PRINT October 1989


In September 1987, Artforum published “A Foundry of the Figure: Anton in Artaud,” an excerpt from Stephen Barber’s forthcoming book on Artaud. What follows is a second section of the book—an examination of Artaud’s work in film.

THE CRUCIAL AREA OF ARTAUD’S production that has remained substantially closed to critical speculation is his involvement with Surrealist cinema. Artaud is known as the scenarist of one of the great examples of Surrealist film, La Coquille et le clergyman (The seashell and the clergyman), but this work was reputedly steered away from his original conception by its director, Germaine Dulac, a prolific member of the impressionist group of French filmmakers that included Abel Gance. Artaud’s original screenplay, written in April 1927, came under a certain amount of revision before the shooting period, in August and September of that year; the alterations are evident in the various stages of the shooting script. And the technical heaviness of the film, with its complex superimpositions and distortions, sits badly with the clarity of the original scenario (in which, however, suggestions on how to transfer the written image into the cinematic image are virtually nonexistent). But what particularly incensed Artaud was his exclusion from the making of La Coquille et le clergyman. He had intended to codirect and act in the movie, but Dulac and her producers scheduled both the shooting and the editing to conflict with his performance in Carl Dreyer’s film La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc. This maneuver led to a raucous demonstration in sympathy with Artaud. Although he had been officially excommunicated from the Surrealist movement in November 1926 (largely over his dispute with André Breton on the use of the term “revolution”—a mutual recrimination that lasted until January 1947), the Surrealists supported Artaud over the “betrayal” of his scenario, and during the film’s Paris premiere, at the Ursulines cinema on February 9, 1928, Robert Desnos aimed a volley of invective at Dulac that eventually rose into a melee, terminating the screening. There are several accounts of Artaud’s own participation in the brawl: in one, he ran wild and shattered the cinema’s hall mirrors, crying “Goulou! Goulou!”; in another, he was sitting with his mother and uttered only one word during the glossolalic uproar: “Enough.”

After this disturbance, La Coquille et le clergyman was dropped from the Ursulines’ program, and it has resurfaced only erratically since. Its rejection by the British Board of Film Censors came with the justification, “The film is so cryptic as to be meaningless. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable.” The work’s obscurity was compounded by the release in the following year, 1929, of Un Chien andalou, Luis Buñuel’s collaboration with Salvador Dali, a film whose esthetic success made it appear the paradigm of the Surrealist movie. Artaud would claim that Un Chien andalou, along with Jean Cocteau’s Le Sang d’un poète (Blood of a poet, 1930), had taken displacement techniques and hallucinatory imagery from the screenplay of La Coquille et le clergyman. By 1932, he had reversed his attitude toward Dulac’s film, claiming that it itself was a precursor of Buñuel’s and Cocteau’s works.

Dulac’s movie actually follows Artaud’s fragmented narrative of sexual and ecclesiastical obsession with surprising fidelity. Her crammed technical pyrotechnics are all that obscure the substance of Artaud’s scenario. Still, in its surface scrupulousness and theoretical vacuity Dulac’s film veers away from Artaud’s conception. She could not realize his fundamental idea for a Surrealist cinema, which would have involved a radical obliteration of cinematic history thus far, in fact a reworking of film’s very basis: the rapport between the pacifying illusions of the moving light and the spectator incorporated and enmeshed in them.

Artaud’s objection to Dulac’s film was that it returned his scenario to a flat depiction of the dream from which it had issued. Where the scenarios of Surrealists such as Benjamin Péret and Des nos are essentially mediated descriptions of dreams, Artaud had proposed an investigation of the systems of dreaming, a discovery of their mechanisms, their structures-in-collapse. He wanted to reconstitute the freedom and violence of the dream, to project them directly into cinematic imagery. His aim was to “realize this idea of visual cinema where psychology itself is devoured by actions.”1 Artaud drew the material for La Coquille et le clergyman not from his own dreams but from a transcription of one experienced by his friend Yvonne Allendy; he was not relaying a personal experience, then, but trying to establish the critical distance necessary for analytic thought. The ideas he was addressing emerge most clearly in the intersection between his screenplays themselves and his writings about them and about cinema in general. In juxtaposition, these different kinds of text project a reinvention of cinema based around the visceral, transformational pressure it exerts upon the spectator’s responses and physical reflexes.

In the scenario, the clergyman—the role Artaud intended to play himself—undertakes a sequence of violent and obsessive actions. The fragmented narrative propels him through a perpetually shifting space of long corridors, crystalline landscapes, and narrow city streets. He is sexually tormented in a confessional box by a beautiful woman with white hair, and vents his fury upon the mutilated figure of a military officer. The clergyman’s identity confuses with the officer’s, and he is constantly surrounded by shattering glass and flowing liquid. During his multiple confrontations with the white-haired woman, she undergoes grotesque physical distortions, her tongue, for example, “stretching out to infinity.” Dulac’s film illustrates Artaud’s scenarios carefully, but neutralizes the images by treating them as one enclosed dream. The disjunctions between them are fused in their transposition to celluloid. Dulac also infuriated Artaud by announcing the film as a dream. The actors’ exaggerated performance style suggests artificiality and contrivance rather than the rawness of Artaud’s figurative maneuvers; and contrary to Artaud’s intentions, the film has an abstract appearance, a consequence of the layering of image upon image.

With the encouragement of Breton, many of the late-’20s Surrealists were trying to produce films that would liberate the unconscious mind and open out a fertile territory of psychological investigation. They envisaged a worldwide Surrealist cinema with the potential to metamorphize the perception of reality. Only Buñuel, however, was able to produce a fully realized film to his own vision. (Artaud disdained Buñuel’s projects, for the way in which they used chance, like the Surrealist practice of automatic writing, was opposed to his concern with intentionality and physical struggle.) Artaud himself tried and failed to make a number of projects besides La Coquille et le clergyman. Between 1924 and 1930 he wrote or prepared 15 scenarios altogether (of which Dulac’s film is the third), including literary adaptations and a commercial project entitled Vols (Flights, 1928). Among these works was a vampire-film scenario, Les 32, 1928, which he tried to promote to the German Expressionist filmmakers and to those influenced by them in Hollywood, and in 1930 he sent another horror project, Le Moine (The monk), to the Italian Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, by this time an official poet for Mussolini’s fascist regime and an influential figure in Italian cinema. (Artaud’s proposal, and his request to make films in Italy, met with a flat refusal.) The most interesting of Artaud’s scenarios is his last, La Révolte du boucher (The butcher’s revolt), which he intended to direct himself and for which he drew up an intricate, though infeasible, budget and schedule. The screenplay was written early in 1930, in the crucial period of transition between silent and sound cinema.

In a lecture he gave on June 29, 1929, at the Surrealists’ favorite cinema, the Studio 28 in Montmartre, Artaud had expressed adamant opposition to the introduction of sound in film, arguing that “there is no possible identification between sound and image. The image presents itself only by one face, it’s the translation, the transposition, of the real; sound, on the other hand, is unique and true, it bursts out into the room, and consequently acts with much more intensity than the image, which becomes only a kind of illusion of sound.”2 Sound, then, would have to be either excised or deliberately confronted in order for the image to develop an autonomous evocatory force. In La Révolte du boucher, Artaud allows certain isolated and obsessive spoken phrases (“I’ve had enough of cutting up meat without eating it,” for example) into the screenplay, where they are typographically emphasized by their enclosure in boxes. They are disconnected from the visual flow of the film—one, in fact, is set at a complete break in the mise-en-scène, a blank screen—and seem to have been intended to serve as abrupt densifications of the visual imagery; from the collision between the seen and the heard, the images would rebound with all the greater ferocity. This aural strategy is resonant with the recording Artaud made for radio 18 years later, Pour en finir avec le jugement de dieu (To finish with God’s judgment).3 Here, as he reads, he inserts disruptive sound effects—screams, and rhythmic, percussive beatings—into his poetry of expulsion and refusal; immediate incisions of violent physical gesture cut across the escalating rush of poetic imagery. As Artaud wrote La Révolte du boucher, the primacy it gave to the image would have broken with the dominant cinematic genre of the time—the kind of filmed theater that he detested—while stressing the spatiality of sound: “The voices are in space,” he wrote in his introduction to the film, “like objects.”

Space is a crucial element in Artaud’s conception of film. There is a constant preoccupation with expanding and manipulating the spatial dimension while erasing or reducing time. The passage between images embodies a special danger: each image must be made so intense that the intervening passage of time can be as far as possible suppressed. Artaud’s “theater of cruelty” of the 1930s shows a parallel concern with spatial movement. The actor’s gesture must burn itself out in space with unique immediacy and impact, and must never be repeated in time. The first of Artaud’s film scenarios, Les Dix-huit Secondes (Eighteen seconds, 1924), describes the thoughts of an actor during the 18-second period from his glance at his watch to his shooting himself in the street; time is made dense, becoming an intricate sequence of images and spatial mutations. A short period of time is blown apart into an hour or two on the cinema screen. For Artaud, representation worked on a temporal level. His determination to make cinematic sound spatial rather than temporal in La Révolte du boucher reflects his negative attitude toward representation. Since his earliest writings, such as the correspondence with Jacques Rivière of 1923–24, Artaud had spoken of a two-way trap in which his activities fell apart: he was faced on one side by the dispersal of his language through its inarticulacy, the slippage that the image suffered as it was brought into textual form, and on the other by the loss of the “complete” text into representation, which stole the relevance that the image had to the physical presence of the person producing it.

For Artaud, any completed artistic representation involved a diminishment of the actual experience of whatever was represented. His hostility toward representation endured, achieving its most forceful projection in Pour en finir avec le jugement de Dieu, in which he casts representation as inextricably and maliciously social: “There is nothing I abominate and execrate so much as this idea . . . of representation,/that is, of virtuality, of nonreality,/ . . . /attached to all that is produced and shown, as if it were wanted in that way to socialize and at the same time paralyze monsters, make the possibilities of explosive deflagration, which are too dangerous for life, pass through the channel of the stage, screen, or micro[phone], and so turn them away from life.”4 The virtual, the nonreal, dimension of representation could only be overcome by emphasizing what was actually physically present. But the cinema especially, with its intricate shadowplay and its institutional support systems, denies Artaud’s movement toward the work in direct contact with the body; it strips the image of its immanence. Thus Artaud’s conception of cinema involved finding a way to make the body in which the film has its axis at least seem immediately present, shattered and dense. This is the purpose of his alienation techniques and shock effects: as far as possible, the viewer was to experience the film physically. (In parallel terms, of which Artaud must have been aware, the Italian Futurist film manifesto of November 1916 had demanded “polyexpressiveness,” and had proposed “filmed unreal reconstructions of the human body”; and a comparable intensity of interaction within the performance space of the film would appear after Artaud’s death, in the early French Lettrist cinema. At the first screenings of Maurice Lemaître’s Le Film a déjà commencé? [Has the film already started?, 1951], for example, the director threw buckets of water at the audience.)

La Révolte du boucher has a far more cohesive narrative than La Coquille et le clergyman; it also has a specific location, the place d’Alma in Paris. The principal figure in the scenario, introduced by Artaud as “the madman,” is in a dangerously obsessive state. Waiting to meet a woman, he watches a carcass of meat fall from a butcher’s truck, and is fascinated by the rapport between the meat and human flesh. He provokes a brawl in a nearby café, then takes part in a sequence of headlong chases (recalling those in Hollywood silent comedy films), which culminate in his arrival at a slaughterhouse and his humiliation there at the hands of the police. As with La Coquille et le clergyman, the identity of the protagonist is volatile, and he seems to live at a junction of extreme opposites of sensation, from joy to paralyzing despair. The action of the scenario is powered by sudden transformations of space, punctuated by cries and noises.

Artaud described the content of the imagery in La Révolte du boucher as “eroticism, cruelty, the taste for blood, the search for violence, obsession with the horrible, dissolution of moral values, social hypocrisy, lies, false witness, sadism, perversity,” all to appear with “the maximum readability.”5 It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that he failed to find the financing for the film. His theoretical work on the cinema tailed off also, but he continued to act in movies, making 22 appearances in all between 1924 and 1935. Among these are his startlingly contorted and ironical roles in Abel Gance’s Napoleon (both the silent version of 1926 and the sound version of 1935) , Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, and Fritz Lang’s Liliom, 1933. His gestural control in these films oscillates between a kind of paroxysmal seizure and an emotional grandeur. Artaud also made the journey to Berlin to act in German films. (Lang’s Liliom had been shot in Paris.) Though he played a small role in G. W. Pabst’s version of Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, 1931, he despised the movie for its “vulgarity and its complete disorientation.”6 Most of these films were painful, menial work for him, in fact, especially Raymond Bernard’s patriotic blockbuster Les Croix de bois (The wooden crosses, 1931 ), in which he plays an enthusiastic soldier who leaps out of a trench toward the Germans, crying “I shit on you, swine!” “Abominable work” of this sort led to the exhaustion of Artaud’s engagement with cinema of any kind, and in 1932 he would conclude, “I am ever more convinced that the cinema is and will remain the art of the past. You cannot work in it without feeling ashamed.”7

Nevertheless, an innovative theory of cinema emerges from the short, fragmentary texts that Artaud wrote contemporaneously with La Coquille et le clergyman and La Révolte du boucher. Like all his work, this theoretical film writing proceeds by flux, with points of abandonment followed by periods of resurgence. It reaches its greatest intensity of visualization when it discusses abandoned, unrealized projects. Artaud’s proposals for the cinema are contradictory, and are best understood by proceeding through both film and some other creative apparatus, particularly the text of his letters. The letter was always a privileged site of articulation for him; here he could ally polemical exhortation to direct address, the imparting of confidential information to a form of written contract, which, once sent, was binding. The letter format is crucial to Artaud’s production throughout the course of his work, from the correspondence with Rivière, on poetic fissuration and slippage, to his final denunciatory and syntactically shattered letters to the Paris newspaper Combat in 1947–48. The amplitude and potential of Artaud’s conception of cinema must be sought in the spare traces left between his letters, his abrupt critical writings, his screenplays, and the parts of La Coquille et le clergyman that remain attached to his imagery.

Recognizing that some degree of mediation is intractably a given in the cinema, Artaud tried both to ambush it and to work with it. He wanted to tear the image from a representational role onto the spectator’s alert sensorium. (Robert Bresson has described cinematography as “the art, with images, of representing nothing.”8) Artaud aimed for a densification of the film image through spatiality of movement. Elements are articulated through their suppression or subtraction, so that the film language becomes one of dissolution, and the narrative is broken. The image is pounded down to compact sensation: Artaud wrote, “Search for a film with purely visual sensations in which the force would emerge from a collision exacted on the eyes.”9 (There is an obvious resonance here with the slitting of the eye in Un Chien andalou, which was in preparation at the time of La Coquille et le clergyman’s premiere. There the “collision exacted on the eye” is performed literally on the figure on the screen as well as being empathically suffered by the viewers in the cinema.) The concentrated impact that an Artaud film might possess results from the isolation of disjunctive elements within the textual system, producing a dynamic and spatial inscription. With a project such as La Révolte du boucher, the imagery’s visceral charge would be further accentuated by the breakdown of filmic space and the insertion of discontinuous sounds.

Artaud’s conception of cinema moves away from the film fiction that invisibly integrates sound and image (like the movies in which he acted) toward a kind of documentary interaction of chance and control. All his scenarios project an atmosphere of darkness, blood, and shock at the interstice between these two points. There is an endless doubling, an endless division between reality and fiction, between subject and object. The texts delineate a conflict upon borderlines, charting the trajectories of what Artaud called “the simple impact of objects, forms, repulsions, attractions.”10 These impacting collisions include that between subjectivity and sociality, and between the unconscious, as a site of oppositional tension, and the language that surrounds and penetrates it. At the surface between the two there is an insistent leakage of the physical and emotional content that Artaud sought to harness and direct.

This traversal of textual borders also involves a negative drive: the viewer is repelled from the screen, barred from the identification and absorption that the cinema usually constructs. The image stays an image or risks annihilation. Here Artaud’s film texts move toward a fall into catastrophe, toward what cannot be realized. Artaud imagined a dangerous state of negative magnetic interaction between image and spectator. His texts suggest a cinema that would try to force spectators into multiple confrontations with its powerfully fractured language of disintegration and disaster, while simultaneously they would remain grounded in the tactile world—would be excluded from the cinema’s usual fictive illusions. They would alternate between subject and object, on a border where narrative is cut and broken.

The suturing negativity of Artaud’s screenplays is necessary to retain the form and force of these confrontations. The relentlessly self-annihilating logic of the scenarios is never transgressed, and demands an image at its most stripped away, condensed, and expressive—at its most resistant to the process of representation. This densified negative imagery is expelled under great internal pressure, suddenly emerging from what Artaud called “the convulsions and jumps of a reality that seems to destroy itself with an irony where you can hear the extremities of the mind screaming.”11 For Artaud, film was a stimulant or narcotic acting directly and materially on the brain. He called his project “raw cinema.”12 As in his idea of a theater of cruelty, his language of film was to work only once, utterly avoiding the word in its role as a sign constituted in order to repeat itself. Instead, imagery is compacted of chance, control, and the projection of the body.

Artaud’s project for the cinema is largely unrealized, though the work of some filmmakers has approached it—Buñuel, for example, though the meshing of sound and image that Artaud denounced in 1929 also effectively terminated the first headlong rush of the Spanish director’s filmmaking. A few hybrid amalgamations of documentary and fiction, such as Georges Franju’s Le Sang des bêtes (The blood of the beasts, 1949), or the Vienna Aktionismus artist Otto Mühl’s films, have also approached the collision of blood and chance that Artaud envisaged for the cinema—an unassimilable territory of fragmentation and eruptive reconstitution in which the spectator moves to the edge of the capacity to evaluate. Physically exposed to implosive and explosive forces demanding a transformation of the viewing position, we are driven toward a spatial resistance to representation. Artaud’s own position within the movement of Surrealist cinema parallels that interrogative resistance.

Stephen Barber is a writer and filmmaker based in Leeds, England. His book on Artaud will appear next year.



1. Antonin Artaud, “Cinéma et Réalité,” 1927, in Oeuvres complètes d’Antonin Artaud, 25 vols., Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1956–, 3: 19.

2. Artaud, lecture at Studio 28, Paris, 29 June 1929, in Oeuvres complètes, 3: 377.

3. For a discussion of this recording, see Stephen Barber, “A Foundry of the Figure: Antonio Artaud,” Artforum XXVI no. I, September 1987, pp. 88-95.

4. Artaud, Pour en finir avec le jugement de dieu: Avis de messe, 1947, in Oeuvres complètes,13:258-59.

5. Artaud, notes to La Révolte du boucher, in Nouvelle Revue Française no. 201, 1 June 1930, p. 803.

6. Artaud, letter to Jean Paulhan, 22 January 1932, Oeuvres complètes, 3:261.

7. Artaud, postcard to Louis Jouvet, 20 May 1932, Oeuvres complètes, 3:283.

8. Robert Bresson, Notes sur la cinématographie, Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1975, p . 20.

9. Artaud, Cinéma et réalité, p. 19.

10. Ibid., p. 20.

11. Ibid.

12. Artaud, Sorcellerie et Cinéma, 1927, Oeuvres complètes, 3:66.

All translations from the French in this essay are by the author.