Germaine Dulac vs. Luis Buñuel & Salvador Dali — The Origin of Surrealist Cinema
Un Chien Andalou (1929) by Buñuel & Dali is considered to be the first surrealist film and — if you check the wikipedia entry — was analysed by a vast number of influential film critics. Ken Dancyger has argued that Un Chien Andalou might be the genesis of the filmmaking style present in the modern music video. Rogert Ebert called it the inspiration for low budget independent films.
But is it the first surreal film?
While researching early female filmmakers I came across Germaine Dulac (1882–1942), a French filmmaker, film theorist, journalist and critic. I found that her radical style was possibly best summarised by Charles Ford in 1968, who called attention to the difficulty the French Press had with printing her obituary after her death in 1942: “Bothered by Dulac’s non-conformist ideas, disturbed by her impure origins, the censors had refused the article which, only after vigorous protest by the editor-in-chief of the magazine, appeared three weeks late. Even dead, Germaine Dulac still seemed dangerous…”
Dulac was first and foremost considered an impressionist filmmaker. One of her most notable films is La Souriante Madame Beudet (The Smiling Madame Beudet).
The film tells the story of an intelligent woman trapped in a loveless marriage. The plot, in my opinion, is secondary: Monsieur Beudet frequently repeats a practical joke, in which he puts his empty revolver to his head. One day, Madame Beudet, after an argument with her husband, puts a bullet in the gun, hoping he will accidentally kill himself. After a sleepless night and stricken with remorse, she tries to retrieve the bullet, but her husband gets to it first. Thinking it’s empty as always, he points the revolver at her and shoots. The bullet misses, he then embraces her and says “How could I live without you?”
Way more important than the plot is the impressionist treatment of the film, which creates a new and in this case very feminist dynamic of human perception. Holly Weaver writes “Through the use of close-ups, mental images, and superimpositions, Dulac allows us to delve into the psyche of her protagonist as she fantasises about other men and being rid of her husband. [..] a woman-led exploration of a woman’s psyche can provide an intimate portrayal of how the struggles we face run much deeper than what appears on the surface, as Dulac demonstrates so perfectly in her masterpiece.”
The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928)
Another of Dulac’s most notable films is La Coquille et le Clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman), released in 1928. The film follows the erotic hallucinations of a priest lusting after the wife of a general. The film is a surrealist experiment, a lot of the foundations Dulac laid out in her work can be found in Un Chien Andalou. Compare for yourself:
Reception of Both Films
Interestingly enough, the films were perceived differently. Even though I personally would argue that Dulac’s La Coquille et le Clergyman follows more of a narrative than Un Chien Andalou, the British Board of Film Censors famously reported that La Coquille et le Clergyman was “so cryptic as to be almost meaningless. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable”. On its premiere, the surrealists greeted it with noisy derision, calling Dulac “une vache” (a cow).
The premiere of Un Chien Andalou one year later however, was perceived very positively, leading to the film being screened for 8 months in a row. Director Buñuel stated later “What can I do about the people who adore all that is new, even when it goes against their deepest convictions, or about the insincere, corrupt press, and the inane herd that saw beauty or poetry in something which was basically no more than a desperate impassioned call for murder?”
With the slowly growing interest in female filmmakers today however, there are positive mentions of Dulac’s groundbreaking work to be found. The BFI states:
“Germaine Dulac was involved in the avant garde in Paris in the 1920s. Both The Smiling Madame Beudet (1922) and The Seashell and the Clergyman are important early examples of radical experimental feminist filmmaking, and provide an antidote to the art made by the surrealist brotherhood. The latter film, an interpretation of Anton Artaud’s book of the same name, is a visually imaginative critique of patriarchy — state and church — and of male sexuality.”
The Female Gaze, Alicia Malone (Holly Weaver on La Souriante Madame Beudet)