Artaud’s scenario for The Seashell and the Clergyman set the groundwork for subsequent surrealist film initiatives and was the first to develop many of the æsthetic principles typical of the movement. Reportedly, Buñuel had seen Artaud and Dulac’s film whilst preparing for Un Chien Andalou and, interestingly, both films share similar cinematic devices. Both films employ disruptive temporal structures that unfold with the fabric of a dream and incorporate visual shocks designed to impact viscerally upon the viewer. In this respect, the purpose of the infamous eye-slitting in Un Chien Andalou is comparable with the exposure of the woman’s breasts in The Seashell and the Clergyman. Four years later, Artaud accused Buñuel and Dalí of stealing cinematic devices from his own film :
The Shell was indeed the first movie of its kind, a forerunner […] In all fairness, the critics, if there are any left around, should recognize the relationship of all these films and say that they all descend from The Shell and the Clergyman, but without the espirit of The Shell, which they all failed to recapture.
Behind Artaud’s conspiratorial tone, there is a truth: namely, that Un Chien Andalou and The Seashell and the Clergyman share a lineage. Although both films employ the techniques that characterise our understanding of surrealist cinema, Artaud’s vision predates Buñuel’s. Yet, Artaud’s importance has been sadly undervalued, especially considering that it was his ideas that became iconic of all subsequent surrealist cinema. The Seashell and the Clergyman penetrates the skin of material reality and plunges the viewer into an unstable landscape where the image cannot be trusted. Remarkably, Artaud not only subverts the physical, surface image, but also its interconnection with other images. The result is a complex, multi-layered film, so semiotically unstable that images dissolve into one another both visually and ‘semantically’, truly investing in film’s ability to act upon the subconscious.
Images of Catholicism, identity, corporeality and desire are so intricately interwoven into the subtext of The Seashell and the Clergyman that it is impossible to distinguish the boundaries between them. In particular, images of Catholicism prevail throughout the film and are constantly undermined, reflecting Artaud’s contempt of organised religion. With indifference, Artaud abolishes accepted notions of Catholicism and unleashes the repressed sexual desires that lie beneath. He presents us with the image of a priest (played by Alex Allin), an image that connotes celibacy and pious dignity. However, this physical image is subverted when the repressed sexual frustrations of the priest are brought to the surface. His obsession takes the form of a beautiful woman (played by Génica Athanasiou) who appears to him throughout the film like a mirage. According to Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, “it is not a “real” female character […] but an image of the woman, as phantom, as specter, as shadow of desire”. The priest’s search for this ethereal image drives the narrative forwards and his growing fanaticism informs the pace of the film.
The woman’s image, as an object of repressed desire, is interconnected with religious imagery: she appears in a wedding carriage, in the confession box, in a church and as the conductor of a marriage ceremony. She is the forbidden flesh of the priest’s fantasy and, by placing her in such incongruous contexts, Artaud highlights the secularism of the film. The priest’s obsessive behaviour increases with each encounter and, in tandem, the images become increasingly volatile. Images collide, slide under one another and merge. For example, each time the woman appears, she does so with a man (Lucien Bataille) dressed in a general’s uniform, described by Steven Kovács as the obstacle to the clergyman attaining wholeness through union with the woman […] The clergyman attains the power to destroy his double only once they are in the church, in his domain.Whilst there is truth in this statement, Kovács underestimates the volatility of the general’s image. Rather, the film presents all corporeality as potentially unstable, and the boundaries that separate the three characters are impossible to locate. In the confessional box, the general sits next to the woman, lecherously listening to her secrets. Consumed with envy, the priest’s sexual frustration reaches boiling point and he attacks the general.
Through a series of remarkable effects, where the general’s face is seen to crack and split, the image of the priest transfers, ‘slips under’ that of the general, until he too becomes a priest. The intention is not to present a simple substitution of one image with another (the image of the priest replacing that of the general), but to convey a collision of identity. As the two men fight, touching for the first time, part of the priest’s inner essence merges with the general, their identities ‘slipping under’ one another.Artaud identified the significance of destabilising corporeal images in his preface to the scenario for The Seashell and the Clergyman. He specified that his aim was to create situations which emerge from the simple collision of objects, forms, repulsions and attractions. It does not separate itself from life but returns to the primitive order of things.
As is widely discussed in other studies, Artaud did not consider his own body as an absolute requirement for his existence. Instead, he rethought himself as a powerful life force capable of projecting his essence into other forms. Interestingly, his writing away from cinema is littered with images of corporeal transgression, where he projects his life force into other forms and bodies.
Again, this theme is woven into the visual subtext of the film and is established in the opening sequence. The priest pours a mysterious, dark liquid from a large oyster shell into small glass beakers that he drops onto the floor beside him. Near his chair, we find a huge pile of broken glass soaked in the liquid essence, evidence of a hundred broken beakers. The subtext of this image is playing with the double meaning of the word ‘essence’, describing both ‘distilled liquid’ and ‘life force’. Although this connection is not explicit in the surface images of the scene, Artaud allowed the visual connotation to drift through the imagery of the film. Metaphorically, each beaker contains a single life essence – an identity. When the priest smashes the glass beakers, the inner essence blends and amalgamates. Later, we are presented with a direct reflection of this image when the priest attacks the general and their identities collide. The violent assault causes the general’s face to crack and shatter (paralleling the glass beakers) and the life essence of the priest literally ‘spills over’ into that of the general.
Artaud immerses the viewer into a world where all images are potentially unstable and dangerous. Reacting alchemically to the priest’s sexual appetite, all images have the capacity to stretch, vanish or mutate. For example, the image of the woman (as object of the priest’s desire) is presented ethereally throughout. Impossibly, she appears and disappears like an apparition, until the climax of the chase sequence where her body is seen to distort, stretch and deform. In Artaud’s original scenario, these distortions were to be even more horrific than the images contained in the final film :
… now with an enormous swollen cheek, now putting out her tongue which stretches into infinity and onto which the clergyman hangs as if it were a rope. Now with her chest horribly puffed out.
Images of corporeality are presented as untrustworthy in the film, liable to alter in response to intense emotional states. Unsurprisingly, this sentiment appealed to the Surrealists, with their interest in the recreation of dream imagery and sublime states of mind in order to access the subconscious self. What Artaud developed was a concrete way of transferring such images to film without a reliance on realist principles. However, The Seashell and the Clergyman much outflanked a cinematic transposition of surrealist techniques, namely the juxtaposition of incongruous images and concepts to express the mechanics of the subconscious mind. Rather, these ideas are swallowed whole and are woven into the very ‘architecture’ of the film.
Under Dulac’s direction, the cinematography, the editing and the performances all work to dislocate logical structures and disassociate rational meanings, yet the film retains its own intrinsic logic. Even before she had started work on The Seashell and the Clergyman, Dulac had formulated the cinematic vocabulary of such a film. In 1924, she claimed that the goal of cinema was to “visualize the events or the joys of inner life. One could make a film with a single character in conflict with his impressions.” The release of The Seashell and the Clergyman four years later was a skilful realisation of this idea, presenting the viewer with an internal, mental landscape, perhaps the subconscious of the priest himself. The narrative occurs on a subjective level where the priest is indeed ‘in conflict’ with his own sexuality, faith and obsessions, and pursues the object of his desire through his own mind. As Artaud succinctly puts it: “The characters are only brains or hearts.”
However, on 9 January 1928, the premiere of The Seashell and the Clergyman was abandoned after a disruption in the auditorium. Somewhere in the darkness of the Studio des Ursulines, two voices insulted Dulac, and, before long, the premiere descended into a chaotic cultural riot. Obscenities were shouted, mirrors were broken and violent blows were exchanged. Accounts of Artaud’s own involvement that night are ambiguous, one claiming that he sat quietly with his mother, whilst another recounts how he ran wild. Either way, the events were triggered by a high-profile dispute between Artaud and Dulac, in part, fuelled by Artaud’s exclusion from the filming and editing of his own text.
Rallying a number of surrealist allies in his campaign against Dulac, Artaud attacked her maltreatment of his scenario on a number of points. At the crux of the argument was the insertion of the subtitle, “A dream on the screen”. As Flitterman-Lewis confirms, “The idea for the scenario apparently originated with a dream of Yvonne Allendy, a close friend of Artaud’s, though the scenario itself has little in common with it.” In a public attack printed in La Nouvelle Revue Française, Artaud insisted that This scenario is not the reproduction of a dream and must not be regarded as such. I shall not try to excuse the apparent inconsistency by the facile subterfuge of dreams. Dreams have more than their... logic.