La Coquille et le Clergyman

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(The Seashell and the Clergyman)

France, 1928

Director: Germaine Dulac

Production: Delia Film (Dulac's company) may have produced it, but there is no concrete evidence to that fact; black and white, 35mm, silent; running time: 42 minutes, some sources list 38 minutes. Released 9 February 1928. Filmed at Studio de Ursulines in Paris.

Scenario: Antonin Artaud, revised by Germaine Dulac; photography: Paul Guichard; editor: Paul Parguel; assistant editor: Louis Ronjat.

Cast: Alex Allin (Priest); Bataille (Officer); Gerica Athanasiou (Woman).



Artaud, Antonin, La Coquille et le clergyman, in Nouvelle Revue Française (Paris), November 1927.


Curtis, David, Experimental Cinema, London, 1971.

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Lawder, Standish D., The Cubist Cinema, New York, 1975.

Le Grice, Malcolm, Abstract Film and Beyond, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1977.

Heck-Rabi, Louise, Women Filmmakers: A Critical Reception, Metuchen, New Jersey, 1984.


Dulac, Germaine, "Sur le cinéma visuel," in Le Rouge et le noir (Paris), July 1928.

Dulac, Germaine, "Jouer avec les bruits," in Cinéma—Ciné pour tous (Paris), 15 August 1929.

Ford, Charles, "Germaine Dulac," in Anthologie du Cinéma 31 (Paris), January 1968.

Cornwell, Regina, "Maya Deren and Germaine Dulac: Activists of the Avant-Garde," in Film Library Quarterly (New York), Winter 1971–72.

Van Wert, W., "Germaine Dulac: First Feminist Filmmaker," in Women and Film (Santa Monica, California), vol. 1, nos. 5–6, 1974.

Dozoretz, Wendy, "Dulac vs. Artaud," in Wide Angle (Athens, Ohio), no. 1, 1979.

Travelling (Lausanne), Summer 1979.

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Flitterman, Sandy, "Theorizing the Feminine: Women as the Figure of Desire in The Seashell and the Clergyman," in Wide Angle, (Athens, Ohio), vol. 6, no. 3, 1984.

Kolisnyk, M. H., "Surrealism, Surreptition: Artaud's Doubles," in October (Cambridge, Massachusetts), Spring 1993.

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Fotiade, R., "The Untamed Eye: Surrealism and Film Theory," in Screen (Oxford), vol. 36, no. 4, 1995.

* * *

La Coquille et le clergyman may now be regarded as the first Surrealist film, released a year before Buñuel and Dali's Un Chien andalou, which contains the image of an eye sliced by a razor. In Coquille, Germaine Dulac used trick photography to create the effect of an officer's head being split in half. The films share other Surrealist devices as well.

Antonin Artaud wrote the scenario, and wanted to act the role of the priest, though he did not initially want to direct the film. He subsequently seems to have changed his mind, writing to Dulac of his annoyance that the shooting and editing of La Coquille were done without him. Dulac had revised his scenario, casting Alex Allin in the priest's role. The film represents the subconscious sexual cravings of the priest, and is set in dreamlike environments. In one notorious scene the priest is shown masturbating. In another, the priest encounters the frightening ghost of a woman in a ballroom. He runs away, pulling up the skirts of his cassock, which lengthens and stretches away like a tail behind him. The clergyman and the woman run through darkness, their progress marked by visions of the woman in varying forms, once with her tongue sticking out, another time with her cheek ballooning outward.

It is believed that Artaud was particularly infuriated by a scene in which the priest, wearing a frock coat, is in a wine cellar. He empties an array of glasses of red wine, then shatters all of them. With no transition, he is next seen crawling on his hands and knees in a Paris street.

Artaud criticized Dulac for softening the lean strength of his script. When Dulac premiered La Coquille as "a dream of Antonin Artaud," he denounced the film. According to Wendy Dozoretz, in her article in Wide Angle, it was André Breton who yelled out, as the film's credits appeared on the screen, "Mme. Dulac is a cow." Led by Artaud, critic Georges Sadoul, novelist Louis Aragon and others stopped the film projector, threw objects at the screen and walked out in protest, leaving a bewildered audience behind. In Dozoretz's words, La Coquille was "the unique product of two incongruous minds."

Certain contemporary critics contend that Artaud's scenario was superior to Dulac's interpretation. David Curtis in Experimental Cinema faults Dulac's pictorial conceptions as oversimplified, and her editing as too well measured, subtracting from Artaud's visions. J. H. Matthews in Surrealism and Film affirms that Dulac did not comprehend Artaud's artistic intentions, and did distort his script. "She did not succeed altogether in emptying Artaud's scenario of Surrealist content. For this reason alone, her Coquille deserves mention among the first Surrealist films"

Dozoretz admits that the feminist Dulac's direction of the film could have resulted in misinterpretation of Artaud's misogynistic scenario. However, the optical tricks that Dulac used were those specified. As for Artaud's charge that Dulac "feminized" his script, Dozoretz agrees that Dulac probably did weaken the brutality of Artaud's vision.

The fact that La Coquille is presently well-known and often shown is owed to Henri Langlois, former head of the Cinémathèque française, who rediscovered it after decades of oblivion. La Coquille has aged gracefully, its potency intact, secure in its deserved niche as a classic of Surrealist cinema.

—Louise Heck-Rabi

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La Coquille et le Clergyman

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