Surrealism seems a mandatory touchstone in any investigation about dreams in film, as the Surrealists were passionate initiators of artistic exploration into ideas about dreams in their painting, film, experiments in automatic writing, etc. They were avid readers and huge fans of Freud, taking from him the notion of the psyche’s need to release repressed desires, allowing a space for rebellion of the psyche from the constraints of society – they were a place of liberty and play in ideas and imagery. They also borrowed Freud’s practice of free association, were fascinated by psychoanalysis and dreams, the whole notion of the unconscious and the imagery born therein. Andre Breton, poet laureate of the Surrealists said of the breakthroughs of Freud, “under the pretence of civilization and progress, we have managed to banish from the mind anything that may rightly or wrongly be termed superstition or fancy…a part of our mental world which we pretended not to be concerned with any longer – and in my opinion the most important part – has been brought back to light”. (Coxhead and Hiller 15) The Surrealist movement was one of the significant early artistic movements openly taking on the church and other social institutions prone to repressive and hypocritical positions. They loved unusual and surprising things, were interested in spiritism, mysticism, Shamanism, anything that revealed something “merveilleux”. They delighted in shocking polite society – scandal was preferred to success.
As filmmakers, the original Surrealists, centered in Paris in the 20’s and 30’s, were known for their defiance of logic, cultivating instead a deliberate illogic, a methodical randomness, which served as a fundamental rejection of the tyranny of causality within narrative. One event need not be followed by another with a direct causal link – a series of events with no apparent relation to one another can be strung together. However, this wanton approach to narrative did not have a totally arbitrary aim – the critique of society was sought through this rebellion as play, through the mocking of conventional structure. Plots, if they exist, are absurd, characters have no discernable goals or motivations, ultimately critiquing the society they portrayed. This is beyond art cinema as a subjective exercise, representing the internal world of a character – what we see in Surrealism is an interest and engagement with dreamlike sensations. Surrealism shows a commitment to the imagery and sensations of the psyche in its most raw form, in all of its random and disturbing glory.
Un Chien Andalou
Un Chien Andalou, made in 1929, was a collaboration between Luis Buñuel, the quintessentially Surrealist filmmaker, and Salvador Dali, one of the most successful Surrealist painters. The film is perhaps the purest, most faithful example of a dream-like landscape with all the illogic of a dream.
Un Chien Andalou was born of the encounter between my dreams and Dali’s. Later, I brought dreams directly into my films, trying as hard as I could to avoid any analysis. (Buñuel 92)
They employed a technique of free association (that was also used in psychoanalysis) and maintained a rule of strict randomness allowing in only that which delighted or surpised:
We soon found ourselves hard at work, and in less than a week we had a script. Our only rule was simple: No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted. We had to open all doors to the irrational and keep only those images that surprised us, without trying to explain why. (Buñuel 104)
They were interested only in images that surprise, and created a film that reproduces the sensation of dream symbolism and imagery, and staying completely off the spectrum of narrative logic. Un Chien Andalou is unusual as it does not actually use the trope of the dream, there is no dreamer who awakens, no startling from sleep, yet it is one of the most famously “dream-like” films ever. The entire film appears to be inside a dream, in its language, in its impossible leaps, its bizarre juxtapositions. Very few passing moments begin to seem to sustain a narrative or a coherence before descending into chaos. Although there are two main characters, it would be impossible to discern anything in the way of character traits or goals from the apparently random series of scenes that unfold.
Buñuel … underscores the importance of psychoanalytic constructs as models for the film. ‘Un Chien Andalou does not attempt to recount a dream, although it profits by a mechanism analogous to that of dreams’. (Kuenzli 144)
The film is not the story of a dream being told as a dream, but an assembling of images and moments that are like dreams. It is its own world – there is no attempt to relate the bizarre dream-state to a larger narrative framework. There is a powerful shock value in the erotic imagery, the twisted religious imagery, the disturbing imagery of insects and death, yet there is also a sense of delight and humour in the improbable and impossible. Discontinuity of time and space is both faithful to the experience of dreams and comic when rendered on film. A look out the window from an apartment on a city stree and the sudden impossible appearance of a beach (as up until now we have seen only the street), or arbitrary interruptions of timelines are surprising and funny.
In Buñuel’s Chien Andalou, an intertitle intervenes to announce 10 years earlier in the midst of a scene that is marked by the absence of any such temporal reference…the later forms of filmic surrealism are less absolute about this mockery of temporal reference. (Turim 226-227)
This small film has remained an important and still shocking classic of Surrealist vision – the rigorousness of the fidelity to a dreamlike world is unparalleled.
Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
Made much later in Buñuel’s career, in 1972, the mature yet still playful Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie has the simple yet absurdist premise of a group of upper-class friends trying to dine together but being continually interrupted or thwarted in various strange and unlikely ways. The films is composed of a series of Raul Ruiz’ “mixed scenes”, but to an exaggerated degree in the randomness of bizarre events and juxtapositions. There is no “athletic” plot, no characters driving the story forward to clearly set goals. Indeed, the frivolity of the premise has a parallel to the rather empty lives – a kind of comment on the petty concerns of these characters as portrayed, the inability to get a decent meal, such are the trials and tribulations. There is almost a sense of character motivation in the attempts to dine together, but the continuing absurdist frustration appears to mock this, as a subversion of the narrative convention itself to thwart the main “goal” of the characters to dine together, as the goal is never achieved for a variety of strange and unlikely and increasingly comic reasons – someone forgot, the dates were confused, the inn-keeper is dead, the room is a stage, the army arrives, they are all arrested, they are all gunned down.
This is complemented with the generalized narrative chaos – strangers recount dreams and childhood events without any relevance to the central characters or the moment of recounting, or when they go to dine at an inn, the inn owner lies dead in a back room. As the scenes become increasingly strange – a shooting incident leads to eating underneath a table, a dinner with two rubbery chickens becomes an awkward moment on a stage in front of an audience. This is an immediately familiar sensation, a recognizably “universal dreams” as identified by Patricia Garfield – the private moment suddenly public and without preparation, the embarrassment, the social anxiety (“je ne connais pas le texte…mon dieu, qu’est ce que je fais ici?”).
Early in the film, the scenes seem absurdist, but perhaps still within the possible, but as the film moves on, the scenes become increasingly over the top, and the references to dreams, or dreamers waking, more and more frequent. Many of these later scenes are punctuated with one of the characters startling awake as if the preceding scene had simply been a dream. Dreams are also told publicly in the most unlikely moments – the sudden presence of the army at dinner who are just as suddenly called away urgently, yet pause to have a sergeant tell everyone present a dream which bears no relation to anything. (“no one’s really interested in other people’s dreams”) Contained within the open parentheses of a dream, the trope of the dreamer awakening is followed by a few moments that seem almost like normal real life that quickly turn into bizarre, absurd scenes, as one dream feeds into the next like a set of Russian dolls. This classic trope of the character waking up after a dream is repeated again and again with different characters with comic effect, creating a labyrinthine sensation of dreams strung together.
The point of identification with a character is fluid, moving between the different characters startling awake in their chair. There is no clear center of subjectivity, heightening the confusion and disorientation, and as all scenes have both a sense of realism and strange absurdity, a clear tonal separation is not possible, making a distinction between dream and reality very blurred.
The dream-relationships of film space combine with the nature of film time to encourage an ambiguity that may be fruitful or merely irritating. One often does not know what one is seeing: part of what is supposed actually to take place in the film, or only what is passing through the mind of one of the characters. (Sparshott 86)
Discreet Charm exaggerates and takes to an extreme the disorientation which Sparshott has identified here, and by the end of the film it feels nearly impossible to identify which sequence might have been absurdist waking life, and which sequence a dream.
This series of comic and bizarre scenes allow for societal critique, for a continual poking of fun at the bourgeoisie, who for crying out loud, can never seem to sit down and have a meal in peace. The string of meetings, the unspecific or non-urgent “goal” of the characters is in fact never realized, any motivation is left vague, and the continual frustration of the simple completion of a meal means it is not a classically gratifying narrative plot. Thus we can contemplate the minutiae of lunch and tea and dinner, the mean and petty class condescension, the hypocrisies and corruption around drugs and politics. Several times this group of friends is shown walking along a long empty road, tired and quietly making their way. This scene serves as a kind of metaphoric baseline connecting the path of the friends as a group in an interminable journey, highlighting again the group as group rather than individual characters perspectives, goals and point of view. In a way this motif is as dreamlike as the rest, as it has no connection to any other element in the chaotic narrative, and feels metaphoric in its conception – an endless walk that leads nowhere.
This 1998 film is from the highly prolific Raul Ruiz, a Chilean in France, is not from the Surrealist movement in its original historical sense, but is made by a filmmaker who is generally seen to be keeping the surrealist sensibility and themes alive. Many of Ruiz’ films are even more obscure and elliptical than Shattered Image, which is ultimately a relatively grounded narrative, but it is also a highly unusual narrative / dreaming construction. Ruiz’s theoretical writing about central conflict theory has also been enormously helpful in understanding the imperatives of many scripts.
In Shattered Image, Ruiz exhibits a strong interest in psychology, though it is a very specific psychological phenomenon that he conveys with not the content but the form of the film. Very early in the film it is established that there are two characters named Jessie, played by the same actress (Ann Parillaud), each dreaming the other – for expedience I will call them Honeymoon Jessie and Hitman Jessie. They are easily distinguishable, as Hitman Jessie wears a wig and heavy make-up and is in the business of assassinating people, lending her character an artificiality and unlikeliness, while Honeymoon Jessie is a more ordinary, timid, if troubled young woman.
Although the first footing of the story begins with Honeymoon Jessie, it becomes difficult to distinguish whose narrative is the “real” one, as they appear to dream each other in equal measure, their stories going off in their own directions for extended periods of screen time. Each Jessie has a full, elaborate narrative, appearing to weight them almost equally. This of course causes some ambiguity and confusion, creating a desire for the viewer to determine what is real, replicating the central character’s need to determine what is actually happening to her. The viewer does not know any more than the character does, a classical art film device that pushes the focus of the film into the psychological experience itself, as art films often do. As Bordwell says, many art films will:
[…]focus on the limitations of character knowledge. Unlike most classical films the art film is apt to be quite restricted in its range of knowledge. Such restriction may enhance identification (character knowledge matches ours)…the narrow focus is complemented by psychological depth; art film narration is more subjective more often than is classical narration. For this reason, the art film has been a principal source of experiments in representing psychological activity in the fiction film. (Bordwell Narration 209)
Here there is a kind of metaphoric use of the dream for what is happening in the psyche –
Jessie suffers a kind of psychic splitting where one part of the self cannot face or incorporate another part, but will dream it. The dream serves as a means by which the psyche knows its other side, both mind and story making the psychiatric phenomenon appear real. The film structure itself is shaped by the psychic problem – the dreaming women dreaming each other is clearly an impossibility, yet an effective expression of a psychological reality. However, as a thriller, in this story it is crucial that the information each Jessie has access to be shared, as Jessie appears to be in some danger, threatened perhaps by a stranger, or perhaps by her husband (William Baldwin).
Hitman Jessie appears to know Honeymoon Jessie’s husband in a completely different context and light, or perhaps it is that she is able to see / face the evil nature of the husband. It is in Hitman Jessie’s scenes that she / we are able to discover the troubling secrets about the husband that Honeymoon Jessie remains unaware of, or only becomes aware of via her dreams of Hitman Jessie’s world. Eventually it becomes clear that Honeymoon Jessie is the original dreamer, the true main character who has dreamt of this other self, Hitman Jessie, who is another, apparently bad, but perhaps stronger, element in Jessie’s self. This other Jessie has allowed her access to the essential information that will save her life. Within the hybrid psychological / thriller narrative there is a need to know the truth, both for the survival of the character in the face of danger, and the need to heal the psychic split and incorporate the two selves.