Provocation / Evocation
By Dylan Brennan.
February 9, 1928 at the Studio des Ursulines: the story of Antonin Artaud’s disagreement with Germaine Dulac over her treatment of his screenplay for La Coquille et le Clergyman is as well known as it is mired in confusion. What seems certain is that the brouhaha that disrupted this public screening was instigated by the Surrealists and that the epithets directed at Dulac (probably by Breton) were misogynist in nature — ‘cunt’ or ‘cow’, depending on whose account you believe. Is it true that one or two of the Surrealists mistakenly believed they were there to abuse Artaud? Is it true that Artaud himself took no part in the ruckus, preferring to sit quietly alongside his mother and admire the spectacle (that he may or may not have orchestrated) from a safe distance? Who knows. What is certain is that Artaud had a bone or two to pick with Dulac and the tension that had been simmering since his exclusion from the film’s production came to a head in a most unseemly manner. La Coquille et le Clergyman, despite arguably constituting the first Surrealist film, was almost totally eclipsed the following year by Un Chien andalou. The reasons for this are inextricably linked to Artaud’s concerns about Dulac’s treatment of his scenario. But what exactly did Artaud see in Dulac’s film that angered him so? This short essay addresses Artaud’s concerns about the film with reference to his theories on the nature of theatre, cinema and reality before examining the way in which Artaud’s criticism of the film inspired the Buñuel/Dalí collaboration.
Whether the first audience members to see L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat were really so gripped with panic that they ran screaming for their lives is improbable. What does seems certain, however, is that, the spectators were, indeed, astonished by the dramatic spectacle that they had witnessed. That is how cinema began its life, as spectacle — an instrument of magic and wonder whose natural home was clearly the fairground. Tom Gunning believes that the interest shown in cinema by, among others, the Surrealists, was directly connected to the vaudeville roots of cinema. He notes how ‘it was precisely the exhibitionist quality of turn-of-the-century popular art that made it attractive to the avant-garde—its freedom from the creation of a diegisis, its accent on direct stimulation.’ Direct stimulation. Direct stimulation. One cannot help but agree with Gunning in the context of Artaud’s aims for both Theatre and Cinema. In 2010, at the Dublin International Film Festival, a special screening of The Tingler (1958) was presented at the Irish Film Institute. Here is an excerpt from the accompanying programme notes:
In order to further frighten audiences, director William Castle had certain theatre seats rigged with small army surplus devices that would deliver a mild electric shock to the spine in hopes of inducing terrified screams! Castle also planted audience members who would scream and faint. The house lights would go up, the film would stop and ushers would carry the unconscious person out of the theatre!
Electric shocks, spectators terrified by ‘actors’ in the audience, confusion and hysteria; is this the kind of cinema that Artaud would have relished? It is tempting to suggest, notwithstanding his own traumatic experience of electroshock treatment in the latter stages of his life, that making the audience jolt and scream in terror would have seemed like the perfect realisation of his artistic goals. He yearned for active audience participation and what better way than to subject spectators to this kind of direct stimulation? In relation to his theory of Theatre of Cruelty, Artaud makes explicit reference to the direct involvement of the spectator who ‘must be totally convinced that we are capable of making him scream’. His views on cinema do not seem to differ hugely as he seems to yearn for a cinema that can produce not only psychological but physiological affects on the spectator: ‘cinema creates situations that arise from the mere collision of objects, forms, repulsions, attractions.’ Now, how was La Coquille et le Clergyman to achieve Artaud’s goals of repulsion and attraction, jolting and discombobulation? The answer lies, as is so often the case when dealing with those related to the Surrealist movement, in dreams.
Artaud was initially infuriated by Dulac’s early decision to use the tagline ‘A dream by Antonin Artaud’ and therein lies the tricky, yet crucial, difference between Artaud’s vision and that of Dulac. Artaud wished to recreate the feeling of being in a dream. In other words, to produce the same kind of confusion and surprise that a dreamer feels when confronted with seemingly nonsensical images drawn from somewhere deep within their own psyche. When it came to cinema, Artaud was interested in what Sandy Flitterman-Lewis refers to as the ‘principles of displacement and dissociative juxtaposition’. While a detailed analysis of the points of difference between Artaud’s original treatment and the final, filmed version, falls outside the scope of this essay, one example will suffice to illustrate the way in which Artaud’s ideas of a fractured, discomfiting cinematic experience mutated into something smoother and more oneiric in the hands of Dulac. Throughout the film Dulac chooses to show transitions with slow dissolves that prepare the spectator for what is to come. Frequent slow-motion scenes embody the trancelike atmosphere that she evokes. At one point Artaud, in his written scenario, demands that once the large seashell has been smashed the scene should cut directly to the priest crawling through the streets. Dulac, presumably wary of unsettling the spectator through such visual unwieldiness, shows the priest getting down on all fours and beginning to crawl. In this way, when the scene cuts to the priest crawling through the streets of Paris, the spectator, though unable to make any real sense of proceedings, understands the visual logic of the transition. This is a problem for Artaud who, in his essay ‘Cinema and Reality’, laments the fact that:
We have yet to achieve a film with purely visual situations whose drama would come from a shock designed for the eyes, a shock drawn, so to speak, from the very substance of our vision and not from psychological circumlocutions of a discursive nature which are merely the visual equivalent of a text.
The discontinuity editing that a rigid adherence to Artaud’s script prescribed may have provided the shock for the eyes that he wanted. Dulac’s decision to soften the jagged edges of Artaud’s vision, though resulting more visually palatable for the spectator, furthers the suggestion that she was in the business of showing something that was dreamlike instead of placing the spectator within the dream. Artaud sees a direct correlation between dreams and pain stating, at a conference he gave in Mexico City in 1936, that he ‘did not know how many of us Surrealists have felt that in our dreams we were carrying out some kind of group injury, a life injury’. It seems that some of that pain he wished to inflict upon the audience was to come within the dream he had prepared for them via the willful rupture of their perceived narrative.
The other great problem that Artaud had with Dulac’s film is closely related to an issue that would dominate feminist theories of cinema for decades — the male gaze. Artaud felt that Dulac had feminised his vision and it is, perhaps, this accusation that most enraged the male dominated circle of Surrealists in Paris. Clearly Oedipal in nature, La Coquille et le Clergyman is chiefly concerned with two men (one young, one old) and their lusty pursuit of an attractive young woman. Unsuccessful strangulations and menacing body language abound — throughout the film their desire is tied up with intimations and manifestations of physical violence. However, Dulac, though not managing to fully subvert the male gaze, does manage to expose its inherit misogyny. Artaud’s accusation is a reasonable one for, though Dulac’s treatment of Artaud’s script is, for the most part, faithful, she does make some important changes. The ballroom scene is the most obvious example of the way in which Dulac manages to both remain faithful to Artaud’s ‘plot’ while, at the same time, exposing the problematic nature of the male gaze. Artaud outlines a scene in which the women in the ballroom wear ‘short dresses, short hair, flaunt their legs and stick out their busts.’ In the corresponding scene, as filmed by Dulac, there is a lot of dancing but no flaunting of busts or legs. There is, however, a short scene of one of the male dancers staring hypnotically at his partner’s un-flaunted chest. In this way, Dulac exposes the lustful nature of the male character’s gaze. The female dancer has done nothing to ‘deserve’ the inordinate attention that her breasts receive and, by extension, Dulac exonerates the female characters from the ‘crime’ of public displays of sexuality. By this subtle change in Artaud’s original vision, Dulac manages to implicate the male characters throughout the film. When violence occurs, it is the fault of the male characters for the inherent aggression of their lust and not because of female characters sexualising themselves for the titillation of male characters and, of course, by extension, male spectators.
None of the above is to suggest that Dulac mangled La Coquille et le Clergyman beyond recognition or that it is not an engaging film. On the contrary, it is both a groundbreaking piece of work while remaining mostly faithful to Artaud’s ideas. Perhaps Wendy Dozoretz describes it best when she calls it ‘the unique product of two incongruous minds’. One thing is certain though — La Coquille et le Clergyman cannot be considered as a perfect realisation of Artaud’s vision on screen. This, it can be argued, is not necessarily a bad thing. That, however, is a discussion for another day. What is of interest here is the way in which Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí set about ‘righting the wrongs’, as they perceived them, in the making of their much more successful and, to this day, hugely influential film Un Chien andalou. With its irreverent depiction of the clergy and its theme of thwarted lust, Un Chien andalou is highly influenced by the Artaud/Dulac film. Nevertheless, the latter film served to consolidate Buñuel and Dalí’s membership of the Surrealists while, Artaud became marginalised and Dulac was subjected to the stupid abuse mentioned in the introductory chapter to this essay. How did this occur? In the case of Dulac, her treatment can sadly be explained by the misogynist nature of most artistic movements of the times and, in the case of Artaud, no group that allied itself closely to politics was ever likely to hold on to him for long. Now, with reference to the way in which Un Chien andalou eclipsed La Coquille et le Clergyman, the first thing that Buñuel and Dalí needed to do was to gain the support of Breton. They invited him to a private screening and explained how their film was essentially a Surrealist film. Breton was won over and their places within official Surrealism were assured. It seemed that the makers of Un Chien andalou took on board the criticism that Artaud and the Surrealists had directed at Dulac and set about distancing themselves from the derogatory accusations to which she was subjected. Once Breton was on board, it was essential to clear up any doubt about relationship between Un Chien andalou and the world of dreams. Buñuel famously echoed Artaud’s declaration about his own film, stating that the plot of Un Chien andalou ‘does not attempt to recount a dream, although it profits by a mechanism analogous to that of dreams.’ In other words the film was not the manifestation of a dream narrative but an attempt to recreate the effects of a dream. The discontinuity editing of Un Chien andalou differs to the watery dissolves implemented by Dulac and the latter film maintains a dizzy pace throughout. In this way, the spectator is subjected to something more akin to the jolting and disconcerting transitions that Artaud would have preferred in his film. Finally, Un Chien andalou, ramps up the eroticism and the sexualisation of the female protagonist. While, in La Coquille et le Clergyman, a carapace materialises upon the chest of the woman and, thus, prevents the continued fondling of her breasts, in Un Chien andalou, despite resisting for a while, the female character finally submits and allows the man to fondle her breasts and buttocks while he (and, presumably, the spectator) drools to his heart’s content. The film ends with a scene of a man and a woman walking happily along a beach and unwittingly sets up the boy-meets-girl-who-resists-but-ultimately-submits-and-lives-happily-ever-after trajectory of much of popular cinema that followed in decades to come.
If Dulac had followed Artaud’s instructions to the letter, or, if Artaud had directed the film, as he originally intended, insisting upon the disconcerting editing, rapid montage and sexualisation of the female characters, perhaps we would have had no need for Un Chien andalou. Instead, thanks to Dulac’s decision to follow Artaud’s outline, while providing her own flourishes, we are left with two fascinating pieces of cinematic heritage. Flitterman-Lewis beautifully describes Germaine Dulac as a director that was ‘less interested in provocation than in evocation.’ The opposite could be said about Antonin Artaud. There is a perceptible tension caused between Artaud’s desire to provoke the spectator with his jarring ideational shifts and Dulac’s desire to evoke the etherised movements of a dreamworld. It is a tension that resulted in that rowdy outburst at the Studio des Ursulines. It is a tension that also resulted in one of the most beguiling films in the history of cinema.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dylan Brennan’s poetry and prose have been published in a range of Irish and international journals, in English and Spanish. Atoll, a mini collection of poetry, will soon be available as a free download from Smithereens Press and his first full collection, Blood Oranges, will be published in late 2014 by The Penny Dreadful Press. He has been shortlisted for the Fish Short Memoir Prize and has taken part in the Poetry Ireland Introductions Series. In 2015, his co-edited volume of essays on the work of Juan Rulfo will be published by Legenda. He lives and works in Mexico.