Saturday, May 25, 2019
Germaine Deluac | La Coquille et le clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman)
the shell refuses to sing into the male ear
by Douglas Messerli
Antonin Artaud (scenario), Germaine Dulac (director) La Coquille et le clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman) 1928
Often described as the first Surrealist film, released a year before Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí Un chien andalou, Dulac’s The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928) is also far more radical, both as a kind of feminist diatribe and as a statement of the writer’s and director’s complete dismissal and satire of the church, the military, and almost anything else that reeks of class privilege.
In its jumble and overlays of images it is not always possible to see where this short film is going, but we can easily perceive the evil machinations of the lustful priest dying to get his hands on the wife of a highly-medaled French general. It is hard to know which figure, the hallucinating priest or the self-important military husband are more detestable, but both, it is clear, are not worthy of the beautiful heroine. If the general is buoyed by his pomp and circumstance, the obsessed priest is a lecherous would-be rapist who even attempts, at one point, to kidnap her.
As film critic Jillian Olivier writes:
Throughout the film, we feel the oppressive power of the state and
religion, with the state represented by the general, and religion
represented by, you guessed it, the clergyman. The woman seems
caught between the two, as she’s protected by the general
and accosted by the clergyman. But she’s more than just an object
to protect. In fact, she manages to skirt under the protection of Dulac
as the clergyman attempts to capture her attention and body.
In addition to showing us the deepest desires of the clergyman’s
mind, Dulac manages to empower her female character by allowing
her to avoid the lecherous eyes of the audience, as well as the
clergyman. She does this by not allowing the camera to settle
for very long on the woman’s naked body. When the clergyman
tears her clothing away from her chest, we get a clear view, then
the scene quickly turns out of focus as the woman evades both the
clergyman and the men in the audience.
Evidently, upon its first showing basically misogynistic Surrealist audience, spurned on by Artaud’s own criticism of Dulac’s interpretation of his scenario, caused a minor riot. The British Board of Film Censors later declared: “the film is so cryptic as to be almost meaningless. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable.”
Yet for all that, this work has survived simply through the audacity of its subject and the amazing power of its images—purposely blurred German Expressionist-like depictions of the hallucinated male gaze of the clergyman, sharply split images of one of the villains with a spear of black contorting his face to reveal his monstrousness, momentary nudity, and gestures right out of melodramatic theater of the day. As an openly lesbian director, Duluc threw out almost all the previous conventions, revealing the power of early cinematic works even before the other Surrealists got to it.
Los Angeles, May 25, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (May 2019).