Surrealist cinema

Surrealist cinema is a modernist approach to film theory, criticism, and production with origins in Paris in the 1920s. The movement used shocking, irrational, or absurd imagery and Freudian dream symbolism to challenge the traditional function of art to represent reality. Related to Dada cinema, Surrealist cinema is characterized by juxtapositions, the rejection of dramatic psychology, and a frequent use of shocking imagery. Philippe Soupault and André Breton’s 1920 book collaboration Les Champs Magnétiques[1] is often considered to be the first Surrealist work,[2] but it was only once Breton had completed his Surrealist Manifesto in 1924 that ‘Surrealism drafted itself an official birth certificate.’[3]

Surrealist films of the twenties include Rene Clair's Entr'acte (1924), Fernand Leger's Ballet Mechanique (1924), Jean Renoir's La Fille de L'eau (1924), Marcel Duchamp's Anemic Cinema (1926), Jean Epstein's Fall of the House of Usher (1928) (with Luis Buñuel assisting), Watson and Webber's Fall of the House of Usher (1928)[4] and Germaine Dulac's The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928) (from a screenplay by Antonin Artaud). Other films include Un Chien Andalou and L'Age d'Or by Buñuel and Salvador Dalí; Buñuel went on to direct many more films, never denying his surrealist roots.[5] Ingmar Bergman said "Buñuel nearly always made Buñuel films".[6]


In his 2006 book Surrealism and Cinema, Michael Richardson argues that surrealist works cannot be defined by style or form, but rather as results of the practice of surrealism. Richardson writes: "Within popular conceptions, surrealism is misunderstood in many different ways, some of which contradict others, but all of these misunderstandings are founded in the fact that they seek to reduce surrealism to a style or a thing in itself rather than being prepared to see it as an activity with broadening horizons. Many critics fail to recognize the distinctive qualities that make up the surrealist attitude. They seek something – a theme, a particular type of imagery, certain concepts – they can identify as 'surrealist' in order to provide a criterion of judgement by which a film or artwork can be appraised. The problem is that this goes against the very essence of surrealism, which refuses to be here but is always elsewhere. It is not a thing but a relation between things and therefore needs to be treated as a whole.[7] Surrealists are not concerned with conjuring up some magic world that can be defined as 'surreal'. Their interest is almost exclusively in exploring the conjunctions, the points of contact, between different realms of existence. Surrealism is always about departures rather than arrivals."[7] Rather than a fixed aesthetic, Richardson defines surrealism as "a shifting point of magnetism around which the collective activity of the surrealists revolves."[7]

Surrealism draws upon irrational imagery and the subconscious mind. Surrealists should not, however, be mistaken as whimsical or incapable of logical thought;[8] rather, most Surrealists promote themselves as revolutionaries.[8]


Surrealism was the first literary and artistic movement to become seriously associated with cinema,[9] though it has also been a movement largely neglected by film critics and historians.[10] However, shortlived though its popularity was, it became known for its dream-like quality, juxtaposition of everyday people and objects in irrational forms, and the abstraction of real life, places, and things. Highly influenced by Freudian psychology, surrealism sought to bring the unconscious mind to visual life. "Balanced between symbolism and realism, surrealist cinema commentated on themes of life, death, modernity, politics, religion, and art itself."[11]

The foundations of the movement began in France and coincided with the birth of motion pictures. France served as the birthplace of surrealist cinema because of a fortunate combination of easy access to film equipment, film financing, and a plethora of interested artists and audiences.[11] The Surrealists who participated in the movement were among the first generation to have grown up with film as a part of daily life.[9]

Breton himself, even before the launching of the movement, possessed an avid interest in film: while serving in the First World War, he was stationed in Nantes and, during his spare time, would frequent the movie houses with a superior named Jacques Vaché.[8][12] According to Breton, he and Vaché ignored movie titles and times, preferring to drop in at any given moment and view the films without any foreknowledge.[8][12] When they grew bored, they left and visited the next theater.[8] Breton's movie-going habits supplied him with a stream of images with no constructed order about them. He could juxtapose the images of one film with those of another, and from the experience craft his own interpretation.[8]

Referring to his experiences with Vaché, he once remarked, "I think what we [valued] most in it, to the point of taking no interest in anything else, was its power to disorient."[8] Breton believed that film could help one abstract himself from "real life" whenever he felt like it.[8]

Serials, which often contained cliffhanger effects and hints of "other worldliness," were attractive to early Surrealists.[9] Examples include Houdini's daredevil deeds and the escapades of Musidora and Pearl White in detective stories.[9] What endeared Surrealists most to the genre was its ability to evoke and sustain a sense of mystery and suspense in viewers.[9]

The Surrealists saw in film a medium which nullified reality's boundaries.[13] Film critic René Gardies wrote in 1968, "Now the cinema is, quite naturally, the privileged instrument for derealising (sic) the world. Its technical resources... allied with its photo-magic, provide the alchemical tools for transforming reality."[12]

Surrealist artists were interested in cinema as a medium for expression.[10] As cinema continued to develop in the 1920s, many Surrealists saw in it an opportunity to portray the ridiculous as rational.[10][14] "Surrealist artists realized that the film camera could capture the real world in a dreamlike way that their pens and paintbrushes could not: superimpositions, overexposures, fast-motion, slow-motion, reverse-motion, stop-motion, lens flares, large depth of field, shallow depth of field, and more bizarre camera tricks could transform the original image in front of the lens into something new once exposed on the film plate. For surrealists, film gave them the ability to challenge and mold the boundaries between fantasy and reality, especially with space and time. Like the dreams they wished to bring to life, film had no limits or rules."[11] Cinema provided more convincing illusions than its closest rival, theatre,[10] and the tendency for Surrealists to express themselves through film was a sign of their confidence in the adaptability of cinema to Surrealism's goals and requirements.[8] They were the first to take seriously the resemblance between film's imaginary images and those of dreams and the unconscious.[12][14] Luis Buñuel said, "The film seems to be the involuntary imitation of the dream."[12]

Surrealist filmmakers sought to re-define human awareness of reality by illustrating that the "real" was little more than what was perceived as real; that reality was subject to no limits beyond those mankind imposed upon it.[8] Breton once compared the experience of Surrealist literature to "the point at which the waking state joins sleep."[8] His analogy helps to explain the advantage of cinema over books in facilitating the kind of release Surrealists sought from their daily pressures.[8] The modernity of film was appealing to as well.[12]

Critics have debated whether "Surrealist film" constitutes a distinct genre. Recognition of a cinematographic genre involves the ability to cite many works which share thematic, formal, and stylistic traits.[15] To refer to Surrealism as a genre is to imply that there is repetition of elements and a recognizable, "generic formula" which describes their makeup.[13] Several critics have argued that, due to Surrealism's use of the irrational and on non-sequitur, it is impossible for Surrealist films to constitute a genre.[15]

While there are numerous films which are true expressions of the movement, many other films which have been classified as Surrealist simply contain Surrealist fragments. Rather than "Surrealist film" the more accurate term for such works may be "Surrealism in film."[15]

Surrealist films and filmmakers

Films of the Parisian Surrealist Group

Later films

Joseph Cornell produced surrealist films in the United States in the later 1930s (such as Rose Hobart in 1936). Antonin Artaud, Philippe Soupault, and Robert Desnos wrote screenplays for later films. Salvador Dalí designed a dream sequence for Alfred Hitchcock's film Spellbound (1945). It was one of the first American films to use psychoanalysis as a major element of the story. Hitchcock wanted to capture the vividness of dreams as never before and felt that Dalí was the person to help him do so. Given the importance of the dream sequence, the director gave the artist free rein to bring to the screen an innovative vision of the way dreams could be represented. Jan Švankmajer, a member of the still-active Czech Surrealist Group, continues to direct films. [16]

In 1946, Dalí and Walt Disney began work on a film called Destino; the project was finally finished in 2003.[17]

Works of filmmaker David Lynch, such as Eraserhead (1977)[18], Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001) and Inland Empire (2006) among others, have been considered to be surrealist.[19][20] The films of Spanish writer, playwright, director and member of Breton's Surrealist Group, Fernando Arrabal (I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse), Chilean writer and director Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo,[21] The Holy Mountain), director Stephen Sayadian (Dr. Caligari),[22]

See also


  1. ^ André Breton, Complètes, T. I, ed. Marguerite Bonnet (Œuvres Paris: Gallimard, 1988), 51-105.
  2. ^ Breton, André; Parinaud, André (1993). Conversations: The Autobiography of Surrealism. Translated by Polizzotti, Mark. Paragon House. p. 43. ISBN 978-1-55778-423-0.
  3. ^ As agreed by interviewer and interviewee. Breton and Parinaud, 71
  4. ^ Em Gee Film Library, Catalog 83 (no date) Murray Glass,Editorial assistant Rhoda Friedman
  5. ^ Buñuel, Luis (2003). My Last Sigh. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-0-8166-4387-5.
  6. ^ "Commentary: Bergman on Filmmakers". Bergmanorama. Archived from the original on 2012-11-02.
  7. ^ a b c Richardson, Michael (March 2006). Surrealism and Cinema. Berg Publishers. ISBN 978-1-84520-226-2.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Matthews, John Herbert (1971). Surrealism and Film. University of Michigan Press. ISBN 978-0-608-16941-5.
  9. ^ a b c d e Kovács, Steven (1980). From Enchantment to Rage: The Story of Surrealist Cinema. Fairleigh Dickinson. ISBN 978-0-8386-2140-0.
  10. ^ a b c d Matthews, John Herbert (1971). "Preface". Surrealism and Film. University of Michigan Press. pp. vii–ix. ISBN 978-0-608-16941-5.
  11. ^ a b c Ezzone, Gina Marie (July 21, 2014). "Surrealist Cinema and the Avant-Garde". Facets Features Blog. Facets Features.
  12. ^ a b c d e f Short, Robert (2003). The Age of Gold: Surrealist Cinema. Creation Books. ISBN 978-1-84068-059-1.
  13. ^ a b Gould, Michael (1976). Surrealism and the cinema: (open-eyed screening). A. S. Barnes. ISBN 978-0-498-01498-7.
  14. ^ a b c d e Williams, Linda (1981). Figures of desire: a theory and analysis of surrealist film. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0-252-00878-8.
  15. ^ a b c Moine, Raphaëlle; Taminiaux, Pierre (2006). "Surrealist Cinema to Surrealism in Cinema: Does a Surrealist Genre Exist in Film?". Yale French Studies. 109: 98–114. JSTOR 4149288.
  16. ^ "Spellbound". Salvador Dali Foundation. Archived from the original on 20 Jul 2016. Retrieved 25 May 2019.CS1 maint: Unfit url (link), Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, VEGAP, 2014
  17. ^ Eggener, Keith L (1993). "'An Amusing Lack of Logic': Surrealism and Popular Entertainment". American Art. 7 (4): 31–45. JSTOR 3109152.
  18. ^ Sobczynski, Peter (11 Apr 2016). "Defying Explanation: The Brilliance of David Lynch's "Eraserhead"". Roger Ebert Demanders Archive.
  19. ^ Connelly, Thomas (March 2011). "Twin Peaks: Surrealism, Fandom, Usenet and X-ray Television" (PDF). Culture Critique. Claremont, California: Claremont Graduate University. 2 (1): Preface, 1–28. Archived from the original (PDF) on 10 January 2014. Retrieved 16 November 2012.
  20. ^ Ebert, Roger (June 2001). "Mulholland Drive". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on 2 October 2012. Retrieved 16 November 2012.
  21. ^ "El Topo". BFI Film & TV Database. London: British Film Institute. Archived from the original on July 22, 2013. Retrieved December 30, 2012.
  22. ^ "Dr. Caligari". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 2016-03-05.
Billancourt Studios

Billancourt Studios was a film studio in Paris which operated between 1922 and 1992. Located in Boulogne-Billancourt, it was one of the leading French studios. It was founded in the silent era by Henri Diamant-Berger. During the Second World War the studio was used by Continental Films, a company backed by the German occupiers.

Death in the Garden

La mort en ce jardin ("Death in the Garden") is a 1956 film by director Luis Buñuel based on the novel by José-André Lacour.

Amid a revolution in a South American mining outpost, a band of fugitives—a roguish adventurer (Georges Marchal), a local hooker (Simone Signoret), a priest (Michel Piccoli), an aging diamond miner (Charles Vanel), and the miner's deaf-mute daughter (Michèle Girardon)—are forced to flee for their lives into the jungle. Starving, exhausted, and stripped of their old identities, they wander desperately lured by one deceptive promise of salvation after another. Shot in vibrant Eastmancolor and featuring a star-studded cast, Death in the Garden is an adventure film with Surrealist gestures and symbolism. Additional dialogue was written by Raymond Queneau.

Filmed during the period when Buñuel was rising as a promising figure of surrealist cinema, Death in the Garden proposes a sort of psychological mirror-image of Franco’s Spain from which Buñuel exiled himself, with rebellions and oppressors galore.

Joinville Studios

The Joinville Studios were a film studio in Paris which operated between 1910 and 1987. They were one of the leading French studios, with major companies such as Pathé and Gaumont making films there.

A second studio was added to the original in 1923. This was located less than a kilometre away, and together the two served as a major filmmaking hub.In the early 1930s the American company Paramount Pictures took over the studios and made French-language versions of their hit films. In total films were made in fourteen different languages as Joinville became a hub of such multi-language versions. While many were remakes of English-language hits, some were original stories. This practice declined as dubbing became more commonplace.

List of French films of 1911

A list of films produced in France in 1911.

List of French films of 1912

A list of films produced in France in 1912.

List of French films of 1913

A list of films produced in France in 1913.

List of French films of 1914

A list of films produced in France in 1914.

List of French films of 1915

A list of films produced in France in 1915.

List of French films of 1916

A list of films produced in France in 1916.

List of French films of 1917

A list of films produced in France in 1917.

List of French films of 1918

A list of films produced in France in 1918.

List of French films of 1919

A list of films produced in France in 1919.

List of French films of 1996

A list of films produced in France in 1996.

List of French films of 2005

A list of films produced in France in 2005.

List of French films of 2016

A list of French-produced films scheduled for release in 2016.

Psychedelic film

Psychedelic film is a film genre characterized by the influence of psychedelia and the experiences of psychedelic drugs. Psychedelic films typically contain visual distortion and experimental narratives, often emphasizing psychedelic imagery. They might reference drugs directly, or merely present a distorted reality resembling the effects of psychedelic drugs. Their experimental narratives often purposefully try to distort the viewers' understanding of reality or normality.

Surreal humour

Surreal humour or surreal humor (also known as absurdist humour or surreal comedy) is a form of humour predicated on deliberate violations of causal reasoning, producing events and behaviours that are obviously illogical. Constructions of surreal humour tend to involve bizarre juxtapositions, incongruity, non-sequiturs, irrational or absurd situations and expressions of nonsense.The humour arises from a subversion of audience expectations, so that amusement is founded on unpredictability, separate from a logical analysis of the situation. The humour derived gets its appeal from the ridiculousness and unlikeliness of the situation. The genre has roots in Surrealism in the arts.Surrealism in television follows the theme that "everything seems bizarre, possibly nightmarish, and certainly dream-like."Absurd and surreal humour is concerned with building expectations and proceeding to knock them down. In these acts, even seemingly masterful characters with the highest standards and expectations are subverted by the unexpected or by plans in collision, which the scene emphasizes for our amusement. Similarly, the goofball and/or Stoic character reacts with dull surprise, dignified disdain, boredom and detached interest, thus heightening comic tension. Characters intentions are set up in a series of scenes significantly different from what the audience might ordinarily encounter in daily life. The unique social situations, expressed thoughts, actions and comic lines are used to spark excessive emotion, laughter or surprise as to how the events occurred and/or worked out, in ways sometimes favorable to other unexpectedly introduced characters.

Theatre absurd humour is usually about the insensitivity, paradox, absurdity and cruelty of the modern world. Absurd and surreal cinema often deals with elements of black humour; that is, disturbing or sinister subjects like death, disease, or warfare are treated with amusement and bitterness, creating the appearance of an intention to shock and offend.

Surrealist music

Surrealist music is music which uses unexpected juxtapositions and other surrealist techniques. Discussing Theodor Adorno, Max Paddison (1993, 90) defines surrealist music as that which "juxtaposes its historically devalued fragments in a montage-like manner which enables them to yield up new meanings within a new aesthetic unity," though Lloyd Whitesell says this is Paddison's gloss of the term (Whitesell 2004, 118). Anne LeBaron (2002, 27) cites automatism, including improvisation, and collage as the primary techniques of musical surrealism. According to Whitesell, Paddison quotes Adorno's 1930 essay "Reaktion und Fortschritt" as saying "Insofar as surrealist composing makes use of devalued means, it uses these as devalued means, and wins its form from the 'scandal' produced when the dead suddenly spring up among the living" (Whitesell 2004, 107 and 118n18).

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