On April 15th the BFI inaugurated a new monthly strand 'dedicated to the history of experimental cinema'. Curated in partnership with Kingston University, the strand, entitled 'Essential Experiments', aims to 'trace the development of avant-garde cinema' through a carefully selected programme of screenings featuring introductions from a variety of guest speakers. The first film screened under the 'Essential Experiments' banner was Robert Wiene's 1919 classic, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. As Elisabetta Fabrizi (BFI Head of Exhibitions) explains on the BFI website, the film was chosen for being one of the first masterpieces 'to go beyond cinema's straightforward realism' by 'taking inspiration from the visual arts'. Fabrizi is, of course, absolutely right in her praise of Caligari, which stands up as one of cinema's first great masterpieces. Its painted sets are perhaps still unsurpassed as the ultimate use of expressionist techniques in cinema (few other films have attempted such extreme outright stylisation, and fewer still have succeeded as well). However, as great a film as Caligari is, it's also a film which has – at least up to a point – been widely seen, meaning that it's the second film screened in the strand which really makes things exciting: namely, Germaine Dulac's The Seashell and the Clergyman.
Premiered a full year before the release of Buñuel and Dalí's Un chien andalou, The Seashell and the Clergyman is considered to be the first surrealist film (a somewhat ironic fact, given that a group of surrealists, led by André Breton himself, heckled the film at its 1928 premiere, bringing the projection to a swift halt). While the film might not, in my opinion, have quite the same visceral impact of its more famous cousin, it's an intoxicating watch all the same, and one which incorporates many of the traits which would become standard tenets of surrealist cinema (a juxtaposition of seemingly random images which attack rational understanding, a focus on sexual desire, events strung together with a dream-like, subconscious logic).
The film was written and storyboarded by the writer, poet, actor, theorist and theatre director Antonin Artaud. Artaud's theories of cinema called for a displacement and disruption of reality in favour of raw images torn away from traditional representation, thereby forcing the viewer's senses into a violent reaction: the idea was to reproduce in the viewer the impact of a dream. Perhaps confusingly, Artaud would later accuse Dulac of having stifled his vision by imposing a dream-like logic onto the film. Artaud's intention, therefore, was not to recreate a dream-like experience, but to create an experience which would reproduce the physical, neurological impact of a dream on its spectators.
Judged from this angle, Artaud was right to view the film as a failure. However, Artaud's theories are lofty and his dismissal too quick. Dulac's own theories of a 'pure' visual cinema free from the influence of other art forms and, more importantly, her belief that cinema should present and explore the inner lives of its characters, render the film an effective and arresting piece of interior cinema, bending and jumping its way along the contours of the human subconscious in proto-surrealist fashion.
Upon its release, the film was banned by the BBFC with the bizarre statement that 'The film is so cryptic as to be almost meaningless. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable'. What's even more bizarre, though, is that upon seeing the film it's hard not to agree with them! Ostensibly a tale of the Clergyman's love and sexual desire for 'the woman', the film deliberately resists narrative cohesion and a simple decoding of its symbolism (the fact that the film's reels were projected in the wrong order upon its American release without anyone noticing speaks volumes). And yet, it's impossible not to read the film as some kind anti-clerical gesture, a comment upon the underlying desires masked behind the veil of common Catholicism. The Clergyman is sinister, violent and lustful in his dogmatic pursuit of the Woman, and Artaud's other work (such as the radio play To Have Done with the Judgement of God) makes his anti-religious stance clear. However, it would be reductionist to place any one meaning on a film of this kind: other themes come crashing out – like those of identity and the anxiety of usurpation (for it is the Officer who hears the Woman's confession, not the Clergyman) – while its hallucinatory play with the grammar of filmmaking prioritises the act of subjective viewer experience.
Indeed, on a formal stylistic level the film can be seen as a prelude to Dulac's final abstract films, which avoid narrative in favour of stressing the art of movement, or, as she put it, 'visual music'. One of these films, Étude cinégraphique sur une arabesque, was screened along with The Seashell and proved itself to be a hypnotic, rhythmic exploration of movement, texture and pattern.
The print of The Seashell shown was from the 2004 restoration of the film, and it was screened without any musical accompaniment, as per Dulac's wishes. The screening was given an extended introduction by the filmmaker and historian Prosper Hillairet, in which he discussed the life and work of Dulac and Artaud, their troubled relationship, the context in which the film was made, and of course the film itself. He also screened the short documentary Uproar in the Ursulines, about the commotion caused by the surrealists at the film's premiere.
The Essential Experiments strand is set to continue with such films as Man with a Movie Camera and L'inhumaine, and promises to be an ongoing strand of two slots per month. Based on the strength of its opening films, it looks like the use of the word 'essential' in its title isn't an exaggeration.