University of Swansea
academic year 2013/2014
Surrealism is an artistic and literary movement which was officially born in France in 1924, with an opera of André Breton when he published Manifested surréaliste. Its maximum expansion was between the First and the Second World War. In his opera, André Breton defined Surrealism as
[a] pure automatism which makes you express, both verbally and in any other way, the real function of thoughts, without any kind of control from reason and far away from moral or aesthetic concern.’ It’s an evolution of Dadaism but it’s not the same. Dadaism has as an important scope to eliminate all the ‘artistic restrictions,
surrealism instead tries to invert the idea; it attributes a role which comes from our interiority, but without trying to ‘combat’ any restriction [Carboni 2010]. Surrealism wants to transform reality, but doesn’t wasn’t to deny it. [Morante 2010] Important elements of the surrealist thought is the reconsideration of the irrational part of human creativity and the will to express, using art, everything what comes out directly from our subconscious. Without all limits of human logic and restrictions imposed by society, there will be a complete freedom of expression which liberates our mind and stimulated our creativity. According to Breton, Surrealism is a kind of ‘absolute reality’, where two levels of wake (reason) and dream (unconscious) can find a superior conciliation. Dream is the production of images during sleep and is characterised by perceptions, images and emotions which appear illogic. Surrealism depends upon the believability of most key elements in the frame to highlight the element that doesn't quite fit into the picture [Goto 1998].
Dalì participated to Surrealism only from 1929, but he remained faithful to his principles for his whole life, even after his separation from the group. The magic poetics, the power of illusion, the possibility to transform reality in such an intemperate product of the own imagination, was what attracted Dalì. In cinema, he said: Surrealism becomes reality. Dalì’s first collaboration with Buñuel was Un Chien Andalou, where this essays it about. Buñuel was one of the most important actors and film directors of the XX century. In this way they opened the door to surrealism in Paris.
The development of the film is not chronologic: in the form the film was presented and how we see it now, despite the sequence of manipulations, e time-related sequence is almost impossible during the projection of the film, and it’s still difficult even after the film projection has terminated. You have a sense of disorientation, produced by a constantly interrupted storytelling: once it has started, it stops again, and it dissolves every causal connection, destabilizing this connection almost immediately once we think that we found a logic sequence in the strange actions that we see. Maybe the film directors wanted this kind of discontinuity. However, it is not only the missing chronologic subsequence which makes it difficult to tell about the film, from a special point of view, ambiguity pervades every single scene. It is hard to rethink the film due to its fragmentariness, its variety of tone and message, the dominating uncertainty and the sudden changes of directions in the actions and places. It looks like that to the film directions the story of the specific personality of the characters, only to impress who is watching: every interpretation can be different. In reality there are a lot of significant contents, which had been object for studies for a long time in psychoanalysis.
The starting scene in the film appears to be terrifying and shocking for the spectator: a man shapes a razor, goes to the sitting woman and with the razor he splits her eye horizontally in two parts. Of course this was a montage art: in reality they used the eye of a dead cow.
In the following scene the woman attends her love, but there are coming ants out of his hand. A moment later a woman with androgyne looks is touching an amputated hand on the ground. A man takes the hand from the floor and put it in a box. He gives the box to her.
In the scene after, a man and a woman are in a room. The man, who is caught by a sort of sexual raptus, tries to approach her, but she refuses and beats him away. But he insists and touches her breast. She rejects him again and hits him with a sort of bundle. But he keeps on following her, when she runs away from him, at a certain moment you see saliva coming down from his mouth. He becomes almost animalistic.
The last scene is demoralizing: the main characters are buried in the sand till their elbows, and despite they are close, and they can’t touch each other, or they are dead.Our imagination, and our dreams, is forever invading our memories; and since we are all apt to believe in the reality of our fantasies, we end up transforming our lies into truths. Luis Buñuel – (2010:43).What is exactly a surrealist film? As Elza Adamowicz states in Chien Andalou: French Film Guide (2010:28):
It could equally well be considered a dada film for its non-narrative elements, disjunctive images, playful montage and irreverential parodies. Alternately – apart from the prologue which could be bracketed off as a dream or fantasy sequence – it could be considered as a realistic film (contrasting with the abstraction of avantgarde cinema).
When at the beginning of the film the cyclist falls off his bike, the woman is looking out of the window onto the street and she sees him, at the same height. When she watches again, she seems to live at the 4th floor of a building because she’s looking from above. In another scene, when the main character shoots at his doppelgänger, he falls down, and the shooting scene starts in the same room. But then, whilst he is falling on the ground, the room becomes a park or a meadow, and the same woman as before appears while she is sitting back. As he falls down, she disappears. Many people run to him and they take him away. You might think it is a flashback, but the scene doesn’t turn as before.
There are some temporal and spatial sequences witch are not consistent. You see for example ‘sixteen years ago’, ‘this spring’, but the actions presented by the actions look like a continuation of as the ones in the previous scenes. Even the actors appear exactly the same and the place where they are (for example the room). The window of the room gives first on a balcony, and later on a quiet street and the third time on a crowded street. Every object present in the room changes various times, for example the carriage with the dead beast and the object that looks like a piano. The door of that room, leads first to another room which seems to be the same one. But at the end of the film, when she waves to the other male protagonist, the same door leads directly to the beach. He’s at the beach, and she sees him but in front of her own door. So the crowded street has disappeared again.
You have the feeling to get lost all the time because there is no spatial coherence. As E. Adamowicz states (2010:35): continuity of action is sometimes matched with spatial discontinuity, to undermine realism and to destabilize fixed spatial references. For Breton ‘what we most value in cinema, to the point of taking no interest in anything else, was the power to disorient.’ (Hammong, 2010:73 in Adamowicz 2010:42) Disorientation, which is considered the point of departure in everyday reality and its point of arrival in the surreal – was considered a fundamental surrealist principle (2010:42).
Bunuel himself states: to produce in the spectator a state which could permit the free association of ideas, it was necessary to produce a near traumatic shock at the very beginning; hence we began it with a shot of an eye being very efficiently cut open’. The spectator enters into the cathartic state necessary to accept the subsequent events of the film. (Aranda, 1975:67, in French film guide, (2010:43). Looking at the first scene, there are many different ways to interpret the following scene: a man of a balcony, he is shaping a razor, he tries its sharpness on his own fingernail, the man moves the razor towards the woman’s eye, you see the moon again with a few clouds passing, then de man goes again to the woman, spits the woman’s left eye in two parts. In the past it has been interpreted as a sexual image, a scene of death, a scene of masculine control, castration, viewing the world in 2 different ways, looking with one eye spit in two.
In Notes on the making of Un chien andalou (1947), Buñuel claims that ‘NOTHING, in the film, SYMBOLIZES ANYTHING’, and that the film images remain enigmatic to viewers and viewers (Mellen 1978:53 /2010:44).
Even considering this statement, a lot of different interpretations have been made in order to conceptualize the different characters in the film, the way they act and the different images apparently without any logical subsequence. For example, it’s not important in the film to know who the protagonists are, what their name is, you only their relationships manifested by their actions.
Bunuel maintains that cinema is the best way to express dreams:
‘Because of the way it works, the mechanism for producing film images is, of all the means of human expression, the one that is most like the mind of man or, better still, the one which best imitates the functioning of the mind while dreaming. […] [A]s in the dream, the images appear and disappear by means of dissolves or fades-in and -out; time and space become flexible, contract and stretch at will, chronological order and relative values of duration no longer correspond to reality.’ (Hammond 2000:114 in Adamowicz, 2010:48).
The absence of logic in narration in a film is how dreams are.
Readings that decode a text in accordance with how it was encoded, is a dominant reading. On the other side we have oppositional readings, which, as the words says, is in opposition of the assumptions in the text. Negotiated reading is which lies a bit in the middle of the two extreme readings (Benhoff-Griffin 2004). The problem with A Chien Andalou is that you don’t know what the meant reading is, so you don’t know how to interpret. There are a lot of different interpretations with any of them explanations, but it’s hard to define which one is the dominant one. This is an important aspect of surrealism.
What is Surrealism in this film? The unreality, the disconnection between logical and reason and illogic and perception, expressed in arts and cinema, come alive in Surrealism. The film had a revolutionary aim as well: it wanted to alter or even destroy oppressive ‘rules’ and institution such as marriage, politics, religion, Church. Surrealism was to transform the world by free expressions of dreams coming from the subconscious, which was further developed after Freud, in daily life would have no space.
In content I believe that the unclear relationships between the main protagonists are important to define the movement, spectators are not aware of the characters in the film and the role in the film they play, lack of ability of interpretation, it might be thought that the right consequence of actions and their logic have been found, until the following scene witch almost immediately disproves it. Even this is difficult to state as many analyses have been carried out with different interpretations of the sequence of the happenings.
ADAMOWICZ, Elza (2010), Chien Andalou: French Film Guide, Adamowicz, Elza, I.B. Tauris: London,
BENHOFF, Harry M., GRIFFIN, Sean (2004) America on film, representing race, class, gender and sexualities at the movies, Wiley-Blackwell:
- CARBONI, Alessandro (2010), Qu'est-ce que le surréalisme?, < http://www.surrealismo.it >
- GOTO, Taro (1998), Reality and Paradox in Un Chien Andalou, < http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/MRC/bunuel6.html >
- MORANTE, Francesco (2010), Surrealismo. Il tema del sogno e dell'incoscio, < http://www.francescomorante.it/pag_3/313.html >
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