The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928)

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*. This is often considered to be the first surrealist film. It’s a fair claim as the imagery has that flavour, it’s based on a scenario by Antonin Artaud (though he was apparently upset or disapproved at what Germaine Dulac did with it), and came out a year ahead of Un Chien Andalou. So then . . . what is a surrealist film?
*. Surrealism speaks in the language of dreams. People always want to interpret dreams because they seem as being full of personal significance. But the science on dreams is still cloudy and we’re still not sure what they’re for or what they mean. Is there a collective unconscious filled with universal archetypes corresponding to something in a common human nature? Or are the images totally random and individual?
*. Some surrealists insisted that their images had no meaning, but I think they were kidding themselves. Nevertheless, they were honestly sceptical of the whole project of interpretation.

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*. And so a door opens and the Clergyman is revealed sitting at a table pouring fluid from a giant seashell into beakers. He then breaks the beakers. This action is repeated. It’s not even clear if it is a consecutive action, filling one beaker after another, or if we’re seeing the same action repeated in an endless loop. The number of beakers on the table in front of him always seems to remain the same, and the pile of smashed glass on the ground beside him isn’t growing.
*. This is how I read the passage: We are driven to interpret our experience of reality, just like that man doing his bizarre experiment. But it’s an absurd activity that doesn’t really take us anywhere: what we get out of our perceptions is what we put into them. Like the Clergyman, we’re only pouring old wine into new bottles. Then the bottles (the experiences) are gone and we do it again. I’ve heard it suggested that this is all our dreaming amounts to: a way of keeping our brains busy at some basic level while our bodies rest.
*. Put another way: Some seashells seem to make a sound like the ocean when you hold them up to your ear. It’s not the ocean, but amplified background noise, including the sound of your own blood flowing. That’s the Clergyman’s blood he’s pouring, or that he’s dreaming of pouring, into those beakers, in an act symbolic of circulation. Then the General comes in and breaks his heart.

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*. There’s usually some sexual, possibly Freudian, angle thrown onto this film. I’m not sure it’s that important. What makes the Clergyman mad at the General doesn’t seem to be anything sexual. The General smashes, or symbolically executes, his seashell, and then usurps his function at the confessional. The Clergyman has to lash out, and does so physically in the long strangulation attempt.
*. Enter the General’s Woman. The Clergyman seems angry at her more than aroused. Even her partial disrobing is violent more than erotic. Later he will imagine strangling her in much the same way as he tried to throttle the General. Is she an object of desire? We’re used to thinking of priests as being tortured cases of repression, but that’s not a necessary reading of what’s going on here.
*. I will confess I find something very sexual about the room full of fetish maids fluffing the Clergyman when he is turned into an objet d’art. But perhaps that’s just projection again.

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*. Along with sex, another constant with surrealism is its antagonism toward authority and its desire to tear down systems and symbols of order and hierarchy. Breaking things is a leitmotif here and if you want to see that as political I don’t think you’d be off course. The British Board of Film Censors famously reported that while the film was “so cryptic as to be almost meaningless. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable.” I don’t think they were referring to the bare breasts. Instead, the presentation of a violent, unhinged clergyman, and the lack of respect shown toward a military figure were probably more upsetting.
*. Throw in the maids and you have a lot of uniforms in this short film. This, along with their movement, makes the characters seem almost puppet-like. The Clergyman is the only one who doesn’t act like an automaton, even though his stiff, upright running style suggests strings being pulled.

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*. The less clear the meaning, the more work the score has to do. I think I’ve seen this film with three different accompaniments and it seemed quite a different picture each time. I like the film a lot more or a lot less depending on the score, and the music definitely has a role in interpreting the images and supplying a kind of narrative.
*. Indeed, the entire emotional register of the film is set by the score. Is the scene of the Clergyman crawling in the street comic, or creepy? What about the room full of maids? Or the General floating like a balloon? You can read each of these as sinister, threatening, or slapstick.
*. This, in turn, is another indication of how fluid the game of interpretation is. A simple musical cue can change it from horror to comedy.
*. I’d also add that it’s a silent film that’s worth watching with no sound. This leads to yet another kind of experience. One of the first things you’ll note is how much rhythm the images have in their juxtaposition and transitioning. Look at how the smoke billows over the pile of broken glass like a pulse.
*. In general, I think the special visual effects are poor, even for this period. Dulac had an eye, but you can tell she wasn’t always getting what she wanted on screen. Though I’ll admit there are also moments when you wonder if some of the shortfalls are deliberate, a way of drawing attention to their own artifice.

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*. It has the abrupt, fragmented rhythm that is characteristic of surrealism (since dreams don’t follow any kind of logical continuity), but there are at least two moments that last: the fracturing face of the General and the Clergyman crawling through the streets. Once seen, they are hard to forget.
*. But again, if you try and ask what either of those scenes “means” you’re not going to come up with much. Surrealism was the most liberating of artistic movements, and the most limited. Like therapy, it’s something you have to work at. And it doesn’t always produce results.

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