by Walter Chaw
The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928)
U.S. & Canada: YouTube
La cigarette (The Cigarette) (1919)
U.S. & Canada: YouTube
Germaine Dulac was a filmmaker (and a great one), but that may be the least of what she was. A theorist, photographer, journalist, and critic, her interests were varied, canted towards the experimental and the surreal. As a film programmer, she was elected president of the Federation de cine-clubs and presided over the introduction of at least one certifiable genius, Jean Vigo. Her masterwork, The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928), came out the year prior to Luis Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou, a film that captured the spirit of the age to the exclusion, for a time, of all others. I made the conscious decision to show The Seashell and the Clergyman prior to Buñuel's film so the kids wouldn't be "polluted" by the more well-known piece. I wanted them to know the forgotten one before watching the celebrated one.
I told them that the relationship between the two films reminded me of how Alex Proyas's great Dark City was overshadowed by The Matrix. My wife and I saw a trailer for Dark City in the theatre and were burning with anticipation for it. We bought tickets early in the day, afraid it would sell out in the evening. When we went, we made an evening of it: dinner out, the works. We showed up to find an empty theatre. Just us and a scattering of other confused pilgrims. Dark City remains one of my favourite films. A year later, The Matrix was released. The two, Dark City and The Matrix, should be seen as companion pieces--a diptych offering complementary visions on a particular theme. At the end of the 20th century, that theme concerned what our unfettered technological ambition had wrought in the shadow of Y2K. Circa 1929, the theme Dulac's and Buñuel's pictures shared was...well, that's the question, isn't it?
What is this movie about?
The Seashell and the Clergyman is a phantasmagoria of profane images: bacchanalian formals with couples in formal dress, twirling, kissing, exposing breasts, and stamping as the scene shifts to the kind of God's-eye shots of chessboard floors Hitchcock would resurrect in Notorious. If he did, indeed, borrow the arranging of figures on game boards from Dulac, it seems that Dulac may have first cribbed the glass-floor effect from Hitch's own The Lodger. In any case, the influence of Dulac on Hitchcock merits some interrogation. Later in The Seashell and the Clergyman, a priest runs along a rural road, recalling Roger Thornhill's flight from a crop-duster in North by Northwest.
The kids noted the occasional similarity of shots to things they'd seen in Tim Burton's films. Specifically Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and the Henry Selick-directed The Nightmare Before Christmas. I told them that before Dulac was proclaimed (or, closer to the point, condemned) as a surrealist, she was an Expressionist. I promised we would dive further into Expressionism down the line with Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
The answers to the question of what this film was about ranged broadly. The film's "tale" of a priest and a beautiful woman he seems to covet--to the point of wanting to throttle, ravish, destroy--is as you would expect from a surrealist landmark: obscure and non-expository. Dulac wanted to achieve "pure cinema," to explore the full potential of film as a medium free and distinct from other narrative and visual mediums. She didn't want a filmed stage play or a novel--she wanted something that was only possible as cinema.
What are modern examples of "pure cinema"? Not even entire films (as those are exceedingly rare), but moments in films--sequences that can only work as images and nothing else?
The kids were transfixed by the film. It's only 40 minutes long, but it has ideas enough for a dozen features. My daughter exclaimed towards the end that all the beautiful women in the film were the same beautiful woman, and I said, "Yeah, that maybe is what the movie is about."
Their heads buzzing with pure cinema, we moved into Dulac's short feature, La cigarette--a far more conventionally told narrative along a similar theme, as an old archaeologist, married to a beautiful young bon vivant, becomes jealous of the attentions she allows from a much younger man. The plot, inspired by an ancient tale of a Pharaoh in similar May/October straits killing himself indirectly, sees the archaeologist poisoning one of his cigarettes and mixing it in with his other cigarettes. This way, you see, he doesn't know precisely when he's going to die--only that he eventually will.
I described the film as a comedy to the kids and challenged them to talk about how it was impacting them--like a sommelier describing where the wine hits the tongue.
- How is the notion of random death and male sexual jealousy made to be funny?
- How are these two Dulac films variations on the same theme?
- How are the two approaches different in outcome? In other words, how is the "pure cinema" experiment more "emotionally" impactful? How is it not?
Germaine Dulac is largely forgotten. I mentioned to the kids that the premiere of The Seashell and the Clergyman inspired a riot by a snooty audience and that her reputation was trashed because she allegedly refused to cast in it the movie's scenarist, Antonin Artaud. The truth is that Artaud's shrink recommended against his collaboration in this way because of his "nervous condition." Artaud was a playwright and a major figure at the fore of the avant-garde. He was a darling of the bros rioting at the premiere. With the advent of sound film, Dulac finished her career in the cinema making newsreels.
What are some potential reasons for Germaine Dulac having been popularly forgotten?
Answers from the kids covered ideas about sexism and the unsustainability of non-narrative films ("They're too hard. People don't want hard"). Eventually, they came around to the idea that the invention of sound potentially makes "pure cinema" more difficult. I liked following that thread for a while. My children are both interested in classical music, and my daughter compared The Seashell and the Clergyman to Gyorgy Ligeti's "Le Grand Macabre" opera. "It's hard to listen to," she said, "but it's rewarding if you understand the theory." My son said, "So it's only interesting if you know what he was trying to do?" I brought up the films of Stan Brakhage and the Ezra Pound poem "In a Station of the Metro," where the poem only makes "sense" because of the title.
They both enjoyed La cigarette more than The Seashell and the Clergyman. That much to be expected, I suppose, but they certainly had more to say about the latter. I pointed this out to them and asked:
- How are you enjoying The Seashell and the Clergyman, in the sense of, what is the mechanism of your enjoyment of the film? Would you describe the dissection of it as enjoyment?
- For which film were you more "active"?
- What are different kinds of pleasure provided by a text?
- Can you think of other examples of films that are not "fun" but are "fascinating"?
- Can you think of other art that fits that description?
Sticking to a theme, next time we're covering Luis Buñuel's still-breathtaking Un chien andalou.