The Seashell and the Clergyman is now commonly recognized as the first surrealist film of the 1920s and 30s, and yet, despite such avant-garde credentials, and the fact that a female director directed the film, most people still consider Luis Buí±uel’s Un Chien Andalou the pre-eminent surrealist film of its time.
There are reasons for this and they are not simply to do with Buí±uel’s later canonical status, nor with a sexist leaning towards male filmmakers. The Seashell and the Clergyman is first and foremost an exercise in visual lyricism and although it has the pre-requisite surrealist sub-narrative, or rather sub-conscious language of lust, morality, hypocrisy and desire, its narrative is and remains entirely meaningless. This is to say that although the visual lyricism is clearly pre-occupied with images of dreams, complete with fantastic fantasies of dozens of chambermaid-clad concubines and splashing water, in the end there is no sense of time or action having occurred: there is effectively no discernible beginning, middle or end, which would explain what’s happened. What we do get is a fragmented series of scenarios, which appear to incorporate symbolic vessels being handled, broken and transported by our clergyman, a tremendous amount of raised eyebrows in close-up, and – to my own personal relief – some nicely turned-out choreographed ladies in 1920s hats, gloves and shoes.
Interestingly, Antonin Artaud, who wrote the script, was allegedly so displeased with Dulac’s realization of his scenario, that he sought to prevent its screening. Angry with the ways in which the film’s anti-clericalism (a priest runs around manifesting a lustful passion that he fails to satiate) is undermined rather than accentuated by the director’s visual lyricism, Artaud perhaps realized what others have failed to since – namely that lyricism in the service of surrealism tends to undermine its political subversiveness.
All the more amusing that the British censor of the time banned it with the legendary words ‘If this film has a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable’, a phrase which has since almost become more famous than the film. These words are also clearly what the musical score to the film, as played beautifully by Minima in the Union Chapel performance, in many ways has forgotten. Minima, who formed in 2006, excel in performing new soundtracks to silent films with a line-up of drums, bass, guitar and cello. As they proudly state on their website: they have no laptops or backing tapes, a statement which is clearly meant to authenticate their musical abilities while making them also somehow more intuitively in sync with the performance as it occurs; an admirable mode of operating – at least in principle.
Nevertheless, in the case of the Dulac film, rather than stress the fragmentation of the narrative and the bizarre, potentially subversive quality of the imagery, Minima chose to incorporate harmonious leit-motifs, romantically accentuating certain moments in the film and adding decidedly dramatic effects through key moments of vigor in the score. At the end, if one can call it such, the music builds up to a climactic moment complete with a sweeping refrain. In doing so, Minima, whilst clearly in control of their chosen medium, also slot themselves firmly into recent trends of taking silent films and modernizing them by adding a score, which guides rather than confuses an audience, which above all, must not be bored. This in effect says to viewers, relax, what you are watching is not as difficult as you may think even though – yes, surprise – it contains no sound. The effect, in this case, is to make a potentially provocative, and wonderfully incomprehensible piece of filmmaking into a nicely wrought exercise in aesthetic refinement. Dulac would have appreciated the film being screened today but whether she meant it to be wrapped up in the romance of Minima’s well-intended score is another matter.