Surrealist Cinema

Filmmakers have been trying to push the boundaries of cinema since its inception. Radical experimentation led to the discarding of not only meagre things like the plot and characters, but causality and coherence itself. Enter surrealism: A world where two plus two equals fish. Surrealist movies might seem nonsensical on the surface, but they are nonsensical at the core as well. And yet, they are able to shed light on the deepest aspects of the human psyche, free from the constraints of reality. Surrealism brought together artists with a new vision for art – one as a more direct probe into the human subconscious, evoking emotion through absurd imagery of which nothing could be said. The strange sensations they elicited seemed to suffice.

Spellbound (1945)

Surrealism was the artistic aftermath of World War I. Men came back from the war irreparably damaged, and aware now, of the brutality beneath polite exchanges of respectable society. The need to expose the hypocritical normalcy of people gave rise to a movement that dissected the inner subconscious via art. From paintings to poetry, this novel approach became the obsession of a group of European artists frustrated with the political and social climate that surrounded them. Among these artists were two Spaniards who’d go on to release a twenty-minute silent film in 1929 that would become the scourge of aspiring cinephiles worldwide, for decades to come. They were none other than Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali. You might have heard of the latter for being the poster child of the surrealist movement in art. Bunuel, however, would restrict himself to film and come to be known as the high priest of surrealist film.

Un Chien Andalou was the offspring of two grotesque dreams. One of an eyeball being sliced open, and the other of a wounded hand producing ants. Neither, its directors assured, meant anything. Dreams in surrealist films are a common occurrence, so much so that dream-like is a term often interchangeably used with surreal. The film’s obvious lack of an Andalusian dog, along with the inexplicable inclusion of a transvestite cyclist, two priests tied by a rope, a rape attempt and a hairy armpit, render it one of the most bewildering films in the history of film. Even the actors do not function as human characters, but as a cog in this distorted world, partaking in its absurd goings-on without question.

Un Chien Andalou (1929)

Any logical analysis of this movie would have its creators turning in their graves. It speaks to our primitive understanding of art, that we seek meaning where none is to be found – and for that perhaps, the film acts as a call to revise our expectations of cinema. Well, apart from the greatest edit in all of cinema that takes place during the eye-slitting scene, juxtaposing the eyeball and knife with the moon and a knife-like cloud passing across it. Beyond that, it is difficult to confer the film with any purpose. The imagery of Un Chien Andalou is not only without reason – it’s shocking. It leaves the mind in a state of utter unease with its often nightmarish visuals. It lodges itself in the viewer’s psyche with dream-like images that are arresting for reasons we do not understand.

Although Dali did not stay in the film world for long, Luis Bunuel would go on to have an illustrious career, releasing many more era-defining surrealist masterpieces. If the premise of Un Chien Andalou doesn’t grab you, then his later films might win you over. Many of his later absurd movies aren’t just (brilliant) nonsense, they are known for their commentary. He uses absurdism as ammunition against religious dogmatism and classism and skillfully injects humour into his work.  Nowhere do these all come together so well than in his most commercially successful film, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. A clever, funny, and even sexy satire of, well you guessed it, the bourgeoisie, this movie was released in 1972, a whole 43 years after the avant-garde film that put him on the map. 

The Discreet Charm of The Bourgeoisie (1972)

The plot can be summed up in a sentence: A rich upper-class family tries to have a meal together but seems to get interrupted in the most random of ways. And boy, do they get more and more random as the film goes on. In one instance, the walls around the dining room fall to reveal that they are on stage with an audience, who get angry that the family has forgotten their lines. Sometimes, they are interrupted by terrorists and the military, while other times, they are haunted by literal ghosts. Of course, most of these scenarios turn out to be dreams.

Dreams play a vital role in surrealist cinema. Freud believed dreams to be the royal road to the unconscious. This significance that he bestowed upon dreams became the principle upon which the surrealist movement was founded. Freud theorised that the repressed desires and conflicts of an individual were manifest in her dreams – that the unconscious mind harboured secrets the conscious was too sanctimonious to comprehend. It is no surprise then, that sex and violence are recurring themes in most surrealist art. Abhorred by society and banished by religion, sexual desire is possibly the most repressed of human sensibilities – cast away into a dark corner of the mind, neglected and festering.

In modern times, David Lynch stands as the pinnacle of surrealism. His feature debut, Eraserhead (1977), is considered to be the renaissance of the surrealist movement in modern cinema. Through surrealism, he explores a startling fear of fatherhood using symbolic body horror. In the form of a misshapen baby, the film incites in viewers the exact emotional reaction the protagonist experiences in beholding his offspring – thus elevating the film beyond conventional storytelling to a realm of dreams and subconscious conflict. ‘Lynchian’ is an actual adjective now, for good reason. Many would argue that his 2001 film, Mulholland Drive, is his magnum opus. A movie about movies, Lynch points his camera at the horrific facade of Hollywood and the American dream. The dreamlike atmosphere is always accompanied by an undercurrent of menace. At times a psychosexual drama, at times a horror mystery, it never fails to lose its touch of gallows humour. All of these seamlessly coalesce into a perfect fever dream–or nightmare.

Eraserhead (1977)

When reality no longer serves a piece of art, it becomes essential that the artist frees himself of its limitations. These movies adhere to a fundamental precept of art, to use the artistic medium to elicit an emotion in the viewer, rather than show the emotion to him – taking the concept of ‘show don’t tell’ a whole step further, revealing what is mostly the untapped potential of cinema. These are movies that you do not analyse or debate upon, but that you simply experience. They live in a different realm – a dreamscape of sorts, where the language is surrealism, and sliced eyes and alien babies mean something that they don’t in the land of the living.

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