Germaine Dulac’s La Coquille et le Clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman) was arguably the first surrealist film ever made. Admired today for its innovative camerawork and engagement with gender politics, it focuses on a priest who covets another man’s wife. But it is the story surrounding the film that, as much as its plot, allows it to take its place in the realm of the surreal. At its first screening, in 1928, before an audience of surrealist artists and bohemians at the legendary Studio des Ursulines, Dulac’s film caused a literal riot.
Accounts differ as to what happened at the screening. According to some, violence broke out when Antonin Artaud, who wrote the screenplay, was ejected from the cinema for calling Dulac a cow. In other tellings it was writer André Breton who shouted the epithet. Some say that Artaud was not even present, while others still state that he and other surrealists had come to the screening for the specific purpose of attacking Dulac and her film. Regardless, although the other films playing in the same programme were all applauded warmly, as soon as La Coquille’s title card appeared on the screen, a group in the audience began hurling gendered insults at the film and its director. Others, defending the film, reacted aggressively, and chaos ensued.
No matter who was there or what exactly happened, the film ignited a mass agitation that began with insults against a lesbian director. The film itself can be regarded as a feminist work, and although it is unclear how much of it was actually seen at the screening, its own gender politics would probably have been enough to incite a male hysteria all by themselves.
La Coquille stands in controversial relation to gender. Though in many ways the film is typical of Dulac’s style, a major difference is that her other films focus on women; here, it is the titular clergyman, played by Alex Allin, who is at the centre of the narrative. In contrast to the dignified, long-suffering women of Dulac’s other works, the clergyman is an obsessive, unlikeable figure, the easy target of mockery by the object of his desire. To the role, which was intended to be played by Artaud himself, which he left due to a scheduling conflict, Allin brings a meek physicality totally at odds with Artaud’s handsome and commanding presence. Artaud’s clergyman might have been intense and beautiful; Allin’s is the opposite.
Allin vs Artaud
The woman the clergyman obsesses over, played by Génica Athanasiou, is – Sandy Flitterman-Lewis has argued – less an object of desire than a “force of desire”. She resists consumption by the spectator, and Allin’s clergyman is too weak to compete with her. Whenever he attempts to capture her, the director intervenes to save her from his touch: he grabs at her neck, and the neck becomes a house; he puts her face into a bottle, but when the bottle breaks we find his face inside. With a surrealist disdain for the normal bounds of filmed reality, Dulac uses editing and superimposition to protect Athanasiou’s character.
Contrast the depiction of Athanasiou’s body with, for instance, that of Simone Mareuil in Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou. When Un Chien Andalou premiered at the Studio des Ursulines, less than a year after La Coquille, it was so well received that its filmmakers – hoping to cause chaos – found the event boring. Both films contain scenes that focus on the eroticised bodies of their women characters, but the execution of these scenes couldn’t be more different. In La Coquille, when Allin pulls Athanasiou’s top off to reveal her breasts, they are almost immediately blurred, then briefly revealed again, then covered with superimposed seashells. Allin rips off the seashells, but rather than a continuous close-up of Athanasiou’s body, we quickly cut to a shot of Allin, holding the shells and glowering in frustration. As the film goes on, all Allin’s attempts – and so ours as well – to consume the image of Athanasiou are frustrated. Shots of her body or her face give us no time to appreciate her image before it becomes distorted or cut away from.
Conversely, in Un Chien Andalou, Mareuil’s character tries to escape a man who is groping her. She pushes him off her body, but he does not falter, and massages her breasts through her shirt, which then disappears, allowing us to gaze upon her. Her bared breasts then turn to her naked buttocks: fondled and in full view, we get to see her whole body, while her attempts to break free are extended, allowing for a complete, unadulterated look at her nudity as she struggles. Dulac does not allow for anyone to consume her protagonist’s body like this. Allin’s character never catches her, and her image is so quickly obscured that any visual pleasure he, and we, might get is interrupted or denied. The alluring, unyielding figure of Athanasiou forces us to question our ideas on how women can function and be consumed within a patriarchal society. Athanasiou’s character, a woman who thwarts the clergyman’s attempts to possess her, stays with her husband, and mocks (laughing, tongue stuck out) the man who wants her so desperately: a defiant rejection of Buñuel and Dalí’s all-consuming gaze.
In a manifesto written just a few years later, Artaud argued that a ‘theatre of cruelty’ would be able to rouse audiences to new realities, allowing them to experience new sensations and ideas: “it is certain that we need above all a theatre that wakes us up: nerves and heart.” Through controversial subject matter and shocking theatrical techniques, a “cruel” work would be able to bring audiences to a new form of consciousness, beyond staid conventional thought. Despite Artaud’s rejection of La Coquille – he said it departed too far from his screenplay and was a creative betrayal – it is an exemplary “cruel” work: it ‘woke up’ its audience to new realities, in this case the exploitation of women under masculine hetero-patriarchal desire, combined with the power of a lesbian woman creator above that of the straight male. This is what made the film uncomfortable for its misogynistic spectators; it makes the film uncomfortable for the audience that is often complicit in the problems it raises.
Though the film did not intentionally make use of Artaud’s yet-unwritten theories, it managed to have the effect that he would later desire for his own theatre projects. Its cinematic techniques exhibit the shock and violence that was part of an Artaudian cruel aesthetic: a head may appear disembodied, another might be split in half. They take the spectator out of reality and coherence into something new. A fully visual, cinematic experience separate from reality or narrative theatrics, La Coquille can be described as a work of rhythm and line. Rhythm has been identified as a major element of Dulac’s oeuvre. Naomi Greene writes: “For [Dulac], this cinematic ‘essence’ lay in the rhythm and play of images, in the patterns and shapes created by objects, lights, shadows, movements. Rhythm and mood had to prevail over explicit psychologising and narrative.” If the film is read as an experiment in rhythm, movement, light, and technique, it could constitute part of the new language Artaud desired for his theatre of cruelty: appealing not to narrative but to the senses, and creating something new and different from our regular life, a definite departure from the world of language and logic. In his manifesto, Artaud wrote: “instead of continuing to rely upon texts considered definitive and sacred, it is essential to put an end to the subjugation of the theatre to the text, and to recover the notion of a kind of unique language half-way between gesture and thought.” A new method of conveying meaning visually rather than purely narratively is exactly what Dulac’s film spearheaded.
It is impossible to know for sure what happened at the screening of La Coquille et le Clergyman. The surrealists attending the screening could have all been virulent misogynists eager to attack any woman, they could have just been looking for an excuse to cause a scene, or it could have been something in between. Regardless, what remains is that the film created a spark for violence and a starting point for real-life action, which demonstrates the power of Dulac’s work, as a filmmaker and a woman, in disrupting male viewing habits. Through an exploration of feminist themes supported by experimental filmmaking techniques, Dulac put the issue of gender at the forefront of her film, narratively, formally, and through her own role as director. Her work demonstrated the potential of Artaud’s later theories on cruelty, in a manner tied intrinsically to the gender politics of her film.
 Virmaux, Alain, and Odette Virmaux, Les surréalistes et le cinéma (Paris: Seghers, 1976).
 Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, To Desire Differently: Feminism and the French Cinema (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990), p. 117.
 Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and its Double, trans. by Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Grove Press, 1958), p. 84.
 Naomi Green, ‘Artaud and Film: A Reconsideration.’ Cinema Journal 23, no. 4 (1984), pp. 28-44 (p. 33).
 Artaud, p. 89.