On the collaboration between surrealism and Positif
In 1951, Ado Kyrou and Robert Benayoun founded the surrealist cinema journal L’Âge du cinéma. It folded after five issues, but soon afterwards Kyrou joined the editorial board of the review Positif, which thereafter became the film journal of choice for the surrealists. Benayoun became a regular contributor, while one of the Positif team, Raymond Borde, joined the surrealists, and other surrealists made occasional contributions to the journal throughout the 1950s. During the 1960s and 70s, the surrealists established a significant presence in Positif as successively Benayoun, Gérard Legrand, Petr Král, and Paolo de Paranagua were admitted to the editorial board. Positif was known for its opposition to Cahiers de Cinéma and the ideology of the New Wave, and the surrealists played a prominent part in the polemics of the time. This chapter looks at the surrealist contribution to film criticism generally and considers the nature of their collaboration with Positif in particular. A fresh perspective is offered on our understanding of film criticism in France during this crucial period of its history, which will raise questions about the habitual way in which the significance of the New Wave of that time tends to be discussed today.
L’Invention du monde is one of the most important surrealist documentary films. Produced in 1952 by Michel Zimbacca, with the help of Jean-Louis Bédouin, it presented views of the ‘savage arts’ – objects, dances, music – with a commentary by the poet Benjamin Péret; all three were active members of the Parisian Surrealist Group. For the surrealists, the magic relation to nature and the intensity of the marvellous were essential components of ‘savage’ culture and artefacts, in opposition to the oppressive capitalist and mercantile modern Western civilisation. Their interest in savage art is therefore directly linked to their anti-colonialist commitment. L’Invention du monde shows artefacts from the Americas, Asia, Africa, and Oceania, taken from the exhibits of the Musée de L'Homme (Paris), or from private collections, such as those of André Breton and Claude Lévi-Strauss, but also uses photos from museums around the world, as well as a few cuts from ethnographic films. The documentary is not an ethnographic film, but a poetical composition, based on a strong belief in the universality of human spirit, drawing on the infinite resources of the unconscious (in the Freudian meaning).
Surrealism and film after 1945 is the only available volume devoted to the diverse permutations of international surrealist cinema after the canonical inter-war period. The collection features eleven essays by prominent scholars such as Tom Gunning, Michael Löwy, Gavin Parkinson, and Michael Richardson. An introductory chapter offers a historical overview of this period as well as a theoretical framework for new methodological approaches. Taken as a whole, the collection demonstrates that renowned figures such as Maya Deren, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Jan Švankmajer took part in shaping a vibrant and distinctive surrealist film culture following World War II. Interdisciplinary, intermedial, and international in scope, the volume follows upon recent advances in art history, which have demonstrated that surrealism’s post-war existence has been dynamic, vivid, and adventurous. Beyond the canonical inter-war period, surrealism immersed itself in myth and occultism, participated in anti-colonial struggles, influenced the rise of a youth counterculture, and presented new perspectives on sexuality and eroticism, all of which feed into the permutations of surrealist cinema. Addressing highly influential films and directors related to international surrealism during the second half of the twentieth century, this collection expands the purview of both surrealism and film studies by situating surrealism as a major force in post-war cinema.
Nelly Kaplan, Jan Švankmajer, and the revolt of animals
Following World War II, surrealism turned to myth and magic in its pursuit of new ways of changing the world, but its activities were also shaped by an overriding conviction that anthropocentrism and notions of human exceptionalism were responsible for the catastrophic state of the world. This chapter examines how the filmmakers Nelly Kaplan and Jan Švankmajer have furthered this surrealist critique. In Kaplan’s La Fiancée du pirate (1969) and Néa (1976), the female protagonists form alliances with their cat and goat companions against a repressive world, as Kaplan draws on surrealism’s critique of Western modernity to imagine possibilities of interspecies revolt. In several of his films, Švankmajer animates animal body parts into new energetic patterns of behaviour, and so enables them to revolt against human domination. Švankmajer’s outlook may appear bleaker than Kaplan’s, but their films converge in a shared pursuit of alternatives to a civilisation predicated on the exploitation of other animals. Much as André Breton turned to occultism for new ways of conceiving of the world, Kaplan and Švankmajer draw on magic in order to imagine alternatives to the Anthropocene, and to create new myths in which humanity is displaced from its privileged position.
The experimental film-maker Maya Deren rejected links between her work and surrealism; critics tend to either endorse this view or be content with some general stylistic affiliations. Nevertheless, both the common context of New York circles in the early 1940s and emerging themes such as magic, ritual, gender, and identity that are shared by Deren and surrealism (particularly the writings of André Breton and Pierre Mabille in this period) suggest deeper affinities. Three films made by Deren between 1943 and 1946 (At Land, Ritual in Transfigured Time, and, especially, the unfinished Witch’s Cradle) can be used to plot a kind of mediumistic conversation between her work and surrealism, not in order to claim Deren for the movement, but to set off resonances and rethink moments in which surrealism’s priorities shifted during the period of the Second World War. Witch’s Cradle, which features Marcel Duchamp and makes reference to surrealist exhibition contexts such as his Mile of String installation from 1942, may be read as an unravelling and rewinding of a skein of rituals and networks that would also inform developing surrealist theory and practice during and immediately after the war.
The Second Situationist International on freedom, Freddie, and film
Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen
This chapter proposes a comparison of the way in which the Situationist International and the Drakabygget Situationist movement interpreted and used surrealism, specifically surrealist film. I will analyse how the two situationist groups related to surrealist film practice theoretically and practically. Famously, Guy Debord, the leader of the Situationist International, included a reference to Luis Buñuel’s Un chien andalou in the beginning of his 1952 film Hurlements en faveur de Sade, but he also shortly afterwards used the surrealist admiration of Charles Chaplin as a way of distancing himself from both the lettrist group around Isidore Isou and the surrealist group headed by Breton. Meanwhile, Jørgen Nash and Jens Jørgen Thorsen, the two leading figures in the Scandinavian Drakabygget movement, included surrealist films by Wilhelm Freddie in several of the film festivals they staged in 1964–65 and continued to pay homage to surrealist artists like Freddie throughout the 1960’s.
Taking its cue from a line in a W.H. Auden poem, this final section analyses Perfect Sense (2011), a film about a deadly and unseen virus which breaks up human relationships and the stability of society as a way of bringing the cinematic story of ‘how we live now’ up to date. The remainder of the chapter reflects on how the generic fluidity of the films discussed may reflect increasing conceptions of sexual identities as existing in a fluid state of being. The chapter concludes that some very important and significant studies of love, desire and sex have been produced and realised by the film-makers and actors whose work has been discussed and analysed in the book as a whole.
De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté, Sur mes lèvres and De rouille et d’os
The body, and the boundaries that can be transgressed by and within it, are essential to the cinema of Jacques Audiard. His cinematographic focus on bodies is inherently connected with the experience of sensation, the expression of sexuality, the articulation of gender and the negotiation of disability. This chapter analyses the films De battre mon cœur s’est arrêté (2005), Sur mes lèvres (2001) and De rouille et d’os (2012). In each of these case studies, the primacy of the body extends from the cinematography to the narrative, with storylines centred on disability, creation, violence and sensation that place the physical body at the forefront of plot and aesthetics. The chapter begins with De battre, reading its masculinist portrayal of the body through the motif of the hands. It then analyses Sur mes lèvres, in which the protagonist’s deafness and lip-reading skills radically foreground her desiring gaze and reorient our own sensory perceptions. It concludes with De rouille et d’os, Audiard’s second film to feature a physically disabled female protagonist, in which double amputation becomes the unexpected site of sexual agency and transformation.
At its heart, Audiard’s cinema is defined by border-crossing in myriad forms: by the building of physical and symbolic walls, and the process of climbing – or dismantling – them. Audiard’s protagonists transgress geographic borders, physical limitations, social norms and class lines. Simultaneously violent yet intimate, dark yet hopeful, French yet ‘foreign’, grounded in an established film tradition and continually shrugging it off, these films are both informed by the heritage of French national cinemas and transcendent of it. This brief conclusion homes in on a key passage from Les Frères Sisters to reveal how Audiard and his films both occupy the metropolitan French cinematic space, and stretch far beyond it.