The First Surrealist Film The Seashell and the Clergyman, Brought to You By Germaine Dulac & Antonin Artaud (1928)

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 AndalouThe 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 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Antonin Artaud’s Cen­sored, Nev­er-Aired Radio Play: To Have Done With The Judg­ment of God (1947)

Restored Ver­sion of Un Chien Andalou: Luis Buñuel & Sal­vador Dalí’s Sur­re­al Film (1929)

The 10 Favorite Films of Avant-Garde Sur­re­al­ist Film­mak­er Luis Buñuel (Includ­ing His Own Col­lab­o­ra­tion with Sal­vador Dalí)

The Great Train Rob­bery: Where West­erns Began

A Trip to the Moon: Where Sci Fi Movies Began

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 Cin­e­maand the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future? Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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