“The film is so cryptic as to be almost meaningless. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable.” – British Board of Film Censors
Before Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí challenged the world with their one-two punch of Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L'Âge d'Or (1930), there was another film that proved that the worlds of surrealism and the cinema were perfect bed partners. It was a bold, confusing film that makes as much sense now as it did back when it premiered: none. To be sure, there are established characters and a general storyline, but these are quickly forgotten by the audience as the film casts its strangely hypnotic spell. The film in question was the notorious The Seashell and the Clergyman, directed by Germaine Dulac and based off an original scenario by Antonin Artaud, a famous French playwright. When it premiered in Paris on February 9, 1928, it caused a massive uproar and scandal. It was so controversial that it made Artaud insult Dulac at the premier, reportedly calling her a cow.
So how can one describe such a film? Certainly it should not be described chronologically through its narrative, as other films would be. That would be just as effective as giving a plot synopsis of Un Chien Andalou. You might explain what happens on the screen, but the purpose, the method, and the intent would be entirely lost on the reader. So perhaps we should begin with a quote from Artaud himself, “It's a film of pure images. The Seashell and the Clergyman does not tell a story but develops a series of mental states, which are deduced from each other as thought is from thought.”
And what are these mental states? What purpose do they have? Probably the best answer can be drawn from the film’s opening shots. We see a clergyman with a key walking down a dark hallway where he unlocks a door. Through the door is another dark hallway. He walks down it and unlocks another door. Behind it is…another dark hallway with another locked door. While this may seem mindlessly repetitive, it probably is the key to the very nature of the film. The hallways represent our minds and the doors are our inhibitions. The film is the key and the clergyman the director. By watching, we are opening ourselves up to new ways to see and interpret the world.
From here we receive a puzzling sequence of events. The clergyman encounters a soldier and a maiden in a checker-floored room only to chase them off-screen where they appear outside in a park. Why is he pursuing them? The film exposits that the clergyman is obsessed with the woman. But for what? Is he driven by some sexual urge? Maybe. But then again we see scenes where he imagines himself strangling her.
These are intermixed with visions of him traveling on the ocean aboard a Chinese junk to a volcanic island fortress. We then see the inside of a palace where housemaids are dusting a massive scrying ball wherein the clergyman’s face appears. It would seem obvious that the palace itself is inside the volcanic island. But maybe it isn’t. One shouldn’t be surprised if they were simply two juxtaposed images that our minds subconsciously connect with each other.
Other scenes involve an alchemist’s lab where the soldier steals a bowl of mercury, an exorcism where the soldier flails his sword about while the clergyman crawls across the floor, and a street where the clergyman creeps after the girl. Later, he confronts the couple and seemingly transforms into a monster. In a strange point of view shot, he cracks and splits open his rival’s head only for it to repair itself. We then witness the clergyman throwing the soldier into the volcano. Afterwards he rips off the woman’s brassier and the film begins to stretch crazily as if somebody was switching camera lens. And then a shot of the bowl of mercury.
Was it all an illusion? Did it actually happen? The same can be said about the plots of Un Chien Andalou and L'Âge d'Or. Did anything happen at all? Some would say that The Seashell and the Clergyman was nothing but a random succession of images. After all, how many Chinese junks and volcanoes are there in France? But that isn’t the case. Dulac herself wrote, “My entire effort has been to search, in the action of Antonin Artaud's script, for harmonic points, and to link them through well thought out and composed rhythms. I can say that not one image of the Clergyman was delivered by chance.”
So the viewers of The Seashell and the Clergyman are presented with the following: a series of almost incomprehensible images, bizarre characters, and unusual sets that combine to tell a story. What is that story? Is it a tale of a lusty priest? Quite possibly. After all, there was quite an anti-clerical bent in early surrealist cinema (one need only explore the works of Buñuel to know this). But I think that explanation is too easy. I believe that The Seashell and the Clergyman has an agenda for its audience. What that agenda entails is for the audience to figure out. Perhaps the story is meant to make no sense. Perhaps Dulac’s goal was to rework how we think. And just like the opening scenes, the film penetrates our subconscious, going deeper and deeper until we cannot see where we are going.
Part One of Three
Part Two of Three
Part Three of Three