Think of Surrealism. No, not the paintings, the movies! “Un chien andalou“, right? This is the film title that everyone has in mind when a question like this gets asked. Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí‘s short film, a collage of non-sense scenes and illogical actions, became popular in the 1930s and inspired generations of surrealist artists and art lovers for decades. The legendary (and morbid) scenes of a razor blade cutting a woman’s eyeball and a hand invaded by ants became synonyms of what ‘surrealism’ meant: the delirium of the psyche and the world of dreams and nightmare being brought to life.
It was a matter of time, as the need to express the multifaceted perspective of storytelling in literature was just one way of looking at the modern man’s need to explore subjectivity.
To my surprise, another production wass considered by some as the very first attempt of creating a surrealist film: “The Seashell And The Clergymen” (originally titled “La coquille et le clergyman“), by french director Germaine Dulac. A few years after the release of her Impressionist film “The Smiling Madame Beudet” (“La souriante Madame Beudet“), Dulac experimented with the opposite, more diverse, truly different and experimental genre that Surrealism is.
Why was “La coquille et le clergyman” overshadowed by “Un chien andalou“? Apparently, it was the first which influenced the latter, which made it the first Surrealist movie ever. Unfortunately, some think the end result of what had to be a Surrealist movie, ended up being that of a German Expressionist movie! Among those, was even the writer of the movie script, French poet Antonin Artaud. Whereas the script was intended to bring into pictures a Surrealist scenario, Dulac’s visual direction pushed the final result towards a different artistic vision. Antonin Artaud, as reported by French Wikipedia (original source: Cinéma et Réalité) said:
“With the script I tried to create this idea of visual cinema where psychology itself is devoured by acts. (…) This script seeks the truth on the spirit, in images only taken by themselves, and which do not derive their meaning from the situation where they develop, but a kind of inner and powerful necessity that projects them into the light of an evidence without recourse. “
From what I have seen, I see both Surrealism and German Expressionism in “The Seashell And The Clergyman”. Surrealism is implied by the meaningless acts taking place within a sequence of the apparently consecutive scenes of a confusing plot. There is almost no need for the viewer to wonder about the significance of the characters’ actions, nor is a complex elaboration required. The plot can be easily summed up, and the viewer does not feel lost in the artistic deliverance of this work of art. There’s German Expressionism in the way emotions and needs of people are exaggerated and taken away from the physical realm, only to be expressed through a subjective perspective. The priest’s obsessive attraction to a woman is therefore portrayed through apparent meaningless symbols that do emphasise the plot and what goes through the characters’ minds, but cannot be considered a work similar to that of the subconscious mind. “The Andalusian Dog” can. From its beginning to its ending, one feels like entering the mind of someone as they dream. It’s a dream (or nightmare?) and a collage of plots and characters, and elements, and scenes.
Expressionism and Surrealism often share and at the same time differ from one another, in more ways than one expects: speaking of paintings, according to Robert C. Hobbes, “[...] unlike the Surrealists, they [Abstract Expressionists, Ed.] were content to play on spontaneity and allow it a role in the completed work” (source), and this is easily applicable to experimental films aswell as paintings.
“The Seashell And The Clergyman” came out in 1928, when German Expressionist movies were at their heights. “Nosferatu” is an example of such productions. Despite not being categorised as Surrealism, Dulac’s film has certainly paved the way for Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s experiment and absolutely acted as bridge from one conception of avant-garde to its fellow movement.