In the cinema I have always distinguished a quality peculiar to the secret movement and matter of images. The cinema has an unexpected and mysterious side which we find in no other form of art.
– Antonin Artaud (1)
On 4 March 1948, the body of Antonin Artaud was discovered at the foot of his bed. Before long, French film magazines were inundated with tender obituaries, commemorating his long acting career. Having appeared in more than twenty films between 1924 and 1935, Artaud was a renowned film actor, performing in many of the period’s most influential films including Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1926), Carl Th. Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1927), and Fritz Lang’s Liliom (1933).
Ironically, Artaud felt humiliated by his film-acting career. He regarded it as a necessary source of income with which to fund his more avant-garde poetry, theatre and film projects. As a writer and critic, Artaud despised the commercialisation of cinema, instead promoting his own radical concept. As this article will reveal, Artaud aimed to change the course of filmmaking and film appreciation. His vision was grand and ambitious, and continues to provoke responses from modern-day critics and filmmakers. However, his polemic is difficult to define precisely because he failed to realise his proposals during his lifetime. Consequently, we must piece together Artaud’s revolutionary film theory from a number of unproduced film scenarios, a handful of essays and scarce interviews. (2) Today, his legacy is evident in film history and alternative filmmaking, marking the potency of his ideas.
Approaching Artaudian Film Theory
Artaud’s film theory extends directly from his philosophical views. He believed that, in establishing and expanding civilisation, humankind has fabricated a spiritless, material world in which to exist. Consequently, we have repressed our primitive instincts and lost contact with our spiritual senses. With the development of film as a serious art form in 1920s France, Artaud saw an opportunity to hijack the medium, to use it as a tool with which to pierce the ‘skin’ of civilised reality. Thus, Artaud gave his cinema a purpose, outflanking the prized entertainment values of the 1920s film industry. When asked in 1924, “What sort of films would you like to make?”, he replied:
So I demand phantasmagorical films […] The cinema is an amazing stimulant. It acts directly on the grey matter of the brain. When the savour of art has been sufficiently combined with the psychic ingredient which it contains it will go way beyond the theatre which we will relegate to a shelf of memories. (3)
A central factor in Artaud’s enduring presence is the artistic freedom that emerges from this idea. He advocated a complete eradication of all previous art, thus creating a cinema of pure possibility. In evaluating the state of cinema in 1927, he claimed that,
two courses seem to be open to the cinema, of which neither is the right one. The pure or absolute cinema on the one hand, and on the other this sort of venial hybrid art. (4)
Artaud rejected ‘pure cinema’, an increasingly popular approach to filmmaking that laid emphasis on the film’s visual form (5), because he considered the approach to be devoid of emotion. Similarly, he considered the hybridisation of literary and theatrical conventions with filmmaking equally abhorrent. Rather, he proposed a cinema that aimed to engulf the spectator, to physically affect them on a subconscious level. Ambitiously, Artaud conceived of a cinematic experience powerful enough to project his viewer beyond their civilised self and rediscover their primitive instincts.
Evidently, Artaud’s project significantly deviated from the conventional notion of film fiction. Rather, he theorised a cinematic experience capable of transcending illusion and acting directly upon (and altering) the viewer’s perception of material reality. The alternate realities envisioned by Artaud vary from scenario to scenario. For example, La Coquille et le clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman, Germaine Dulac, 1928) inhabits the subconscious mind of an obsessive priest, Les Dix-huits seconds (Eighteen Seconds) dismantles the thought process of a suicidal actor in the moments before he shoots himself, and La Révolte du boucher (The Butcher’s Revolt) presents a savage world free from moral values. Whilst the surface features of Artaud’s scenarios may vary, they share a common subtext, each emerging from Artaud’s distrust of representation. Artaud perceived representation to be the result of a translation, the mental and artistic process that turns ‘raw thought’ into art. However, the primacy of the original thought is lost in its materialisation into (art)efact, and thus becomes de-sensualised. This materialisation of art separates it from the body and distances it from its original conception; consequently, it dies, unable to sustain its sensuality in the physical universe. Ultimately, the act of representation reduces the final (art)efact (be it visual or literary) to an empty shell – a mere tombstone marking its former life.
Here, the post-structuralist thinking in Artaud’s æsthetics is striking. Specifically, Derrida employed Artaud’s dispirited relationship with representation as a platform for his own ideas, which subsequently laid the foundations for post-structuralism. In a metaphor borrowed from Artaud, Derrida compares defecation to the process of creating art. Derrida claims that, like the artist passing excrement, art is also a product of the body – of the self. However, once the product has left the body, it cannot retain the life force it once had:
the work, as excrement, is but matter without life, without force or form. It always falls and collapses as soon as it is outside of me. (6)
Artaud’s æsthetic project was to establish a method of producing an (art)efact that retained the energy of the original thought from its conception. In cinema, he saw an opportunity to sidestep the reductive process of representation, an idea he borrowed, in part, from the Surrealist Party. Similarly, the Surrealists recognised the vast, untapped potential of cinema, which was gaining momentum as a serious art form in 1920s France. The discourse around filmmaking was rapidly unfolding, resulting from technological advancements that facilitated new techniques and processes, and the proliferation of serious-minded criticism. (Only eight years earlier, Louis Delluc published Cinéma et Cie, one of the first film-theory books.) The timing was perfect for the Surrealists, who were pursuing new modes of artistic expression. Through art, they hoped to find a way of connecting with the human subconscious and discover the common truths that lay behind the conscious perception of reality. In the Surrealist Manifesto, André Breton, the poet and intellectual force that headed the movement, defined the term as an attempt
to express – verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner – the actual functioning of thought […] Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. (7)
Although Artaud rejected claims that his work was surrealist after Breton had him expelled from the party in 1926, the connections are clear, Breton’s above definition encapsulating Artaud’s film theory.
Thus, film, with its emphasis on the visual, its aptitude for image manipulation and its ability to cut between differing moments in time and space, was a perfect vehicle for the artistic projects of both Artaud and the Surrealists. As the critic Leo Charney confirms:
For the Surrealists, it was above all the cinema that possessed the uncanny ability to penetrate the surface of the world and encapsulate in moments of shocking in-sight the nature of the physical and sensual universe. (8)
In practice, Artaud’s film theory focuses upon the volatility of all matter in an attempt to ‘crack’ the surface of the physical, material world and release the spiritual forces beneath. Thus, Artaud’s cinema becomes dangerous, able to physically jolt the viewer out of their complacency, to pierce beneath their skin:
The human skin of things, the derm of reality – this is the cinema’s first toy. It exalts matter and makes it appear to us in its profound spirituality, in its relationship with the mind from which it emerges. (9)
Thus, Artaud’s cinema is a transgressive force, located on the boundaries between materialism and spirituality, between the consciousness and the subconscious, between æsthetic process and artefact, and between fiction and reality.
Tragically, Artaud’s film theory was never fully realised and remains historically lost. Despite pursuing a number of avenues to raise funds, Artaud’s polemic remained purely theoretical. Although Germaine Dulac directed The Seashell and the Clergyman in 1927, the only one of Artaud’s fifteen scenarios to be produced, Artaud was denied artistic input during the process. Stephen Barber suggests that Dulac, well aware of Artaud’s difficult temperament, reorganised the shooting schedule to coincide with the shooting of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, for which Artaud was under contract as an actor:
Artaud began to write to Dulac, making insistent demands on her that he should be allowed to collaborate fully on the project, and to edit the film himself. He also wanted to act the part of the clergyman […] Dulac, who clearly had no intention of allowing her directorial independence to be sabotaged by sharing her decisions with Artaud, then delayed the shooting of the film and the editing sessions until […] Artaud was once again fully occupied […] (10)
However, the film was made and has become an important (yet imperfect) document of Artaud’s film theory in practice. As Alain Virmaux states: “Whether or not the critics admit it, it clearly bears Artaud’s mark.” (11) As such, an examination of this often overlooked film can still yield insights into Artaud’s forgotten cinema.
The Seashell and the Clergyman
The Seashell and the Clergyman, widely regarded by critics as the ‘first surrealist film’, is marred by controversy, its reputation overshadowing its content. As I will discuss later in this article, the film’s premiere was abandoned after a disagreement between Artaud and Dulac culminated in a cultural riot, raising some interesting points about Artaud’s film theory. Furthermore, the reels distributed for American consumption were mistakenly assembled in the wrong order (12), and the British Board of Film Censors banned the film with the infamous justification:
[The Seashell and the Clergyman] is so cryptic as to be almost meaningless. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable. (13)
The controversies surrounding The Seashell and the Clergyman have diminished the importance of the film itself, and it was soon eclipsed by the release of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou the following year.
However, Artaud’s scenario for The Seashell and the Clergyman set the groundwork for subsequent surrealist film initiatives and was the first to develop many of the æsthetic principles typical of the movement. Reportedly, Buñuel had seen Artaud and Dulac’s film whilst preparing for Un Chien Andalou and, interestingly, both films share similar cinematic devices. Both films employ disruptive temporal structures that unfold with the fabric of a dream and incorporate visual shocks designed to impact viscerally upon the viewer. In this respect, the purpose of the infamous eye-slitting in Un Chien Andalou is comparable with the exposure of the woman’s breasts in The Seashell and the Clergyman. Four years later, Artaud accused Buñuel and Dalí of stealing cinematic devices from his own film:
The Shell was indeed the first movie of its kind, a forerunner […] In all fairness, the critics, if there are any left around, should recognize the relationship of all these films and say that they all descend from The Shell and the Clergyman, but without the espirit of The Shell, which they all failed to recapture. (14)
Behind Artaud’s conspiratorial tone, there is a truth: namely, that Un Chien Andalou and The Seashell and the Clergyman share a lineage. Although both films employ the techniques that characterise our understanding of surrealist cinema, Artaud’s vision predates Buñuel’s. Yet, Artaud’s importance has been sadly undervalued, especially considering that it was his ideas that became iconic of all subsequent surrealist cinema.
The Seashell and the Clergyman penetrates the skin of material reality and plunges the viewer into an unstable landscape where the image cannot be trusted. Remarkably, Artaud not only subverts the physical, surface image, but also its interconnection with other images. The result is a complex, multi-layered film, so semiotically unstable that images dissolve into one another both visually and ‘semantically’, truly investing in film’s ability to act upon the subconscious.
Images of Catholicism, identity, corporeality and desire are so intricately interwoven into the subtext of The Seashell and the Clergyman that it is impossible to distinguish the boundaries between them. In particular, images of Catholicism prevail throughout the film and are constantly undermined, reflecting Artaud’s contempt of organised religion. With indifference, Artaud abolishes accepted notions of Catholicism and unleashes the repressed sexual desires that lie beneath. He presents us with the image of a priest (played by Alex Allin), an image that connotes celibacy and pious dignity. However, this physical image is subverted when the repressed sexual frustrations of the priest are brought to the surface. His obsession takes the form of a beautiful woman (played by Génica Athanasiou) who appears to him throughout the film like a mirage. According to Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, “it is not a “real” female character […] but an image of the woman, as phantom, as specter, as shadow of desire” (15). The priest’s search for this ethereal image drives the narrative forwards and his growing fanaticism informs the pace of the film.
The woman’s image, as an object of repressed desire, is interconnected with religious imagery: she appears in a wedding carriage, in the confession box, in a church and as the conductor of a marriage ceremony. She is the forbidden flesh of the priest’s fantasy and, by placing her in such incongruous contexts, Artaud highlights the secularism of the film. The priest’s obsessive behaviour increases with each encounter and, in tandem, the images become increasingly volatile. Images collide, slide under one another and merge. For example, each time the woman appears, she does so with a man (Lucien Bataille) dressed in a general’s uniform, described by Steven Kovács as
the obstacle to the clergyman attaining wholeness through union with the woman […] The clergyman attains the power to destroy his double only once they are in the church, in his domain. (16)
Whilst there is truth in this statement, Kovács underestimates the volatility of the general’s image. Rather, the film presents all corporeality as potentially unstable, and the boundaries that separate the three characters are impossible to locate. In the confessional box, the general sits next to the woman, lecherously listening to her secrets. Consumed with envy, the priest’s sexual frustration reaches boiling point and he attacks the general. Through a series of remarkable effects, where the general’s face is seen to crack and split, the image of the priest transfers, ‘slips under’ that of the general, until he too becomes a priest. The intention is not to present a simple substitution of one image with another (the image of the priest replacing that of the general), but to convey a collision of identity. As the two men fight, touching for the first time, part of the priest’s inner essence merges with the general, their identities ‘slipping under’ one another.
Artaud identified the significance of destabilising corporeal images in his preface to the scenario for The Seashell and the Clergyman. He specified that his aim was to create
situations which emerge from the simple collision of objects, forms, repulsions and attractions. It does not separate itself from life but returns to the primitive order of things. (17)
As is widely discussed in other studies, Artaud did not consider his own body as an absolute requirement for his existence. Instead, he rethought himself as a powerful life force capable of projecting his essence into other forms. Interestingly, his writing away from cinema is littered with images of corporeal transgression, where he projects his life force into other forms and bodies. (18)
Again, this theme is woven into the visual subtext of the film and is established in the opening sequence. The priest pours a mysterious, dark liquid from a large oyster shell into small glass beakers that he drops onto the floor beside him. Near his chair, we find a huge pile of broken glass soaked in the liquid essence, evidence of a hundred broken beakers. The subtext of this image is playing with the double meaning of the word ‘essence’, describing both ‘distilled liquid’ and ‘life force’. Although this connection is not explicit in the surface images of the scene, Artaud allowed the visual connotation to drift through the imagery of the film. Metaphorically, each beaker contains a single life essence – an identity. When the priest smashes the glass beakers, the inner essence blends and amalgamates. Later, we are presented with a direct reflection of this image when the priest attacks the general and their identities collide. The violent assault causes the general’s face to crack and shatter (paralleling the glass beakers) and the life essence of the priest literally ‘spills over’ into that of the general.
Artaud immerses the viewer into a world where all images are potentially unstable and dangerous. Reacting alchemically to the priest’s sexual appetite, all images have the capacity to stretch, vanish or mutate. For example, the image of the woman (as object of the priest’s desire) is presented ethereally throughout. Impossibly, she appears and disappears like an apparition, until the climax of the chase sequence where her body is seen to distort, stretch and deform. In Artaud’s original scenario, these distortions were to be even more horrific than the images contained in the final film:
… now with an enormous swollen cheek, now putting out her tongue which stretches into infinity and onto which the clergyman hangs as if it were a rope. Now with her chest horribly puffed out. (19)
Images of corporeality are presented as untrustworthy in the film, liable to alter in response to intense emotional states. Unsurprisingly, this sentiment appealed to the Surrealists, with their interest in the recreation of dream imagery and sublime states of mind in order to access the subconscious self. What Artaud developed was a concrete way of transferring such images to film without a reliance on realist principles. However, The Seashell and the Clergyman much outflanked a cinematic transposition of surrealist techniques, namely the juxtaposition of incongruous images and concepts to express the mechanics of the subconscious mind. Rather, these ideas are swallowed whole and are woven into the very ‘architecture’ of the film.
Under Dulac’s direction, the cinematography, the editing and the performances all work to dislocate logical structures and disassociate rational meanings, yet the film retains its own intrinsic logic. Even before she had started work on The Seashell and the Clergyman, Dulac had formulated the cinematic vocabulary of such a film. In 1924, she claimed that the goal of cinema was to “visualize the events or the joys of inner life. One could make a film with a single character in conflict with his impressions.” (20) The release of The Seashell and the Clergyman four years later was a skilful realisation of this idea, presenting the viewer with an internal, mental landscape, perhaps the subconscious of the priest himself. The narrative occurs on a subjective level where the priest is indeed ‘in conflict’ with his own sexuality, faith and obsessions, and pursues the object of his desire through his own mind. As Artaud succinctly puts it: “The characters are only brains or hearts.” (21)
However, on 9 January 1928, the premiere of The Seashell and the Clergyman was abandoned after a disruption in the auditorium. Somewhere in the darkness of the Studio des Ursulines, two voices insulted Dulac, and, before long, the premiere descended into a chaotic cultural riot. Obscenities were shouted, mirrors were broken and violent blows were exchanged. Accounts of Artaud’s own involvement that night are ambiguous, one claiming that he sat quietly with his mother, whilst another recounts how he ran wild. Either way, the events were triggered by a high-profile dispute between Artaud and Dulac, in part, fuelled by Artaud’s exclusion from the filming and editing of his own text. Rallying a number of surrealist allies in his campaign against Dulac, Artaud attacked her maltreatment of his scenario on a number of points. At the crux of the argument was the insertion of the subtitle, “A dream on the screen”. As Flitterman-Lewis confirms, “The idea for the scenario apparently originated with a dream of Yvonne Allendy, a close friend of Artaud’s, though the scenario itself has little in common with it.” (22) In a public attack printed in La Nouvelle Revue Française, Artaud insisted that
This scenario is not the reproduction of a dream and must not be regarded as such. I shall not try to excuse the apparent inconsistency by the facile subterfuge of dreams. Dreams have more than their logic. (23)
This raises a vital point that again reflects Artaud’s unease with representation. In writing the scenario, Artaud had attempted to sidestep the materialisation of ‘raw thought’ into an (art)efact, writing that The Seashell and the Clergyman, “before being a film, is an attempt or an idea” and that his scenario was capable of capturing the “unconscious source of thought” (24). His concern was that Dulac, in translating his text into celluloid, had made a representation of his raw images by imposing a narrative logic upon them – the logic of a dream. The disagreement rested on the fundamental difference between Dulac’s passive expressionism and Artaud’s aesthetic activism, and was triggered by Artaud’s distrust of representation. Flitterman-Lewis highlights this disparity by comparing how both artists regarded the role of dreaming in the film:
Dulac conceived of Seashell as the representation of “dream-like” images, a chaos of associations which would in some sense represent the irrational flow of dream images. On the other hand, Artaud wanted to create the impact of the dream instead of simply reproducing its irrationality. For him, then, the representation of a “dream-state,” in which the spectator’s involvement was one of active participation, was the primary aim of his scenario. (25)
Ironically, it was Artaud’s struggle to overcome representation that accounted for the failure of his theories, but it was also the nature of this struggle that, since his death in 1948, attracted a host of filmmakers and critics to his writing. Artaud’s involvement with cinema raised pertinent questions – questions that today still retain their currency. Artaud challenged base assumptions, questioning the purpose and role of cinema. However, the base assumptions of his own theories were equally suspect. Artaud’s film theory rests on a number of untested premises. First, his proposal is built upon his philosophical beliefs – that behind our perception of material reality exists a metaphysical realm into which the viewer can be projected – an aspect of his thinking that he rarely interrogated. If misguided in this respect, then his film theory collapses. Second, Artaud’s proposal is unachievable without an all encompassing de-commercialisation of the art world and the conventions that surround it – or, more succinctly, the annihilation of all existing art. His proposed revolution was acute, aiming to destroy the (art)efact and the cultural attitudes towards it. Sadly, with the absence of a body of practical work, Artaud’s contribution to film remains in the “asking” rather than the “answering” of these questions.
In reality, Artaud fell out of favour with the industry of film and returned to working in the theatre. For Virmaux, it was the historical and economic factors affecting cinema during the 1920s that were responsible for his abandonment. He writes:
He gave up the screen as soon as the industrialization of the movies seemed to exclude any individual genius. He then came back to the theatre because, in spite of some commercial weaknesses, it was not so completely dominated by money, left room for a certain amount of private producing on small budgets, and allowed a lonely voice to be heard. (26)
However, Artaud’s “lonely voice” has been heard in the film world and the questions that arose from his proposals still seem relevant. Historically speaking, the lost prophet of cinema has not been entirely forgotten. His fingerprints can still be found. Without Artaud’s contribution, the essence of surrealist cinema would have been very different. Thus, his (failed) work is fundamental to film history, and The Seashell and the Clergyman, where he integrated “Artaudian” principles into the nucleus of the film, stands as a turning point in 20th Century cinema.
- Antonin Artaud, Collected Works: Volume Three, Paule Thévenin (Ed.), translated by Alastair Hamilton (London: Calder and Boyars, 1972), p. 65.
- All of Artaud’s significant writings on cinema were collected and edited by Paule Thévenin in Collected Works: Volume Three for Gallimard, Paris (and published in English by Calder and Boyars). It was the French publication of this edition that fully illuminated Artaud’s contribution to cinema.
- Artaud, pp. 166-7.
- Ibid, p. 19.
- In considering ‘pure cinema’ in 1925, René Clair noted that: “A film does not exist on paper. The most detailed script could never anticipate every detail in the film’s execution (precise angle of the photographs, lighting, lens-aperture, play of the actors, etc. […]). A film exists only on the screen.” Cited in Jacques B. Brunius, “Experimental Film in France”, translated by Mary Kesteven, in Roger Manvell (Ed.), Experiment in the Film (London: The Grey Walls Press, 1949), p. 89.
- Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, translated by Alan Bass (London: Routledge, 1978), p. 183.
- André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, translated by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1972), p. 26.
- Leo Charney, Empty Moments: Cinema, Modernity, and Drift (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), p. 124.
- Artaud, p. 21.
- Stephen Barber, The Screaming Body (London: Creation Books, 2001), p. 9.
- Alain Virmaux, “Artaud and Film”, translated by Simone Sanzenbach, Tulane Drama Review, 11.1 (Fall 1966), p. 159.
- It was the film historian and critic Sandy Flitterman-Lewis who noticed this error, but only in the 1980s, many years after the film had been distributed in the wrong order. As she is the authority here, I will quote extensively from her own overview of the events: “for some reason, when the film’s three reels were initially spliced in the U.S., the last reel found its way into the middle of the film, making American prints end with an image of the woman’s severed head inside a glass ball. Both the correct version of the film and the scenario itself end with the clergyman drinking the black liquid from the shell […] William Van Wert’s widely read article, ‘Germaine Dulac: First Feminist Filmmaker’, bases its entire argument on the incorrect sequencing and its mistaken ending.” Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, “Theorising ‘The Feminine’: Woman as the Figure of Desire in The Seashell and the Clergyman”, Wide Angle, 6.3 (1984), pp. 34-5. The incorrectly sequenced version of the film is still widely distributed today and care should be taken when purchasing and/or viewing.
- Cited in James C. Robertson, The Hidden Cinema: British Film Censorship in Action, 1913–1972 (London: Routledge, 1989), p. 39.
- Cited in Virmaux, p. 160.
- Flitterman-Lewis, p. 38.
- Steven Kovács, From Enchantment to Rage: The Story of Surrealist Cinema (London: Associated University Press, 1980), p. 164.
- Artaud, p. 21.
- For example, in Artaud’s prose poem, “Paul the Birds or the Place of Love”, Artaud fantasises about his identity merging with that of Paolo Uccello, a Florentine Renaissance painter. In the text, Artaud is disorientated, unclear about where his body ends and where Uccello’s begins: “Paolo Uccello, cast away your tongue, my tongue, my tongue, dammit, who said that, where are you?” Antonin Artaud, Collected Works: Volume One, translated by Victor Corti (London: Calder and Boyars, 1968), p. 52.
- Artaud (1972), p. 23.
- Germaine Dulac, “The Expressive Techniques of the Cinema”, translated by Stuart Liebman, in Richard Abel (Ed.), French Film Theory and Criticism Volume 1: 1907-1939 (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 312.
- Artaud (1972), p. 61.
- Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, “The Image and the Spark: Dulac and Artaud Reviewed”, in Rudolf E. Kuenzli (Ed.), Dada and Surrealist Film (New York: Willis Locker and Owens, 1987), p. 112.
- Artaud (1972), p. 20.
- Ibid, p. 63.
- Flitterman-Lewis (1987), p. 117.
- Virmaux, p. 164.