Gaze of the Flesh: Antonin Artaud and Surrealist Film


Antti Pönni

Antonin Artaud’s scenario of The Seashell and the Clergyman and his theoretical writings on film in the 1920’s are analyzed in the context of surrealism. Artaud’s writings are compared mainly to André Breton’s texts as well as to film texts of the period.

Artaud’s thinking emphasizes the non-rational bodily experience which he calls flesh. In Artaud’s writings flesh is the non-dualistic meeting point of spirituality and materiality. As compared to Breton’s more theoretical and rational attempts to unite dream and waking reality in the context of social revolution, Artaud’s goal is more individualistic transgression of the boundaries of artistic expression and life.

Artaud sees the filmic image as affecting directly the brain (as part of the material body). Thus the image is experienced as a non-rational and non-linguistic shock to the eye. Artaud’s conception of the image is non-representational: a direct experience of life.

Artaud denounces both the pure or abstract film and the dramatic or narrative film. The former is too intellectual, because it doesn’t offer any recognizable forms and loses the documentary aspect, which links the images to life. The latter on the other hand is too rational and too much related to the logic of language.

Artaud seeks to define film in terms of “mechanics of dream” or “mechanics of laughter”. The film should have the structure of a dream without being a reproduction of a dream. Also film should follow the structure of a (slapstick) comedy but not use humour as an explanation of the events. Artaud’s conception is somewhat similar to Jean Epsteins photogénie and Sergei Eisenstein’s attraction, but his goal is neither philosophical nor ideological. For Artaud, film should affect as a drug, be an obscure, overwhelming bodily experience not unlike the surrealist dépaysement.