the stairs against a current of a strong wind, struggling not to be blown away, just as the poet in Blood of a Poet fights to keep a strong wind from blowing him back into the mirror's dark passages.
The film shares with all Surrealist films a sense of oneiric passivity and powerlessness. It is unique in the circularity of its form, and also for its choreographic or dance-like quality (Deren was profoundly interested in dance); this dance-like effect is further enhanced by the mesmerizing, rhythmic soundtrack by Japanese composer Teiji Ito (who became Deren's third husband in 1960). Meshes of the Afternoon initiates experimental or "underground" film in the United States.
Dreams That Money Can Buy
In this full-length experimental film the protagonist sees his dreams reflected in his eyes and realizes "if you can look inside yourself, you can look inside anyone!" As such, he sets out to sell dreams. It features seven dream sequences by Fernand Leger, Alexander Calder, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Man Ray and Alexander Calder, and Richter himself which explore fantasy and desire. It is dream-like in its soft color palette, and deep-focus. The final episode is Richter's own, where a blue man represents his universal man. He sits at a card table but a man objects: "but who would want to sit at a table with a blue man?" This may reflect themes of collaboration and displacement - the Nazi persecution of him as both a Jewish man and a leading Modern Artist, and the war-imposed influx of artists to New York. Commenting on the film Richter said it was made with, "my old friends from our beloved but bereaved Europe: Calder, Duchamp, Max Ernst, and Man Ray - the cooperation of two Americans, two Frenchmen and two Germans, in the then cultural center of the free world."
Like many of Richter's cinematic and art projects, music and rhythm are a major part of this film, integrating visuals and music with an innovative score by Louis Applebaum, Paul Bowles, and John Cage. And yet, André Breton declared that this was not a true Surrealist film because its storyline, while strange, was linear and still legible in a conventional manner. When viewed side by side with films such as Un Chien Andalou or L'Age d'Or, Dreams That Money Can Buy does not shock. It has a certain stylized, aesthetic quality, as well as at times a certain whimsy, that make it more of a Dada film, closer to films such as, Fernand Leger's Ballet Mechanique or Rene Claire's Entr'Act.
Last Year at Marienbad
Directed by Alain Resnais, this film is based on a screenplay by Alain Robbe-Grillet, writer and theoretician of the "New Novel," an important movement in French literature of the 1950s and 1960s that rejected traditional, linear narratives. Panned by many critics when first released for its elusive "meaning," the film is now considered a masterpiece of modern cinema, with admirers including David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick, as well as fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, who based his 2011 line on the movie's elegant wardrobe (the original wardrobe had been designed by Chanel.)
In this haunting film, a man (named only X in the screenplay) arrives at a Rococo 18th century chateau that seems to have been turned into a vast hotel or spa. The guests are superbly dressed throughout the movie, but seem somewhat lifeless, repeating the same conversations, jokes, and anecdotes over and over, or playing endless card games. Throughout the movie, X is seen and heard attempting to persuade a beautiful (though anaemic-looking) woman to escape with him. He insists that last year she had promised to leave with him, though she denies this, saying she cannot remember ever seeing him before. The woman has a partner or possibly a husband, a stiff, thin, humorless, and somewhat frightening man who seems to be aware of the attraction between the two.
The film is a long act of persuasion, an attempt to stimulate memory, with constant flashbacks and repetitions. The main character is animated by passion and desire, while the others seem distant, existing in a timeless, passive, death-like continuum. One interpretation of the film has been that the main character is an orphic figure, returning to the underworld to rescue his lover from death. But we can also recognize the essential Surrealist theme of mad love, amour fou. For the Surrealists amour fou is one of the keys to the secret of human existence ("Love is the greatest supplier of solutions," Breton wrote). What greater "mad love" than that of Orpheus for Eurydice? The film is a relentless expression of desire, overlaid with a deep melancholy communicated not least by the mournful organ soundtrack.
Carnival of Souls
If Last Year at Marienbad is one of the most visually exquisite films ever made, with its dresses designed by Coco Chanel, Carnival of Souls, directed and produced by amateur Herk Harvey, was strictly made on the cheap on a total budget of $17,000, with filming completed in a mere three weeks. Herk Harvey's only commercial film, its cast consists of unknown actors, including the star, Candace Hilligoss, who had studied acting with Lee Strasberg but had only a few television and theatre appearances to her credit. And yet, since its lacklustre premiere in 1962, this film has come to be highly regarded by critics and filmmakers, including David Lynch, who counts it among his major influences. In fact, for all its crudity, Carnival of Souls is astonishingly similar to Last Year at Marienbad, from its organ soundtrack to its haunting sense of overlapping dimensions of death and life, dream and reality, and above all its general atmosphere of surreal, oneiric passivity.
While Last Year at Marienbad is "about" a man trying to convince a woman to return to life with him, Carnival of Souls concerns a young woman who is pursued by a ghoulish man attempting to return her to death. Professional organist Mary Henry has inexplicably escaped from a car that plummeted into a river from a bridge, though she cannot remember just how. All other passengers in the car have drowned. Although she is alive, there is a new, cold indifference about her. She doesn't care to see her parents. Hired as a church organist, she feels no religious fervour. The taste of alcohol disgusts her, and she takes no authentic joy in the sexual advances of men. Physical touch seems to repel her. There is a certain automatism to her movements. She resembles a sleepwalker - a favorite type of Surrealist character. At various times, Mary "drops out" of reality: no-one can hear or see her, though she desperately tries to communicate. She is drawn to an abandoned carnival pavilion, where she sees dead couples dancing intimately - a scene that, both in its content and camera angles, recalls the dancing scenes in Last Year at Marienbad and particularly the dancing scene in the first Surrealist film, The Seashell and The Clergyman.
The episode of Mary's "dropping out" of reality while she tries on a dress at a department store is one of the most disturbing in all of cinema, reading as both horror (she is, after all, a living corpse) but even more vividly as alienation and clinical depression. Mary is caught at the precise crossroads between reality and surreality, where worlds and states of being overlap---the ultimate Surrealist locus. Mary's passage through the abandoned carnival rides is yet another Surrealist orphic journey through death. This film illustrates how even a low-budget American horror flick could absorb the lessons of Surrealist cinema.
La Jetée (The Jetty)
This work by French filmmaker Chris Marker is shot almost entirely in still photographs, except for three seconds of actual moving film. The still photos are sequenced to tell a story while the voice-over narration fills in the context. The transition between still photos creates a dramatic, staccato rhythm.
We learn from the narrator that Paris has been destroyed by World War III. The survivors have retreated to the underground cellars and passageways of the Trocadero and set up a prison camp. Prisoners are summoned for experiments in time travel, for only by establishing contact with the past or future will humanity have any chance of ultimate survival. The leaders of the camp can be heard whispering in German - a vivid memory of the Occupation as well as a possible allusion to the underground bunker built by the Nazis beneath the Lycee Montaigne.
The means of time travel do not consist of advanced technology, but through the ultimate Surrealist method: dreams. One of the prisoners has such vivid dreams of his childhood - in particular of a beautiful woman he saw at the Paris airport as a boy - that he becomes the first successful guinea pig in the desperate experiment, managing to return to the past and establish contact with the woman - at a tragic cost, of course. Like Last Year at Marienbad, the film is full of relentless longing and desire, of amour fou that defies the limits of time and space. A story of an attempt to breach the dimension of time through the free-flow of dreams and memories, the still photos undermine this "flow" by capturing and freezing individual moments in time, creating a contrapuntal rhythm of motionlessness and movement.
That Obscure Object of Desire
This movie is the last film made by Luis Buñuel, the greatest of Surrealist filmmakers. At the start of the film, a man travelling on a train dumps a bucket of water onto a young woman. This shocking image is explained by flashbacks. This man is the aging Lothario, Mathieu, who has fallen in love and is sexually tormented by a much younger woman, Conchita. A wealthy man, he believes he should be able to buy her with money and gifts, and his failure to seduce her turns his frustration into obsession. This expression of desire is yet another cinematic example of Surrealist amour fou.
The early Surrealist movement considered the female more powerful than the male for her sentient and imaginative abilities; women often appear in Surrealist works as erotic muses but also as guides to the world of the fantastic and the magical. Buñuel greatly admired Breton's novel Nadja (1928), in which the narrator, juxtaposing texts and photographs, explores his obsessive love for a beautiful, mysterious young woman who is ultimately placed in a mental asylum (the tragic real-life story of Leona Delcourt.) "Beauty is CONVULSIVE," the novel ends, "or not at all."
Buñuel chose to have two actresses play Conchita to show both sides of her personality, one elegant and sophisticated, the other a wild Spanish flamenco dancer. But in a surreal touch, while the audience can see that she literally is two people, Mathieu cannot. His sexual frustration is illustrated with Surrealist images and juxtapositions: Conchita wears a medieval chastity girdle that the exasperated Mathieu cannot unfasten; a pig is carried like a baby by a Spanish gypsy; a fly swims in a cocktail at an expensive bar; a mouse is killed in a trap as Mathieu attempts to explain his feelings to Conchita's mother; and most shocking of all, senseless acts of terrorism are carried out by a group that calls itself "The Revolutionary Army of The Baby Jesus." (As in many of Buñuel's films, Christianity is undermined.) Conchita terrorizes Mathieu sexually, at one point forcing him to watch her have sex with another man, though later she claims that the man was a homosexual and that nothing at all happened. The confusion of fantasy and reality, the violent depictions of frustration, and the ending of the film with a terrorist explosion, suggest the destructive power of unfulfilled desire. The film's appearance in 1977, forty-eight years after Un Chien Andalou, shows the enduring legacy and vitality of Surrealist ideas in cinema.
This film takes place in a nightmarish, decaying, industrial world - a world that is both surreal and at the same time highly evocative of the very real landscapes in America's dying cities. (David Lynch often cites as an influence the horrific experience of living in the violent neighborhoods of Philadelphia in the early days of his career.) It is also the underworld of orphic journeys that we recognize from earlier films, such as Blood of a Poet, Carnival of Souls, and Beckett's Film, as well as the crumbling ruins of the "Zone" in Cocteau's Orpheus (1950). Lynch's main character, Henry, lives in a dilapidated room (much like Beckett's "O"), surrounded by outmoded objects, including obsolescent pay-phones, strange lamps from the 1930s, a Victrola turntable (on which Henry plays a shellac record of Fats Waller performing pipe-organ music). It is a world in which all the detritus of the past has accumulated, a Sargasso Sea of time's wrecks. In true Surrealist fashion, Henry accepts this world, and all other strange events, passively, like a dreamer in his dream.
Eraserhead is almost as shocking and uncompromising as Buñuel's L'Age d'Or. Sacrosanct institutions, such as marriage and child-bearing, are depicted in revolting ways. Henry shares a filthy, uncomfortable old bed with his wife, Mary. They cover themselves with a rotten blanket that is full of holes. Mary makes guttural noises in her sleep and hogs the bed. She is angered by the endless crying of their misshapen baby. This baby, who resembles a large spermatozoid and science-fictional alien, is ill, with skin of a repellent mucous texture, mottled with pox. The baby seems always about to choke on its vomit, gasping for air like the mouth on the poet's hand in Blood of a Poet. Mary rejects the child and returns to her mother's house. Ultimately, Henry kills his child with a pair of scissors in one of the most disturbing scenes in film history since the eye-slashing of Un Chien Andalou. Sexuality itself seems grotesque in Lynch's film. Henry pulls squeaking spermatozoid creatures out of the bed and flings them against the wall (where they ooze white fluid); his sexual encounter with the beautiful woman across the hall is no better, as both sink into a disgusting, milk-like pool. God himself is deformed: the "Man in the Planet," who seems to control life like an engineer, is a man with a burned face and rotting teeth, manipulating old rusted levers in a dark basement; finally, his levers short-circuit. The world is malfunctioning at its very core.
This film is Surrealist in its transformation of everyday objects and people into nightmarish and repellant images. A chicken served at dinner begins to ooze blood; parents-in-law are weird, cretinous, and lascivious; a radiator harbors a deformed woman who sings while she crushes spermatozoid beings under her heels; brain-matter is used to make pencil erasers. At one point Henry's head is decapitated (a castration image but also an orphic image - Orpheus was decapitated by the Bacchantes) and lies on the street, very much like the severed hand in Un Chien Andalou. There is no escape for Henry, nor for the viewer, recalling Buñuel's comparison of film to the assault - even rape - of its audience.
Eraserhead is deeply rooted in the most extreme Surrealist films of Buñuel and perhaps also of Cocteau, but it also pays homage to Herk Harvey's low-budget horror film Carnival of Souls in several ways, from its use of haunting organ music to the very naming of the main characters, Mary and Henry (Mary Henry was the name of the heroine in Carnival of Souls). David Lynch has always cited Harvey's movie as an influence on his own work, as well as the Surrealist tradition (or anti-tradition!).
Of all post-Surrealist films, Eraserhead is closest to the spirit and shocking imagery of the original Surrealist films of the late 1920s and early 1930s.