Fabrica, Brighton, Thurs 17th Sept
From the pulpit, the now accustomed position for addressing Fabrica events, the speaker intoned “we are gathered here today to give way to our surrealist urges”. Of course she went on to repeat the by-now notorious reaction of the British censor to this classic Surrealist film, back in 1928 - “if there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable”. It was the Bill Grundy moment of its day, so absolutely the reaction the movement wanted to evoke that it could surely serve as their epitaph.
Except, as the speaker went on to tell us, the film then did the double and managed to antagonise the Surrealists themselves. Some say Antonin Artaud was himself outraged by director Germaine Dulac's treatment of his script. (Though inevitably enough accounts vary, and Artaud might not meet the strict legal definition of a reliable witness.) Certainly Dali and Bunel's 'Un Chien Andalou' is often cited as the first film in the style, despite being made a year later.
The speaker (whose name has now embarrassingly slipped my ageing brain) went on to suggest, as a woman Dulac had managed to challenge and subvert the standard Surrealist fetish of the female body. As the fantasy writer Angela Carter was later to say of the brethren: “I had to give them up in the end. They were, with a few patronised exceptions, all men and they told me that I was the source of all mystery, beauty, and otherness, because I was a woman – and I knew that was not true. I knew I wanted my fair share of the imagination, too... an equal share in the right to vision.” The idea of a proto-feminist film-maker playing the Surrealists at their own game and winning, succeeding in upending their orthodoxies - its certainly appealing. Yet is it simply too good to be true?
Certainly, the film starts in the tradition of Surrealist orthodoxy. The Clergyman pours wine from a shell into vials, only to repeatedly smash them. The General appears, seizes the shell from him and swords it in two. We are probably on safe ground assuming the dark 'wine' is menstrual blood, a kind of alchemic symbol for the essence of woman. The Soldier interrupts to seize the shell and swords it in two. (The gesture seems to parallel the infamously stomach-turning eye-slitting at the opening of 'Chien Andalou', itself often regarded as a metaphor for penetration.) In short he shows how its done – with violence. The Madonna/whore dichotomy in attitudes to women couldn't be clearer cut.
The film may be best compared not to 'Chien Andalou' but Dali and Bunel's later 'L'Age d'Or' (1930) – and not just in the anti-clericalism. Their film is largely structured around a repressive society keeping the two lovers apart. While Dulac takes the thing the other way up, follows the Clergyman as he endlessly tries to get in on the act between the General and his Wife. When confronted by a Surrealist work, of course you first reach for your Freud. The Clergyman is Freud's Oedipal child, trying to off the Father (represented by the Soldier) to get close to the Mother. When we first see him walk... well in fact he crawls. Hence the scene where he interrupts them (in, inevitably enough, a confessional) and assaults the Father. He's then shown proudly brandishing a key, both a phallic symbol and an unlocker of mysteries.
There may be images which feminise the Clergyman – the tails of his cassock extending like a bridal veil, for example – but this is from a time when childhood and womanhood were associated. So... do we need to reach any further than Freud?
But then what, for example, of the Clergyman's stilted movements? They're not in the least childlike. Check out when he's running, he looks more like a stuffed shirt granted motion. (I won't say “come to life”.) And besides, let's look again at that opening scene. The pouring and smashing is kind of hard to parse. But it seems both a male attempt to contain that essence, and the Clergyman repeatedly attempting to transmute his desire into a kind of religious iconoclasm. And both repeatedly failing, for like a magic object from a folk tale the seashell never empties. The Clergyman doesn't even seem to expect it to empty, he carries on with his ceaseless task in a ritualised fashion.
And the scene where he confronts the General and his wife We're rarely shown two faces in the same shot, and we even see the General's head split – all images of the fractured self, rather than three separate characters. And on ridding himself of the Father, the Clergyman later goes on to undress the Mother. But he's left not with the naked female body he desires, she impossibly grows more clothing and he's left clutching her bra. A notably somewhat seashell-like bra. The title, we should remember, is 'The Seashell and the Clergyman' - suggesting he is chasing not a woman but a symbol, an idealisation.
Ultimately, to break past his mental construction of femininity he must invert the standard male gaze and look inward. The black globe is like some relation to the vials of earlier, which is first polished and treasured by fleets of maids – but then smashed. He sees his own face in the broken pieces, but on bending down picks up the shell. This is the key. It simultaneously takes us back to the opening scene and out of it. To misquote Bakhunin, the destructive urge is not only creative but liberating. With his mental construction of masculinity demolished, he's able to drink directly from the shell. It's definitely a film about the male psyche, in which women only appear insofar as projections of his mind. But perhaps its angle on the male psyche does come from outside...
But then again... I browsed a few analyses of this film through the magic of this interweb business. And, while I can't exactly claim to have been thorough, I found myself dissatisfied with all of them. So I wrote my own and, while I prefer it of the options available, now I find I'm not dissatisfied with that.
But of course that's the point of the thing. The most important word in that quote up top about meanings to be found is “if”. It's like Artaud is the General, Dulac the Mother and us the poor befuddled Clergyman. Like him we try to strip Dulac, rob her of her mysteries. But we manage at most a few tokens. As Artaud said “I never considered this film as the demonstration of any theory whatsoever. It’s a film of pure images. And the meaning must be got from the radiation itself of these images.” To search for an answer in the film, to study it for clues, in many ways seems to mistake its nature.
The alert reader may have noticed I have talked about the film through the introductory speaker more than its soundtrack. Another quick trawl through yonder internet suggests the most common problem when soundtracks are set to this film is that they're too polite, too refined. They tend to, so to speak, use classical instruments classically. Perhaps that's simply a result of ensembles taking it on who “do” silent cinema, with a result akin to the BBC Symphony Orchestra playing 'Purple Haze'.
Thankfully, the duo here didn't use supposedly 'contemporary' instruments, like the film is a period piece. Miles Brown largely performed on theramin. (Which was already in existence by this point, even if no-one ever thinks of it like that.) While Drill Folly contributed found sound, samples and electronics. These throbs, hums and whirs made for a reasonable stab at the sound of the subconscious, conveying the repressions of the Clergyman's troubled psyche. While there doesn't have to be one way to score Surrealist films for today, as I said after Steve Severin's soundtrack to Cocteau's 'Blood of a Poet', music concrete and manipulated sound makes for a pretty good choice – the interchange between the familiar and the strange.
However it generally alternated between 'dark' and 'light' sections – with the 'light' parts more conventionally musical. They were at their worst when, for the ballroom scene, they literally contributed ballroom music. Hardly the thing for a style based around creative juxtapositions and unexpected ruptures! Perhaps they were bound to come off as second best against the really-rather-splendid Partial Facsimile soundtrack to 'Cabinet of Dr Caligari' the previous week.
The mudering-the-Father sequence with, despite all I say above, not so bad a soundtrack...