On the Surrealism in Cinema

The art movement Surrealism appeared in the 1920s in Paris with the first Surrealist Manifesto, written by the French writer André Breton. The Surrealists represent the irrational and subconscious in their art pieces, which results in the creation of an inert atmosphere with bizarre situations and a lack of perception of time and place, just like dreams. Even though the movement emerged in writing, it soon extended to several other art expressions, including  cinema.

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Luis Buñuel

The director who is considered the father of Surrealist cinema because of his remarkable work is Luis Buñuel. His first film, Un Chien Andalou, which was financed by his mother, and was born through  his partnership with one of his closest friends, Salvador Dalí (who is one of the most significant pioneers of Surrealist painting). Buñuel’s primary goal was “to produce something new in the history of cinema,” as he told to the newspaper journalist Josep Puig Pujades1. He brainstormed with Dalí, and together wrote ideas that were meant to shock the bourgeoisie with bizarre imagery. As Buñuel later described it, the origin of the ideas for this film was two dreams – his of slicing an eye with a razor, and Dalí’s about a “hand festering with ants” (21), as Elliot H. King mentions in the book Dalí, Surrealism and Cinema. Both ideas were used in the final project.

Salvador Dalí

Salvador Dalí

Un Chien Andalou, released in 1929, opens with a sequence of a man sharpening a razor. Later in the scene, it cuts to an extreme close-up of an eyeball getting sliced by the same razor. This shot sets up the whole surrealistic atmosphere, not only with its explicit content but also with the lack of information about the characters. As the storyline proceeds, there is not any added  information about the reason of this scene, nor the background of each character. Instead, the story jumps to eight years later where the same character, Mareuil, has her eye intact as if the opening sequence of the film had not existed. The jumps in time and place are a constant tactic used throughout the film, which does not allow the audience to follow a structured chronological plot. This technique, however, is reminiscent of a dream – without any perception of time and place and imagery that differs from the reality – and accentuates the surrealistic atmosphere aimed in this piece.

Even though the runtime is only 16 minutes, the amount of surrealist shots is extraordinary. Another iconic shot in Un Chien Andalou is the one born from Dalí’s dream. The character Batcheff stands in the room staring at the palm of his hand. Ants leave a hole and walk on top of it as if they were inside his body. Later, this festering hand reappears when Mareuil tries to close the door, and Batcheff sticks his hand through the crack of it. The bizarre situations keep happening, and later in the storyline, there is a scene again in Mareuil’s room that beautifully accomplishes, once again, Buñuel’s goal to create something different in cinema. Mareuil stares at a moth on the wall, and then, Batcheff mysteriously appears in the room. These two characters stare at each other and with a quick movement, the man covers his mouth with his hand. Upon uncovering it, it reveals an absent mouth. Mareuil grabs lipstick. It looks like she is trying to draw him a mouth while she paints her lips. Instead, a stain appears on his face. It cuts to a medium shot of the woman that looks at her hairless armpit. The audience understands that the stain on the man’s face is her hair.

Even if the audience tries to follow a plot in Un Chien Andalou, Buñuel justifies that “nothing in the film symbolizes anything”2, not even the title. It does not have any connection with the plot. It is as meaningless as the story. Although this film saw enormous success and is one of the most significant examples of Surrealist cinema, Buñuel and Dalí were not satisfied with the impact it had. Moreover, “Un Chien Andalou had not scandalized the bourgeoisie like Dalí and Buñuel hoped it might” (King 27).

The two artists got involved in a second project together but this time bigger – L’Âge d’Or. The first film was a low budget financed by Buñuel’s mother and this time it was by the wealthy nobleman Vicomte Charles de Noailles. “Charles and his wife, Marie-Laure…were interested in Surrealism and had already purchased paintings at Dali’s first solo exhibition in Paris at the Galerie Goemans” (King 28).  However, this project would not have the same chemistry of the duo due to personal problems in their friendship – Dalí was having an affair that distracted him from work.

In Un Chien Andalou, Dalí had an essential role in the creation of the surrealistic environment. In L’Âge D’Or, he was absent most of the time, especially during the filming of the film, and even though he collaborated with a lot of ideas, Buñuel modified them in the final product. For example, Dalí had the idea of “a love scene in a garden in which the man kissing the woman’s fingertips, bites off one of her fingernails” (King 29). As it is seen in the film, this scene is a woman biting a man’s hand, and later the hand appears mutilated without fingers. In the end, L’Âge d’Or became a black comedy about religion, love and middle class. Even though it has more plot than Un Chien Andalou, the feature is still faithful to the surrealistic atmosphere.

The film opens with facts about scorpions and then it cuts to a man with a gun. These two occurrences have nothing to do with each other, which is a tactic Buñuel also used in Un Chien Andalou – sequences that do not have any correlation between them. However, L’Âge d’Or clearly follows the relationship of a couple that keeps getting interrupted due to social obstacles that keep them apart. For example, there is a scene where the man is dragged by other two men down the streets. While they walk, the man finds different posters that remind him of his lover, for instance, he looks at one with a female hand and imagines the hand movements as if a woman was masturbating. Later in the film, there is a scene – the most iconic scene from the feature – where the couple is finally together in a garden. They caress each other, share kisses, and the woman even seductively sucks his fingers – which is bizarre. As they kiss, the man notices the foot of a statue behind his lover and gets distracted. He asks her to stop caressing him as he appreciates it. Afterwards, he leaves for a few moments. During his absence, the woman proceeds to erotically suck the statue’s toes, exactly as she was doing earlier to her lover. The whole scene itself is already completely surreal, but Buñuel intensifies this atmosphere with one of the shots after the man comes back to the garden. The couple cuddles, and in a close-up of the woman’s face, a voiceover says, “What joy in having killed our children.” Then it cuts to a close-up of the man that now has his face covered in blood and repeatedly says “my love.” Moments later, his face is back to normal as if nothing had happened, which reminds the audience of the eyeball scene in Un Chien Andalou. In Buñuel’s short film, the Surrealist shots were constant. In the feature, even though they are more spaced out in the plot, there are still some moments that are utterly bizarre. For example, a cow that is on top of the woman’s bed or the man throwing out the window a tree on fire, a priest, and a giraffe.

L'Âge D'Or

Gaston Modot in “L’âge d’or” (1930)

As Buñuel was making his mark in Surrealist cinema, other directors like Jean Cocteau were doing the same thing. Besides being a director, Cocteau was also a writer and a painter. He participated in the art movements of his era like Cubism, Surrealism and Dadaism, but his prior work was not exhibited that much. In the book The Visual Art of Jean Cocteau, written by William A. Emboden, it is mentioned how “Cocteau was not taken seriously enough by art historians to be included in their lists of French 20th-century visual artists” (13). However, he is a point of reference when it comes to Surrealist cinema, especially with his films The Blood of a Poet (1932), Beauty and the Beast (1946) and Orpheus (1950).

The film The Blood of a Poet opens with an artist painting a face on canvas. The mouth of the drawing magically starts talking. The artist tries to wipe it off with his hand but instead; it comes to life on his palm. He tries different methods to clean it, such as inserting his hand in the  water, but it does not work. Later, the artist falls asleep. There is a shot of him asleep with a female statue in his studio. When he wakes up, he goes to the statue and rubs his hand on its face, as an attempt to wash away the mouth. Even though he succeeds, now he faces a new problem: the statue is alive. It talks with him and it is shown on screen that the door of the studio vanished. The statue tells the artist that the only way out is going into the mirror and walk through it.

Since the beginning of the film, The Blood of a Poet has a surreal plot. This  series of events would not be possible in real life, which accentuates one of the characteristics of Surrealist cinema – the logic of a dream. The book The Unsilvered Screen: Surrealism on Film, edited by Graeme Harper and Rob Stone, mentions, “Many of the early Surrealists…fell in love with fledging cinema and its power to disorientate, to disturb and to follow the movements of the dream-world” (118). While Buñuel in L’Âge d’Or builds a Surrealist atmosphere through the bizarre shots, like the close-up of the man’s face with the blood that appeared out of nowhere, Cocteau creates a plot in The Blood of a Poet that resembles one’s dream instead. The series of unusual events keep happening throughout the entire film after the main character gets inside the mirror. He finds himself in the hallway of a hotel. He peaks through keyholes in the doors of the hotel’s rooms. In one of the rooms, a woman scolds a little girl and then sits her on top of a fireplace. The little girl levitates against the wall as if gravity is nonexistent. The girl rises to the ceiling and crawls on it to the corner of the room. After some more bizarre situations, the artist gets back to his studio and crushes the statue. Cocteau keeps surprising the audience with a non-ending series of surreal events, for instance, the character himself turns into a statue.

Jean Cocteau

Jean Cocteau

Cocteau’s cinematic language is different from Buñuel’s, even though both undoubtedly have a surreal atmosphere in their pieces. In the case of Un Chien Andalou, Buñuel creates a nonsensical plot with a lack of precision of time and continuity, as with the example of the eyeball scene (at first the woman has an eye sliced but some years later she is completely fine). Then again, in L’Âge d’Or, even though this time Buñuel explores more of the plot, there are still a lot of jumps in time and locations. For example, while the man walks down the streets with two other men, Buñuel shows at the same time the woman’s house and the bourgeois party preparations. In this series of events, it feels like the time is passing quickly considering the number of different things happening in the woman’s house. However, when it cuts back to the man, he is still wandering around the streets with the two other men as if only a couple of minutes have passed. The time is not precise and does not resemble how it happens in real life. Indeed, Buñuel’s films confirm what Cocteau once said, that “all films are surreal[,]…the cinematic image and the form of ‘reality’ created by its seamless and mechanical projection is very different from the flow of events in the real world” (Harper and Stone 118). When it comes to The Blood of a Poet by Cocteau, the plot is clear and the audience quickly understands what is happening. He accomplishes Surrealism through his creation of a new world with dream-like rules, such as people who fly.

While Cocteau and Buñuel each have differing cinematic styles, in comparison, that of Man Ray is a completely different language. While the other two artists seek to shock the society with their bizarre imagery, Ray had in mind the exploration of the movement through static images and an interest for optical illusions. His early films were his “possibility of extending his work in photography, although he preferred the static medium to the moving image” (Harper and Stone: 12) and are a perfect example of what is called abstract films. It is hard to describe his pieces as only Surrealistic since it is more of a bridge between that movement and Dadaism. Surrealism and Dadaism are two art movements with a lot of assemblies, where both reject rationality and logic. Although, Dadaism, or Dada, is an anti-art movement that relies more on improvisation, except it is always thought of as a conscious process to successfully dismantle art.

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Man Ray

Ray is in-between both movements because his primary goal was not an anti-art intervention; instead, as he once said: “My intention was to put the photographic composition that I made into motion” (Harper and Stone: 13). In his films, he explored the illusion of movement through a “mechanic conception of mental process” (Harper and Stone: 17). Ray shared this concern about optical illusion with another Dada artist, Marcel Duchamp. Indeed, Ray was involved in the production of Duchamp’s short film Anémic Cinéma (1926) that best highlights the processes of optical illusion. It is a seven minutes piece with abstract imagery of spinning circles that resemble hypnotism.

Even though it is hard to label Ray’s work, the 18-minute film Emak-Bakia (1927) can be considered Surrealist cinema. In Emak-Bakia, Ray opens with a close-up of a man (Ray himself) operating a camera, and his eye appears as a reflection on the side of the camera. The following images are mostly random lights and shadows that are entirely unrelated. Afterwards, an extreme close-up of an eye appears and dissolves with a close-up of a car’s headlights. A woman drives in the countryside, and Ray shows the road and the car from different angles and with frenetic camera movements. The car stops and the woman gets out of it. Next, there is a shot in a completely different place of feminine legs dancing.

Emak-Bakia

Emak-Bakia by Man Ray

Again, these two shots have nothing related to each other – although one can interpret this as the woman driving to a dance event. Later on in the short film, after some shots of instruments and more dancing, it cuts to a beach. A woman lies down on the sand and it cuts to a shot-reverse-shot between the feminine legs and the ocean. Emak-Bakia is full of extreme close-ups of unrelated imagery and a lot of lights and shadows, which intensifies the bizarre atmosphere accomplished with a montage that reminds once again a dream sequence – with jumps in spaces and time. The short film ends with a bizarre close-up of a woman with extremely white eyes, which soon it is revealed that it is actually painted eyes on her eyelids. Even though Emak-Bakia has clearly the Surrealist techniques, – which at some point actually reminds people of Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, where there is not an actual plot and nothing symbolizes anything – some artists did not accept this work as a Surrealist piece.

As it is mentioned in the book The Age of Gold: Surrealist Cinema, Persistence of Vision Volume 3, written by Robert Short and Stephen Barber, the professor Rudolf Kuenzli suggests that Ray broke “the cinematic illusion by pointing to the film as a product of the camera [and because his film’s] complete disregard for conventional storytelling [was too radical]” (27).  To the Surrealists, Ray’s film is too abstract and the images do not have a poetic side – its characteristics are more Dada than Surrealism. For them, Un Chien Andalou accomplished all the goals in Surrealist cinema, such as the “restore [of] narrative, character and optical realism but imbue them with the oneiric effects they sought elsewhere through poetry and the visual arts” (Short and Barber 29). With this movement, it pretended to create pieces with unseen and unexpected content, unlike the Dada movement where the most significant concern is to disrupt the classical cinematic language.

Even though the Surrealists may disagree that Emak-Bakia is a Surrealist piece, the truth is it also shocked society due to its weird imagery, even if it did not have an impact as significant as Buñuel and Dalí’s work or Cocteau’s. The Surrealism in cinema appeared due to the desire of creating something brand new that has never been made or seen in the history of cinema. All of these directors brought something different that somehow shocked the audience and it is still referenced in cinema today.

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Quotes

  1.     Elliot H. King, Dalí, Surrealism and Cinema, Kamera Books, 2007, p. 20.
  2.     Luis Buñuel, “Notes on the Making of Un Chien Andalou”, in Joan Mellen (ed.), The World of Luis Buñuel: Essays in Criticism, Oxford University Press, New York, 1978, p.153. Cited in Short, p.90, and in Dalí, Surrealism and Cinema, p. 26.

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