When the subject of early surrealist film arises, most of us think of Salvador Dalí and Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, and not without good cause: even 86 years after its release, its nightmare images of piano-dragging and eyeball-slicing still lurk in our collective cinematic consciousness. But we can't call it the very first surrealist film since, 87 years ago, French critic and filmmaker Germaine Dulac, in collaboration with no less an avant-garde luminary than Antonin Artaud, put out La Coquille et le clergyman, better know internationally as The Seashell and the Clergyman, which you can watch free above.
Un Chien Andalou met with a pleased reception, to Buñuel’s delight and Dalí's disappointment. Dulac and Artaud's project provoked a different reaction. "Advertised as 'a dream on the screen,'" writes Senses of Cinema's Maryann de Julio, "The Seashell and Clergyman’s premiere at the Studio des Ursulines on February 9, 1928 incited a small riot, and critical response to the film has ranged from the misinformed – some American prints spliced the reels in the wrong order – to the rapturous – acclaimed as the first example of a Surrealist film."
The film takes place in the consciousness of the titular clergyman, a lusty priest who thinks all manner of impure thoughts about a general's wife. In another Senses of Cinema article on Artaud's film theory, Lee Jamieson writes that, in putting this troubled consciousness on film, it "penetrates the skin of material reality and plunges the viewer into an unstable landscape where the image cannot be trusted," resulting in "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." It capitalizes, in other words, upon the now well-known principle that what is seen cannot be unseen.
But it also pushed cinema ahead in a way that Buñuel and Dali could run with the following year. De Julio's article quotes Artaud's own description of the challenge he saw the form as facing, and the one which The Seashell and the Clergyman attempts, in its way, to address: it could either become "pure or absolute cinema" or "this sort of hybrid visual art that persists in translating into images, more or less apt, psychological situations that would be perfectly at home on stage or in the pages of a book, but not on the screen." He saw neither of these as "likely the true one," and many filmmakers even today (David Lynch stands as a guiding light among those now living) continue the search for how best to tell stories on film in a manner suited to the advantages of film.
Even overshadowed by Un Chien Andalou, The Seashell and the Clergyman remains a popular silent film to re-score today, and you can watch the movie with a few different soundtracks online: from dark ambient artist Roto Visage, from musique concrète composer Delia Derbyshire (see right above), from large-scale experimental band Sons of Noel and Adrian, and many more besides.
The Seashell and the Clergyman has been added to our collection of Silent Films, a subset of our meta list 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes elsewhere on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, and the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future? Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.