A Funny Thing Happened on His Way to the Movies



At Documents you can see Germaine Dulac’s film The Seashell and the Clerygman. Also featured are a text of Antonin Artaud who wrote the screenplay in which he writes favorably about Dulac’s adaptation and an account which fuses various testimonies of the film’s premiere with the surrealists protesting violently against the film. The post closes with the following question:

What happened between the glowing praise Artaud wrote on October 29th, 1927 and the premiere on February 2, 1928? Did Artaud see the film die on the cutting room floor? Or did the Surrealists hijack the premiere, did they take advantage of some critical remarks Artaud might have made about the film to create a row?

Artaud’s later remarks on the film would remain contradictory. In a letter to Jean Paulhan, written in 1932, he expressed his conviction that Seashell was a better film than both L’Age d’Or and Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet and that they borrowed heavily from it. On the other hand he felt disenchanted that he was kept from participating in its filmmaking process. He wouldn’t even get a credit as a screenwriter but merely as dreamer, as the caption was “rêve d’Antonin Artaud”. This would especially outrage him as he …

… proposed not a translation of the dream and its content, but an exhaustive investigation of the systems of dreaming, to discover their mechanisms and their structures in collapse. In this way, he wanted to reconstitute the violence and independence of dreaming, as a process directly projected into cinematic imagery; his aim was to ‘realize this idea of visual cinema where psychology itself is devoured by the acts’.
Stephen Barber, Blows and Bombs

But did Dulac betray Artaud’s intentions? When comparing Artaud’s source to the film one must say that she transmitted its content onto the screen quite faithfully and some of the scenes are still impressive, but there are only glimpses in it of the raw energy which Artaud imagined for his film- and theatreprojects and to which he would refer as “barbarity” or “theatre of cruelty”.
Germaine Dulac belonged – together with Abel Gance, Jean Epstein and Marcel L’Herbier – to a more formalist streak of French avant-garde directors called the Impressionists. A movement to which surrealists were openly hostile. Jacques Brunius for instance referred to their style as a “a fashion, a box of tricks, a set of easily copied mannerisms. (…) any anecdote from a novel, however vulgar, may be accepted or chosen as long as it is disguised by an exuberant ornamentation of technical effects to ‘look visual’ . A further outstanding characteristic of this school: total lack of humour.”
Desnos – by other accounts the main perpetrator at the premiere of Seashell – made clear that the directors who were appreciated by the surrealists had different aims:

When René Clair and Picabia made Entr’acte, Man Ray L’Étoile de Mer and Buñuel his admirable Chien andalou, it was not a matter of creating a work of art or of a new aesthetic but of obeying profound, original impulses, in consequence necessitating a new form.

Maybe the most original criticism came from the British Board of Censors which refused Seashell on the grounds that it is “so cryptic as to be meaningless. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable.’


Artaud wrote a couple of other scenarios which sound very promising but none of them would make it to the screen. The 32 was an attempt to make a horror film. By Stephen Barber’s account Artaud tried to find financial backing for it in Germany and Hollywood. Another one, The Butcher’s Revolt, experimented with disparity of image and sound.

The madman considers him with a baleful air, and as the gigolo advances, he punches him right in the face saying without raising his voice:

Take care, your head to the butcher’s.

At this moment the waiter drops his tray. The thunderous noise of the tray makes a terrible impression on the madman. The gigolo becomes of no account in his hands; and as everyone in the café is on his feet, coming toward him, the madman suddenly has a blank spell during which everything stands still, and we hear the sound of the butcher’s cart grinding the asphalt in the morning, to the sound of hoofbeats.
Then the sounds of the café resume. The madman recovers his senses, but has before his eyes the vision of the cart passing by, rolling along in one corner of the screen like those tiny images that move about on the ceiling, in a camera obscura, by the chink of light from the drapes. He cries out, looking at the people in the café who are staring at him like animals:

To the slaughter-house.
Excerpt from J. H. Matthew’s Surrealism and Film
One should keep in mind that the films which Artaud admired the most were those of the Marx Brothers which he deemed “of a particular magic which the customary relation of words and images does not ordinarily reveal” and “if there is a definite characteristic, a distinct poetic state of the mind, that can be called surrealism, Animal Crackers shares it to the full”.


For Artaud’s use of sound listen to To Have Done with the Judgement of God on UbuWeb (english translation here, background information on Art and Popular Culture). For Artaud’s staging see this site which features a series of photos that accompanied his version of the gothic novel The Monk which was originally published by Denoël.

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