There was a surge of surrealist filmmaking in the 1920s and 1930s. It makes use of symbolic, dreamy imagery and nontraditional narrative devices. The Surrealist art movement, which attempted to subvert accepted standards and investigate the subconscious, was a major inspiration for this kind of filmmaking. This article will highlight surrealist cinema’s history and its common themes.
At a Glance
- Early Surrealist films
- Surrealist filmmakers
- Modern Surrealism in films
- Themes & Tropes of Surrealist Cinema
- Best Surrealist films
Early Surrealist films
French director and film theorist Luis Buñuel produced some of the earliest instances of Surrealist filmmaking. One of the earliest Surrealist films was Un Chien Andalou, which Buñuel and the artist Salvador Dalí worked on together in 1929. The film’s purpose is to have the audience react subconsciously to a sequence of surreal and disturbing scenes, such as a woman’s eye being slashed open with a razor.
L’Age d’Or directed by Luis Buñuel, is another early Surrealist film. In this satirical look at modern life, animation, live-action, and surreal visuals all coexist. Before its 1960 U.S. debut, this picture had already been banned in Spain and France.
Directors such as Jean Cocteau, Man Ray, and Maya Deren are also considered pioneers of the Surrealist cinema movement with Buñuel. Filmmaker Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet offers a stunning look at the creative process. Some regard Man Ray’s short film Emak-Bakia to be the first abstract film. In her seminal 1943 film Meshes of the Afternoon, Maya Deren used surreal imagery and symbolism to delve into the depths of the psyche.
Modern Surrealism in films
Even today, filmmakers, especially those working in art houses and independent films, draw inspiration from Surrealism. Famous directors who have been affected by Surrealism include David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, and David Cronenberg, whose films frequently feature surreal visuals and nontraditional plots. Surrealist films have also influenced many recent music videos and commercials.
Themes & Tropes of Surrealist Cinema
Symbolism, surrealist imagery, and non-traditional storylines are the hallmarks of the surrealist film movement. In Surrealist films, you’ll commonly see themes and tropes like:
The subconscious mind
The work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, who both stressed the significance of the unconscious in moulding conscious thinking, emotion, and action, profoundly impacted the development of the surrealist film. The subconscious and its power to distort our view of the world is a common theme in Surrealist cinema.
The dreamlike state
Images and special effects in surrealist films are typically designed to make viewers feel like they’re in a dream or a nightmare. Images that are skewed or abstract, odd bedfellows, and fantastical settings all fall within this category.
Symbolism and allegory
Subtle messages and hidden meanings are typically conveyed through the use of symbols and allegories in surrealist films. No matter how concrete or abstract, any item or idea may serve as a symbol, and they are frequently employed to symbolize more abstract notions.
The fluidity of time and space
Time and space are frequently smudged in surrealist films, making viewers feel disoriented and confused. These are examples of techniques like time travel, spatial displacement, and other visual tricks that defy our sense of realism.
The exploration of the human condition
Human nature and the influence of feelings and thoughts on one’s view of the world are common themes in surrealist films. Identity, self-discovery, and the pursuit of meaning are all examples of such topics.
Use of cutting-edge techniques
Animation, collage, and live-action special effects are only a few examples of the avant-garde filmmaking methods commonly used in surrealist films.
The use of the absurd
The ridiculous is frequently used in surrealist films as a tool to test our beliefs about the world and the reality they portray. Examples of this might include the use of seemingly random or meaningless components or the use of hilarious, absurd, or illogical images and occurrences.
Best Surrealist films
The Act of Killing
It may seem counterintuitive to relate Surrealism and documentary, as Surrealism is typically anti-realistic while documentaries are typically linked with realism. The Act of Killing, directed by Christine Cynn and Joshua Oppenheimer, is a groundbreaking documentary in this respect because it uses Surrealism as a tool to show the true tragedy or because reality reproduces its own distinct Surrealism.
A Field in England
Monochrome and shot on a shoestring budget, Ben Wheatley’s Civil War drama draws inspiration from the ‘Fairy ring’ tale to create a novel combination of alchemy and folklore. Ben expertly transports us to another planet and age with his camerawork, which features quick cuts and trippy scenes.
The home invasion thriller directed by the Dutch filmmaker Alex van Warmerdam is obscenely enticing, unmistakably confusing, and wickedly funny. Much like a painting, Borgman’s energy comes out in a flurry of fixations that dart and disperse across the screen.
The film follows the adventures of Camiel Borgman and his band of weird hole-dwelling comrades. The priest and his family begin digging up underground bunkers in search of Borgman in one of the film’s most memorable opening scenes.
Cowards Bend the Knee
Often referred to as The Canadian David Lynch, Guy Maddin has a talent for presenting the horrors of his own life in the form of exaggerated, surreal dramas. In his extremely personal “me” trilogy, which also includes Brand Upon the Brain! and My Winnipeg, Cowards Bend the Knee serves as the opening installment.
Due to his amnesia, Guy forgets both his own mother and the mother of his kid upon meeting a new woman. While his fiancée is having an abortion, he meets and falls in love with the enigmatic Meta. Guy gives in to Meta, gains her father’s blue hands, and exacts bloody revenge by murdering his unfaithful wife and her nasty paramour.
Blood Tea and Red String
It is possible to see Christiane Cegavske’s silent stop-motion film as a contemporary story of Grimm’s fairy tales. The film was shot over the course of 13 years and told the narrative of an artist consumed with his craft. It’s impressive that the film’s strange setting was created entirely by hand. For all its strange brilliance, “Blood Tea and Red String” has been mostly forgotten.
The history of surrealist filmmaking goes back many decades. From the early works of Buñuel and Dalí to the modern films of Lynch and Gilliam, this kind of cinema has always been at the forefront of experimental narrative and societal critique. The surrealist film encourages reflective thought and critical examination of the world around us via the use of surreal imagery and symbolism.
More from Film Theory
Italian Neorealism: Film Movement Explained
The 1940s saw the emergence of the Italian Neorealist film. Films in this style often depict the struggles of Italy's …
History of the Film Viewing Experience
Over the past century, there have been countless advancements in the film viewing experience, rendering the past largely irrelevant. Once …
What are The Talkies?
In this article, we'll discuss the origins of the Talkies and how they changed the movie business forever. The recorded dialogue …