Mad Love 5: Surrealisme, mon espoir

The Lake House

The Lake House

In this and the forthcoming final entry in this series on the supernatural romantic melodrama, I subject this subgenre to some theorizing along two lines: Surrealism in this entry, and melodrama in the next. I will concentrate in these on three key recent films, The Lake House, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and The Adjustment Bureau, particularly in the next entry. These are the three films that started me off on this, but that I haven’t dealt with thus far. A detailed exegesis of them might wait until the next phase of this project (a book), but I hope to use them here, along with references to the films and TV shows I’ve talked about previously, to raise some questions in terms of Surrealism and the supernatural romance.

The first thing here is: how so, “surreal”? Over its history, the term has taken on multiple formulations. Though writers on Surrealism as a movement resist it, “surreal,” small-s, clearly has taken on a colloquial meaning that few other movements ever have, typically suggesting some amorphous sense of “weirdness,” of virtually anything that contravenes the strictures of realism. This meaning, at least, certainly extends to the likes of Cocteau’s Orpheus, discussed way back in the first Mad Love entry. But the Surrealists themselves detested Cocteau; Cocteau’s myth-informed symbolism cut against their focus on rupturing traditional ways of making meaning, their ideology of liberation, and even their attempts to find the marvelous in relation to concrete, physical reality. Indeed, the main gripe with Cocteau would seem to be that Cocteau was taken in some quarters as Surreal, and even invoked Surrealism himself, while in fact what he was doing was quite different. Indeed, for the architects of Surrealism, Cocteau’s elaborate world-construction made him a fantasist, and they were careful to exclude fantasy as such from the body of Surrealist art.  This sort of fence-tending is endemic to Surrealism, from Andre Breton spending huge portions of his “Manifesto of Surrealism” to expelling former fellow travelers, to Michael Richardson rejecting the Surrealist credentials of the likes of David Lynch in Surrealism and Cinema.

I will spend part of this entry outlining the Surrealist aesthetic and ideology, but having spent time now looking at Surrealism as an aesthetic movement, perhaps the first thing to say here is that I am not claiming that supernatural romances are necessarily Surreal in that capital-S sense. Breton, Dali, et. al. had detailed, extensively elaborated, and highly prescriptive notions of what Surrealism was and wasn’t. Yet not just in the movement’s early years when actual Surrealist art was still quite thin on the ground, but in fact right way through to the present, Surrealism is distinguished from other modernisms by its interest in the liberatory potential of popular culture, and popular cinema in particular. The actual body of strictly “Surrealist” cinema is limited, though this varies depending on the commentator. In Linda Williams’ Figures of Desire and Robert Short’s The Age of Gold, the Surrealist cinematic canon doesn’t extend past early Bunuel; in Dada, Surrealism, and the Cinematic Effect, R. Bruce Elder examines Larry Jordan’s animations as Surrealist, in great detail, but Elder has no interest whatever in any kind of popular cinema (others look to Joseph Cornell’s “Rose Hobart” as an example of somewhat later American Surrealism). By contrast, in The Shadow and Its Shadow, his invaluable anthology of Surrealist writing on the cinema, Paul Hammond includes Surrealist celebrations of at least the potential of popular cinema, though in most cases this becomes a factor of reception (consider, for example, Breton and Desnos’ practice of randomly entering cinemas, absorbing images without regard to their narrative context, and leaving once bored). In Surrealism and the Cinema, Richardson rejects Lynch, but is happy to include the likes of Louis Feuillade, Les Enfants du Paradis, and Daughters of Darkness. Crucially for me, Richardson and Hammond note the Surreal aspects of such melodramas as Peter Ibbetson, Portrait of Jennie, and Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. Though both are gimlet-eyed when it comes to contemporary commercial cinema, I want to argue that even if in the end they would disallow things like The Time Traveler’s Wife and Pushing Daisies, The Lake House, for one, is surely a film with significant affinities with Surrealism.

And this, ultimately, is what I am arguing: that while not Surrealist cinema per se, at least not according to the prescriptions of Breton and Dali, the supernatural romantic melodrama as a subgenre has significant affinities with Surrealism, and if some of these films fall more under the umbrella of fantasy (which the Surrealists had no interest in), others are exemplary cases of popular surrealism, even of popular Surrealism. Indeed, for Michael Richardson, “In fact there is no such thing as a ‘surrealist film.’ There are only films made by surrealists and films that have an affinity or correspondence with surrealism.”[1] In this sense, for him, the question should be, “how does consideration of this particular film or film maker in relation to surrealism help us to illuminate either surrealism or the film?”[2] The supernatural romance, or at least a set of core cases of it, has profound affinities with Surrealism. Consideration in this light can illuminate the films, and point to a vein in popular cinema of particular favor to the Surrealists, helping to illuminate their concerns as well. The Surrealist conceptions of cinema most salient here are those of the cinema as dream, and the capacity of the cinema to effect the intrusion of the marvelous into everyday reality. Beyond cinema as such, their celebration of love as a transgressive force feeds directly into a consideration of the supernatural romance.

Dream Lovers

“The outer world becomes so transparent and the inner world so diverse and full of meaning that one finds oneself in a state of nervous animation between the two.”[3] -Novalis

Surrealism was one of many artistic and philosophical movements in the early 20th century formulated in reaction to the sense that enlightenment rationalism had led to “an alienating dimunition of the polysemic fulsomeness of the world that man inhabited and that inhabited him.”[4] Under scientific rationalism, as Elder puts it, “some of the most profound realms of human consciousness were reconceived so that they came to be understood as lying beyond the bounds of the legitimate activities of the human enterprise.”[5] Firstly, Elder argues, Surrealism must be placed in an intellectual context in which the likes of Einstein had “revealed” “that the world is not as our senses perceive it to be:” “If our beliefs are erroneous, if they are no better than imaginings, why then should we not at least strive to make those ideas- those imaginings- as rich, as intense, as vital, as life-giving as possible?”[6] Secondly, he writes, “For many later moderns, this image of consciousness and reality seemed utterly inadequate. They felt the noetic strength and richness of forms of experience that modernity had disenfranchised,” and “strived to develop artistic forms that might revitalize them, preparing the way for them to assume a greater role in the knowledge enterprise when a new understanding of reality emerged. Indeed, many of these artists believed that one of the purposes of vanguard art was to hasten this emergence.”[7] In his “Manifesto of Surrealism,” Andre Breton railed that “Under the pretense of civilization and progress, we have managed to banish from the mind everything that may rightly or wrongly be termed superstition or fancy; forbidden is any kind of search for truth which is not in conformance with accepted practices.”[8] Elsewhere, he wrote that Surrealism endeavored in opposition to “the spread of this cancer of the mind which consists of thinking all too sadly that certain things ‘are,’ while other things, which might well be, ‘are not.’”[9] In opposition to this, the end-goal of the Surrealists, as Hammond puts it, was “the re-enchantment of nature, and of man.”[10] For them, the  “poetic imagination” was “the keystone, the binding agent of authentic understanding.”[11] As an agent for liberation, Surreality represented a “visionary, fugitive point of the mind where hierarchies and antinomies [were] to be abolished, where obstinate differences collapse into the flux of exchange.”[12]

The Surrealists strove for a kind of engagement with the world that would be free of the bourgeois worldview and hierarchies of knowledge based on rationalism. For Breton and his confreres, Surrealism was an expression of “total revolt,”[13] and in much of his “Second Manifesto of Surrealism,” in particular, he expounds on the links between Surrealism and Marxism, claiming that Surrealist ideas have no meaning outside the context of revolution. “…Surrealism aims quite simply at the total recovery of our psychic force by a means which is nothing other than the dizzying descent into ourselves, the systematic illumination of hidden places and the progressive darkening of other places, the perpetual excursion into the midst of forbidden territory….”[14] It is for this reason, that he quotes approvingly Rimbaud on the value of “the ‘long, immense, reasoned derangement of the senses.’”[15]Elder writes,

Surrealism was not a movement that railed against the perfidious poverty of reality or the depravity of human nature. Rather, the Surrealists sought a more passionate means of apprehending the sensory world- means that implied a more intimate association between the subject and the object of awareness than quotidian perception allows. They sought this by means that displaced familiar perspectives, that disrupted our conventional relations with objects and destroyed our customary expectations in order to allow the endless possibilities inherent in concrete forms to reveal themselves.[16]

This guided Surrealist practice, and its investment in formalist notions of defamiliarization, that “difficulty enlivens perception by challenging it.”[17] In artistic work, defamiliarization was part and parcel of a triumph of imagination over rationalism, over what Elder calls “calculative reasoning”: “setting aside the rational faculties might allow a noetic process even higher than the imagination to supervene, one that would dissolve all the fixed certainties of the limited bourgeois self and allow a new way of living to emerge.”[18] Cinema had particular properties that enabled this kind of defamiliarization, as we will see.

The Surrealists took an immediate interest in cinema; indeed, Elder’s argument is that their understanding of cinema in turn conditioned how they conceived Surrealism itself. In part, certainly, their enthusiasm for popular cinema was a provocation against bourgeois taste. In terms of specific titles, self-identified Surrealists, whether Breton or, later, Ado Kyrou, only ever claimed that certain films could be thought of “popular accomplices” to Surrealism, films which perhaps partook of Surrealism tendencies without knowing; in Kyrou’s phrase, films that were “involuntarily sublime.”[19] Hammond recounts Paul Eluard’s encounter with Peter Ibbetson, here labeled an “‘involuntarily Surrealist’ Tinseltown melodrama.”[20] If they were interested in the secret life of objects, their ideal instances tended to come from popular melodramas, and their hypotheses for instances of Surrealist juxtaposition, liberated from narrative, came from the same: revolvers, handkerchiefs concealing evidence, runaway cars, telephones, typewriters, collapsing bridges, etc. [21] Commercial cinema, to people like Phillippe Soupault, was made up of “dream thoughts” laden with latent psychic charge.[22] In these terms, the Surrealists were “Epicureans of detritus,” who “uncovered treasures of poetry and subversion in the bargain basement of cinema.”[23] In his Le Surrealisme au cinema, Kyrou wrote of Surrealist appreciations of popular culture as a “delighted discovery and identification in mainstream cinema of a treasure-house of surrealist moments and motifs whose intrusion into conventional narratives is apparently surreptitious, unconscious, or involuntary.”[24]

If much of the Surrealist engagement with cinema posited “aberrant,” against-the-grain, “delirious” interpretations of whatever they happened to see onscreen, there were particular aspects of the cinematic image that seemed suggestive to them. For the Surrealists, there was a correlation of cinema to the operations of consciousness, specifically to hallucinations and dreams, already of interest to them by contrast to a reason-based comprehension of the world; for them, hallucinations and dreams were “more intense” than humdrum bourgeois experience.[25] Dream offered an “experience of otherness,” an “arena of unknown experience.”[26] Breton initially would define Surrealism based on the use of automatic writing to access this arena of thought, and in particular of dream.

SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express- verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner- the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.

ENCYCLOPEDIA. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought.[27]

Breton and the others actively worked on “recalling dreams so vividly that dreaming would become a part of waking life,” and “The hallucinatory or oneiric character of the cinematic image allied it with these efforts to intensify experience, to ensure that every moment of life would be felt with the same intensity with which we respond to a marvellous poem.”[28] Breton wrote, “I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak.”[29] In his “Second Manifesto,” Breton posited a kind of novel reflective of what they saw as the special capabilities of cinema, one “in which the verisimilitude of the setting will, for the first time, stop concealing from us the strange symbolic life which objects, the most commonplace as well as the most clearly defined, have only in dreams.”[30] Surrealist artwork should be modeled on “the world of dreams, where appearance can change from moment to moment, where space is pliable and time has no meaning.”[31] Elder writes: “Surrealism, Breton claimed, was a movement that had emerged from the hypnogogic borderland between sleep and waking, where reverie dismantled rational control of the stream of thought.”[32]

Hammond sums up the Surrealist attraction to cinema better than I can, in fact: “This hypnagogic marvel is founded on several things: the sumptuous concreteness and scale of the film illusion; the isolation from normal reality conferred by the darkness, the night of cinema; the curious contradiction of active, giant, hyperreal phantoms inducting prone, depersonalized beings of flesh and blood into their imaginary world.”[33] The analogies to dream are clear here, not only in terms of the theatrical experience of cinema (the film unspooling to stationary viewers in the dark), but in terms of the play of presence and absence in the film as it unspools. For the Surrealists, “[F]ilm images are dematerialized forms and therefore resemble the contents of the (ideal) mental state.”[34] Jacques Brunius wrote, “Contrary to the theater, film, like thought, like the dream, chooses some gestures, defers or enlarges them, eliminates others, travels many hours, centuries, kilometers in a few seconds, speeds up, slows down, goes backward. It is impossible to imagine a truer mirror of mental performance.”[35] It is both derived from phenomenal reality and, for the above reasons, “the least realistic of the arts,” and thus the “best tool” for the transcription of thought, “thanks to the extraordinary and sumptuous solidity it attributes to the mind’s creations, objectifying them in the most convincing manner, while it makes external reality submit in the opposite direction to subjectivization.”[36] Benayoun writes of cinema’s potential here, analogizing with dream: dream “does away with boundaries,”[37] to a powerfully defamiliarizing effect. In Jean Goudal’s description, cinema was “a conscious hallucination.”[38]

Cinema, like dream, could affect the subconscious on an intuitive level; as in Freudian accounts of dream, the Surrealist account of cinema saw it operating according to laws of desire, not rationality- indeed, could be seen as a language for representing desire. Desire here is less a kind of content than a formal principle tying subjects to objects, Williams writes[39]– itself an idea with some resonance with the idea that melodrama is a form representative of emotional structures of experience. In Williams’ discussion, Robert Desnos’ film theory indicates that “the film, like the dream, should reverse the expectations of the real world by presenting the accomplishments of our most secret desire for passion, adventure, and even murder.”[40] In fact, Desnos’ screenplays instantiate Surrealist ideas not in lurid melodramatic content, but in formal play; as in the case of dream, for the Surrealists this was less a matter of depicting the actual content of a dream and more a matter of finding “a filmic analogue to certain dream procedures.”[41] This is an issue not of dream content, then, but of dream structure. Within this framework, though, images of violence and passionate, erotic love had a charge, embodying operations of desire, that attracted the Surrealists.

For Bunuel and his fellow Surrealists, cinema was therefore “an instrument of poetry, with all that this word possesses of a liberating sense, of a subversion of reality, of a threshold at the marvelous world of the subconscious, of a nonconformity with the mean-spirited reality surrounding us.”[42] What is in fact particular about cinema for him, writing in “The Cinema, Instrument of Poetry,” is “mystery and the fantastic”[43] (note that this is a different meaning of “the fantastic” to that used by Breton and Kyrou, which I will discuss later). To further this, film should not try to make us believe in the worlds they represent; instead, “in Surrealist film everything happens so as to show that the film does not represent a world so much as it constructs one.”[44] Elder writes of the ways that cinema informed Surrealist practice more generally, “in their creative practices, they attempted to re-enact the mind’s construction of reality and to provide a model for a freer construction of lived reality. Creating a hyperreal image became a key goal of their art. Their work presented the strange and wondrous images of dreams and hallucinations with photographic realism.”[45] By representing thought and desire through its dematerialized images, cinema could reveal the everyday in new ways, and thus find the marvelous in the everyday.

The relationship of desire, subjectivity, and art here is partly rooted in the Surrealist enthusiasm for Freud, who had written, in Totem and Taboo, that “Only in one field has the omnipotence of thought been retained in our civilization, namely in art. In art alone it still happens that man, consumed by his wishes, produces something similar to the gratification of these wishes, and this playing, thanks to artistic illusion, calls forth effects as if it were something real. We rightly speak of the magic of art and compare the artist with a magician.”[46] Psychoanalysis, in both its Freudian and Lacanian iterations, was a major influence on Salvador Dali, and his notion of the paranoiac-critical method. This method was on the one hand a version of Surrealist “critical delirium” (like that with which Breton and Desnos engaged with their random viewing of film without regard for narrative context), but one that isolated the relationship between desire and representation; it was a kind of critical delirium applied to the world as a whole, as a basis for artistic creation. It was, for Dali, a way to allow, in fact to encourage, unconscious images to reach consciousness.[47] Paranoia in Dali’s use is not about fear, but about signification, how the world is understood and constructed in artistic practice. “[Paranoia] is a condition,” writes Elder, “in which the paranoiac interprets images, ideas, or events as being connected- as having either a causal connection or as having a mutual relation to a central fact- when outside observers would not accept the connection.”[48] It is “a mental state in which the subject can find immediately in the external world confirmation of the truth of his or her own state of mind (of the individual’s obsessions, etc.).”[49] The Surrealist artist, Dali wrote, must cultivate this stance toward the everyday world, and “Carried out thoroughly, this critical process would elaborate a world view that was all-encompassing and completely coherent, even though based on content produced by a delusional (paranoid) process.”[50] Boundaries between subjective and objective, real and imaginary, cease to exist; Dali wrote that via this method, “the element of delirium passes practically into the tangible domain of action”[51]– subjectivity passes into objectivity, in other words. Indeed, the two are inseparable: desire and the object are inextricably linked. Surrealist cinema must play on this relationship, and can do so by juxtaposing seemingly contradictory elements, in this way intensifying them, and so constructing a world that brings the marvelous into the everyday.

Marvelous Intrusions

“Let us not mince words: the marvelous is always beautiful, anything marvelous is beautiful, in fact only the marvelous is beautiful.”[52]– Andre Breton, “Manifesto of Surrealism”

For Breton, the idea of the “marvelous,” unlike that of the fantastic, is posited on its intrusion into the everyday, as opposed to elaborating alternate worlds or settling on one or another interpretation of the reality depicted; the marvelous remains “objectively” inexplicable. The Surrealist enthusiasm for this inexplicability grows out of their “lust for disorientation.”[53] It follows on from their stance toward subjectivity and the everyday with regard to dream states. Much as “Surrealist dreams linked the higher realm of imagination with the mundane world to form an undivided whole, by importing the intense (and actual) phenomena of the sleeping world into the waking world, whose phenomenal vivacity they augmented,”[54] so “Surrealism sought to intensify the elements that make up an artwork by bringing them into relationship with other contradictory elements”[55] according to the logic of desire. Exploring cinema’s properties as a medium, they in fact created a kind of half-developed theory of montage, like Eisenstein’s based on collision but of objects as well as shots, and rooted in affect, in this case a disorientation that liberated the imagination. The Surrealist interest in juxtaposition follows, in part, from that of Dada, its immediate forerunner, and in cinema, the photographic image facilitated grounding those juxtapositions and the subjectivity they represented in phenomenal reality: “an investment in reality gave the image greater force.”[56] In this way, “The Surrealists exploded the borders of realities- dreams, the unconscious, objective chance, hallucinations brought on by drugs or by mad love, or the convulsions induced by beauty- the places where the poetic image could be said to belong to reality and, paradoxically, to escape from it, released by the imagination.” [57] The Surreal would always be located within/by juxtaposition to the real. If the potential of cinema was partly rooted in the concreteness of its images, then Surrealists could use the medium to create “a sense of the marvelous within the everyday.”[58]

Breton explains the effect for which Surrealist juxtaposition should strive: “Poetically speaking, what strikes you about them [separate elements in a poem as they are juxtaposed] above all is their extreme degree of immediate absurdity, the quality of this absurdity, upon closer scrutiny, being to give way to everything admissible, everything legitimate in the world….”[59] Richardson argues that “Their interest is almost exclusively in exploring the conjunctions, the points of contact, between different realms of existence. Surrealism is always about departures rather than arrivals.”[60] Surrealism, then, is not about “things,” it is about “a relation between things,”[61] such that “oppositions of real and imaginary, high and low, life and death, and so on, are no longer perceived as contradictions.”[62] This, for Elder, is why Max Ernst’s photocollages are exemplary Surrealist objects: in his collage aesthetic, Ernst “gave visible form to the suspicion that modernity had rendered obsolete the opposition between dream and reality, between the inner and outer realm.”[63] Cinematic realism is key here: “The juxtaposition of incongruous elements that appears real- that is, that does not seem simply fantastic- is to some degree surreal.”[64] The marvelous is so because it is a concrete irruption of dream and imagination into the everyday, and thus “The marvellous rends the tissue of our consciousness of reality, and through this rupture in our (pre-) conceptions, something unheimlich (uncanny)- something strange, marvellous, bizarre, or terrifying- reveals itself.”[65] Films which highlight these intrusions, and with them the constructedness of reality, break down oppositions of fantasy and reality, inner and outer. Surrealism, Breton wrote, is not situated in one realm or another: “it is not placed. Neither in the palpable world, nor palpably outside of this world.…”[66] It takes from the outer world, is thus rooted in it, but considers “nature only in its relationship with the inner world of consciousness.”[67]

So, for Richardson, “The fantastic may be defined as that which accepts the conventions of realism while bringing them into question or going beyond them, so that we are unsure of the ground of reality on which we are standing. In contrast, the marvellous refuses the realist demand for verisimilitude, and reconciles- or holds in tension- the contradiction between real and imaginary….”[68] Hammond explores this distinction in Kyrou’s work:

In “The Fantastic-The Marvelous” (q.v.) Kyrou associates the former with any religious or spiritualist interpretation of the awesome uncanniness of phenomena: sons of god, angels, life after death, and the like. Such a masochistic evasion of the law of desire is set against the absolute materialism of the marvelous, a sacred category, euphoric and tumultuous in nature, out of which man is driven to explore a nonalienated, holistic being-in-the-world.[69]

For Kyrou, as for Breton before him, the marvelous is “the crux of Surrealism.” And the marvelous is rooted in the physical world and its material relations: “the marvelous explodes on earth.” [70] Feuillade’s serials are, for Richardson, ideal instances of this: “They evoke a world in which fantastic events surge forth in the most everyday situations,” and evince a “dream atmosphere that is uniquely material and matter of fact.” It’s an uncertain world, one in which “Nothing is stable: one thing may assume another aspect without notice.”[71]

The favored strategy for constructing this uncertain world is juxtaposition of the imaginary and the real, such that, as Williams puts it, “the imaginary not only intrudes into the quotidian but completely takes it over, causing the distinction between the two to break down.”[72] Thus the value of cinema itself: the more “real” the image, the more disorienting is the intrusion of another reality, or another logic, into it. Cinema, as Short puts it in The Age of Gold, “is a splendid dissolvent of the fixed identity of things.”[73] In cinema, reality could be transformed from what Short calls the “joint action” of the “optical unconscious” of the camera and the “desiring unconscious” of the spectator.[74]

What, though, is a sufficiently strong force of desire to disrupt and call into question the status of reality in the film image? The answer takes me to the last piece of the puzzle in exploring the affinities between Surrealism and the supernatural romance.

It is this: Love.

Amours fou

“In order to attain authentic lyrical existence the poetry of cinema demands, more than any other, a traumatic and violent disequilibrium veering toward concrete irrationality.”[75] –Salvador Dali, “Abstract for a critical history of the cinema”

“Mainstream cinema comes ethically closest to Surrealism in the expression of love.”[76] –Paul Hammond, “Available Light,” in The Shadow and Its Shadows

Genres like the comedy, the musical, horror, noir, and various strains of melodrama, presented “fertile territory for dislodging our faith in a realist apprehension of the solidity of reality.”[77] Indeed, Richardson argues that “the most remarkable configuration of Hollywood film and surrealism is to be found in the treatment of love”: “A belief in the transformative power of love has been one of the constants of surrealist endeavour.”[78] Their romantic/erotic ideal was “an extravagant, overwhelming kind of love,” one that “represented a rending, a moment of rupture when the identity of the individual self is brought into doubt through an encounter with an other who holds a possibility of effecting its transformation. This love is violent and transgressive….” Through this kind of love, “the solidity of the world disperses,” and there is an “irruption of the eternal into everyday life.” [79] This love takes the couple “beyond the dimensions of time and space which form ‘this world,’” and “it is through the couple’s experience of one another that they are transformed and made aware of another dimension of reality than that which they are habitually used to.” The faith that such melodramas invest in love “conjoin” them with surrealism “in a defiant refusal of the given.”[80] This is amour fou: “The phenomenon  of the couple, the man and woman whose transgressive love unites them against a repressive society conspiring to contain their passion, characterizes mad love.”[81]

Members of The Adjustment Bureau, conspiring to prevent the love of the central couple

Members of The Adjustment Bureau, conspiring to prevent the love of the central couple

For Breton and the rest of the Surrealist Group, love’s transgressive power was to be glorified. Consider this passage from the Group’s manifesto in celebration of “L’Age d’or”:

We are not far from that day when it will be seen that, despite the wear and tear that bites into us like acid, and at the foundation of that liberating or somber activity which is the seeking after a cleaner life in the very bosom of the machinery with which ignominy industrializes the city,


alone remains without perceptible limits and dominates the deepness of the wind, the diamond mine, the constructions of the mind, and the logic of the flesh.[82]

In his Second Manifesto, Breton wrote, “[Surrealism] believes, and it will never believe in anything more wholeheartedly, in reproducing artificially this ideal moment when man, in the grips of a particular emotion, is suddenly seized by this something ‘stronger than himself’ which projects him, in self-defense, into immortality.”[83] For him, love was the most powerful, most liberatory emotion capable of this, and he devoted a significant portion of his work to celebrating it, principally his book, [ahem] Mad Love. This book is in part another manifesto of Surrealism, but one written out of his devotion to his second wife, the painter Jacqueline Lamba. Throughout, he celebrates his love for her, aspects of which seem to defy reality: one extended passage[84] discusses how his poem “Sunflower (for Pierre Reverdy),” written in 1923, literally predicted his meeting her 11 years later. Following this, chapter 5 is an extended lyrical rhapsody to her, wherein he refers to “treading the unknown with the one I love.”[85] One passage:

I desire you. I desire only you. I caress the white bears without reaching you. No other woman will ever have access to this room where you are a thousand, as I decompose all the gestures I have seen you make. Where are you? I am playing hide and seek with ghosts. But I will certainly end up finding you, and the whole world will be newly lit from our loving each other, because a whole chain of illuminations passes through us. Because it takes in a multitude of couples who like us will know forever how to make a diamond from the white night.[86]

Love for Breton was not merely the subject of poetic digressions, but “a fundamental principle for moral as well as cultural progress.”[87] He reiterates the Group’s stance on “L’Age d’or,” highlighting the subversive potential they attributed to love:

The film remains, to this day, the only enterprise of exaltation of total love such as I envisage it, and the violent reactions of its representations in Paris produced have only strengthened my consciousness of its incomparable value. Love, in everything it can contain for two beings, which is absolutely limited to them, isolated from the rest of the world, has never shown itself so freely, with so much tranquil audacity.[88]

Later, a characteristic lyrical passage:

Wonderful Teide, take my life! Turn, under those radiant hands and make all my facets sparkle. I want to make only one being with your flesh, the very flesh of the medusas, for one single being alone to be the medusa of the seas of desire. Mouth of the heavens and yet mouth of hell, I prefer you thus in your enigma, able to send natural beauty to the skies and to swallow up everything. It is my heart beating in your inviolable depths, in this blinding rose garden of mathematical folly where you mysteriously ready your power. May your arteries, traversed with beautiful, vibrant black blood, guide me at length towards everything I have to know, to love, toward everything that must make a plume at the end of my fingers! Let my thoughts speak through you, through the thousand screeching mouths of the ermines where you display yourself at sunrise! You truly bear the floral ark which would no longer be the ark were you not to hold it above it the single branch of lightning; you mingle with my love; this love and you are destined as far as the eye can reach to create the dust of diamonds. The great bottomless lakes of light succeed in me with the rapid passing of your exhalations. From you all roads to the infinite, all springs, all the lightbeams leap, Deria-i-Noor and Koh-i-Noor, lovely crest of a single diamond trembling. On the side of the abyss, made of philosophers’ stone, the starry castle opens.[89]

Chapter 7, the concluding chapter, is addressed to his and Jacqueline’s daughter, Aube: “Despite everything, I shall have maintained that this expression forever is the master key. What I have loved, whether I have kept it or not, I shall love forever.”[90] The last line of the book, to Aube: “I want you to be madly loved.”[91]

Based on love, he envisages a world in which “the only real object” is “the actual one of our desire.[92] Love is the only force that allows escape from rationalism’s “frozen waters of egotistic calculation.”[93]

Reciprocal love, such as I envisage it, is a system of mirrors which reflects for me, under the thousand angles that the unknown can take for me, the faithful image of the one I love, always more surprising in her divining of my own desire and more gilded with life.[94]

Nature is likely to light up and to fade out, to serve and not to serve me, only to the extent that I feel the rise and the fall of the fire of a hearth which is love, the only love, that for a single being. I have known, in the absence of this love, the real skies empty, the flotsam of everything I was about to grasp in the Dead Sea, the desert of flowers.[95]

Discussing the Venus myth, Breton testifies that love cannot be imaginary, cannot be fantasy, but that rather its power comes out of its relation to the everyday: “passion, with its magnificent wild eyes, must suffer at having to mix in the human struggle.”[96] Yet, as for the Romantics, from this it could triumph: “I do not deny that love has a difference with life. I say it should vanquish, and in order to do so, should rise to such a poetic consciousness of itself that every hostile thing it meets should melt in the hearth of its own splendor.”[97] In the face of such splendor, “fairy stories” (such as supernatural romances?) might become real: “If I want the world to change, if I even mean to consecrate part of my own life to its changing in its social aspect, it is not the vain hope of returning to the time of these stories, but of course, in the hope of helping the time to come when they will no longer just be stories.”[98]

For Breton, writing in 1951, cinema has a special power to represent this love: “What is most specific of all the means of the camera is obviously the power to make concrete the forces of love which, despite everything, remain deficient in books, simply because nothing in them can render the seduction or distress of a glance or certain feelings of priceless giddiness.”[99] The distinction Kyrou makes in “The Fantastic-The Marvelous” is worth returning to here, because he puts it in the service of a passionate espousal of a cinema in which the marvelous, because at the insterstices of the real and the imaginary, can therefore represent the transgressive potential of love. Kyrou defines the fantastic by way of Christianity and the myth of the virgin birth, and goes on to describe the marvelous in sharp contrast, emphasizing its worldliness as key to love as liberatory. “On the other hand, the glance of a woman who loves is the bridge leading to the forces on the other side, and these forces are as worldly as that glance. Therein resides their magic which, instead of reducing man to the level of a kneeling domesticated animal, lifts him up, makes him aware of the power of revolt, and puts him in touch with the treasures he refused to see surrounding him. So-called supernatural phenomena are only unknown human forces or the magnificent symbols of terrestrial power.”

Everything I know, everything I can find, everything that can move me, everything that exists is found on earth. This everything is endless, and the marvelous it conceals accepts no idealistic, deistic, or in any way nonexistent accretion that destroys it.[100]

“Love,” he writes, “can only emerge victorious in this universe where the refusal to consider the earth a vale of tears opens up the floodgates of human revolt.”[101] Again we see the special power of cinema in this regard: “At the moment of dreaming, the fantastic does not exist, it is real.”[102]

If the marvelous is the “crux” of Surrealism, and here specifically in terms of showing love to be a force of revolt, then I would argue that this notion traces a trajectory through the body of supernatural romantic melodramas, and allows us to isolate a particular set of films within it that have evident Surrealist affinities. By definition, the supernatural romance is based on fantasy, in the fantastic in this Surrealist sense, and in a generic sense (rather than that outlined by Todorov and other literary critics, who most commonly view it in terms of an indeterminacy between the real and the supernatural), but not based in fantasy-based alternative worlds. In fact, the degree to which the imaginary here is situated with regard to the material world (versus that of some alternate, quasi-religious or mythical world) varies. With that variance comes degrees to which the supernatural romance shows love to be disruptive or liberatory within the real, or, more conservatively, subject to rule-bound, hierarchized spiritual realms.

Hammond’s introductory chapter to The Shadow and Its Shadows demonstrates that the supernatural romance was an abiding interest to Surrealist film critics. Discussing cinematic depictions of love that the Surrealists embraced, Hammond lists a number of titles,[103] and not all of them are supernatural- for example White Shadows in the South Seas and Gun Crazy– but most of them are. All of them share some sense of love pitted against a cruel and repressive world, and indeed the inclusion of White Shadows alongside the likes of Peter Ibbetson suggests the narrative and thematic consonance of material and metaphysical subversion for the Surrealists. Richardson, too, recognizes the supernatural romance as exemplary, and includes films like Peter Ibbetson and Berkeley Square. Where he’s quite wrong is in imagining that “It is, for instance, difficult to think of a single significant Hollywood film since Vertigo that even touches upon love in a way that corresponds to a surrealist perspective.”[104]

What I’m arguing is that in fact love corresponding to a Surrealist perspective is a particular tendency within the supernatural romance right to its contemporary iterations. All of these films and television programs are about something that can be rightly be called “mad love”: they are all about love affairs that by their nature or that of the obstacles they encounter, are, prima facie, impossible. Insofar as I have used “romantic melodrama” as a key part of my term, these are also all films that take place in some sort of “real world.” Therefore, the supernatural condition or obstacle always constitutes an intrusion of the fantastic, the imaginary, into that world: a marvelous juxtaposition of two realities that leaves the statuses and boundaries of both indeterminate, and thus liquidizes any physical or metaphysical certainties. In some cases, in fact, even “fantastic” iterations of the supernatural romance can carry seeds of revolt (in the Surrealist sense) within them.

Returning to my genealogy from the first four Mad Love entries, then, we can say that where in Peter Ibbetson there is no explanation given, or seemingly felt needed, to explain the immaterial communions of Peter and Mary whilst he rots in jail, the film is exemplary of popular film Surrealism, while Borzage’s Liliom couches the title character’s attempts to redeem himself to Julie and his daughter from beyond the grave in strictly Christian terms. Liliom’s love for Julie allows him to transcend the barriers between earth and the afterlife because Heaven allows it, in the service of Christian moral redemption. Both films are exemplary supernatural romances, but Peter Ibbetson has far greater affinities with Surrealism. Death Takes a Holiday is at least more Pagan than Christian in its depiction of Death, but too, its conclusion, Death taking his willing bride, is by degrees more transgressive than the resignation, airing of platitudes, and subsequent reincarnation (Death bestowing a gift on the living) that ends Meet Joe Black. Portrait of Jennie is, again, admirably Surrealist in its refusal to explain how the love of Eben and Jennie is possible, such that in it love bursts through the laws of time, life, and death. In Here Comes Mr. Jordan and A Matter of Life and Death, though, ultimately the elaboration of a fantastic Christian afterlife, carefully overseen by bureaucrats, makes love subject to the judgment of higher forces, largely shorn of transgressive power. Indeed, Mr. Jordan and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir are notably conservative here. In the former, whether love is or is not allowed to flourish is wholly dependent on the decisions made by Mr. Jordan and his employer; in the latter, Mrs. Muir is never allowed the raptures of earthly love, and the film becomes a parable of forbearance: she must wait for the afterlife for her reward. A Matter of Life and Death takes Heaven rather less seriously than Mr. Jordan, though, and it gains some Surrealist credibility by virtue of its depiction of a man who simply refuses to surrender his life and his love. Orpheus, made by the hated Cocteau, would be far too caught up in Cocteau’s personal revisions of classical mythology to please the Surrealists, and Brigadoon too much about stepping out of the world into some nostalgic bygone place to count as having much subversive potential. Pandora and the Flying Dutchman may be rooted in a specific mythos, but it is resolutely about the power of love as a force of disorientation and disequilibrium in its world.

Pandora is one of the latest Hollywood films that either Hammond or Richardson are willing to admit to a Surrealist pantheon, but from the revival of the supernatural romance in the late 1970s to the present, a Surrealist sense of the love story has persisted within it. Where Heaven Can Wait follows relatively closely in the footsteps of Here Comes Mr. Jordan (of which it is a remake, of course), Somewhere in Time shows sheer desire as capable of literally transcending time, space, and matter. Made in Heaven might show a fully elaborated, fantasy afterlife, but that afterlife continually intrudes upon the everyday in ways that are deeply disorientating, indeed delirious. Ghost and Truly, Madly, Deeply , though, are in this sense not love stories at all, but films about letting go, which surely would disgust Breton and Kyrou, while What Dreams May Come wants its characters to hold out for their reward in the (more than a little twee) afterlife. If City of Angels is more a love story than Wings of Desire, it’s also much less Surrealist than the latter, in which love triumphs, and could even be said to transform the earthly realm (thinking here of the move from black and white to color).

At moments, even the most apparently conservative supernatural romance may take on a dreamlike quality, even if within the paradigmatic norms of the popular fiction film, rather than the much more radical terms of self-consciously Surrealist practice. In large part, this is because the fiction film, even in its classical variants, can withstand a certain amount of indeterminacy, such that films that chime with Surrealism can exist within it, however uneasily. By contrast, episodic television’s repetition, routinization, and general imperative to resolve enigmas about the nature of the diegetic worlds it depicts, in the service of fostering long-term investments in situations and characters, means that even while Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Pushing Daisies are clear cases of supernatural romance, they are not particularly Surreal. The art cinema, on the other hand, thrives on indeterminacy, and it is because of this indeterminacy that The Story of Marie and Julien is one of the most powerfully disorienting, Surrealist works in this canon. I have identified The Curious Case of Benjamin Button as an art-cinematic supernatural romance, but in the sense that it works allegorically. Perfect Sense and The Fountain are allegories, too, as well as kinds of science-fiction film. Both are limited from a Surrealist perspective, the former too centered on grappling with the real, the latter too flagrantly imaginary.

Back in the realm of the popular, The Time Traveler’s Wife can be labeled science-fiction as well: it is the story of the lifelong relationship between Henry (Eric Bana) and Clare (Rachel McAdams, go-to romance movie girl), endlessly complicated by the fact that Henry travels in time, but never willingly; rather, it affects him rather like an epileptic fit.

Henry about to travel in time, for the last time, in The Time Traveler's Wife

Henry about to travel in time, for the last time, in The Time Traveler’s Wife

Eventually, Henry is seen as having a “condition.” He is possessed of a genetic anomaly that he passes on to their daughter Alba. This explains and justifies the supernatural component of the film, the time travel, which so complicates Henry and Clare’s love, but more, insofar as that condition is an obstacle to them that can only be overcome by Clare’s patience, the film ultimately becomes a medical melodrama as much as a romance. Henry’s condition is a kind of illness that he and Clare must find ways to work around if they are to stay together. Love unites them, but does not open a space for transcendence. The Adjustment Bureau, in which politician David Norris (Matt Damon) must defy the title characters- angels, basically- in order to be with dancer Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt), is dependent on Christian mythology, but nonetheless shows love as a subversive force. David cannot forget Elise, refuses to accept that being with her is not a part of The Plan. If finally “the Chairman” relents and allows them to be together, this does not wholly nullify the film’s transgressive spirit.

The Lake House, finally, is without a doubt an exemplar of Surrealist mad love (it is the remake of a 2000 Korean film called Il Mare that I haven’t tracked down yet). It is the story of a love that flourishes between Alex (Keanu Reeves), living in 2003, and Kate (Sandra Bullock), living in 2006, as conducted through letters they leave to each other in a magical mailbox at the house where Alex lives and Kate used to live. There is no magical other world here, there is only Chicago in two time periods that mysteriously impact each other. There is no explanation of any kind for how it is that Alex and Kate’s love is able to exist outside time. Finally, the film borders on the incoherent: not only does the premise not make rational sense, but neither does the narrative arc. Initially, there is no apparent reason why Alex doesn’t immediately try to contact Kate in 2006, a lingering question only resolved late in the film. It beggars belief that Kate would go so far as to look up hospital files for Alex’s father, but never makes the slightest effort to find out what has become of Alex in her timeline. It never even particularly makes sense why Kate would make repeated trips from downtown Chicago to the lake to hang around a mailbox.


If the premise is that Kate has rented the house on the lake where Alex used to live, when Alex moves out he apparently either sells the house to Morgan’s (Dylan Walsh) real estate agency, or rents through them; either way, it’s hard to believe Morgan wouldn’t have any knowledge of Alex’s (temporary) fate. And then there’s the dog, who belongs to both Kate and Alex in turn, who in fact appears to be an actual time traveler, with all the head-splitting paradoxes that implies. Within the superficial bounds of a conventional, mainstream Hollywood romance, The Lake House is incoherent, even delirious, and deeply worldly, but in a world where love can violate time, space, even causality.

Alex and Kate "converse" across time, shown in split-screen, in The Lake House

Alex and Kate “converse” across time, shown in (concealed) split-screen, in The Lake House

There will be more to say about all this when I go to the book stage on this project. Researching surrealism has brought up yet more titles to watch: the Tay Garnett-directed William Powell/Kay Francis vehicle One Way Passage (1932); Marcel L’Herbier’s La Nuit Fantastique (1942); Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Manon (1949); and Mario Soldati’s Malombra (1942), the subject of a tribute by the Romanian Surrealist Group found in the Hammond collection. It’s time I had a closer look, too, at Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) and Les Visiteurs du Soir (1942, evidently a great year for supernatural lurv). Then, too, the supernatural romance keeps going forward: in the time since I started this, two have come out I haven’t looked at yet, Upside Down and Winter’s Tale (while another, About Time, just proved too tangential, not enough a romance). But before I leave the blog-stage, I want to talk a bit about the melodrama, how the supernatural romance uses and varies melodramatic conventions, and how it might present a distinctive articulation of melodrama’s structures of emotion, metaphor, and social experience.

(Note: Yes, the title of this entry is a Talking Heads reference. Speaking of references…)


Andre Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972)

Andre Breton, Mad Love (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987)

R. Bruce Elder, Dada, Surrealism, and the Cinematic Effect (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013)

Paul Hammond, The Shadow and Its Shadows: Surrealist Writings on the Cinema (SF: City Lights, 2000)

Michael Richardson, Surrealism and Cinema (NY: Berg, 2006)

Robert Short, The Age of Gold: Surrealist Cinema (London: Creation, 2003)

Linda Williams, Figures of Desire: A Theory and Analysis of Surrealist Film (Berkeley: UC Press, 1981)

[1] Michael Richardson, Surrealism and Cinema, 6.

[2] Ibid, 7.

[3] Richardson, 1.

[4] Paul Hammond, The Shadow and Its Shadows, 2.

[5] R. Bruce Elder, Dada, Surrealism, and the Cinematic Effect, 6.

[6] Ibid., 14-15.

[7] Elder, 6-7.

[8] Andre Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, 10.

[9] Ibid., Manifestoes 187.

[10] Hammond, 2.

[11] Ibid., 3.

[12] Ibid., 11.

[13] Breton, Manifestoes 125.

[14] Ibid., 137.

[15] Ibid., 175.

[16] Elder, 291.

[17] Ibid., 22.

[18] Ibid., 260.

[19] Hammond, 69.

[20] Ibid., 21.

[21] See, for example, Hammond, 7.

[22] Ibid., 9.

[23] Ibid., 26.

[24] Short, 8.

[25] Elder, 261.

[26] Richardson, 9.

[27] Breton, Manifestoes 26.

[28] Elder, 262.

[29] Breton, Manifestoes 14.

[30] Ibid., 163.

[31] Elder, 271.

[32] Ibid., 276.

[33] Hammond, 23.

[34] Elder, 266.

[35] Hammond, 100.

[36] Ibid., 101-102.

[37] Hammond, 111.

[38] Ibid., 86.

[39] Williams, 15.

[40] Ibid., 26.

[41] Ibid., 30.

[42] Hammond, 112.

[43] Ibid., 115.

[44] Williams, 32.

[45] Elder, 269.

[46] Ibid., 331.

[47] Ibid., 352.

[48] Ibid., 353.

[49] Ibid., 354.

[50] Ibid., 353.

[51] Ibid., 356.

[52] Breton, Manifestoes 14.

[53] Hammond, 17.

[54] Elder, 330.

[55] Ibid., 328.

[56] Ibid., 267.

[57] Ibid., 294.

[58] Robert Short, The Age of Gold 28.

[59] Breton, Manifestoes 24.

[60] Richardson, 3.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Ibid., 5.

[63] Elder, 302.

[64] Ibid., 303.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Ibid., 131.

[67] Ibid., 260.

[68] Richardson, 20.

[69] Hammond, 38.

[70] Ibid., 158.

[71] Richardson, 23.

[72] Williams, 8.

[73] Short, 10.

[74] Ibid., 13.

[75] Hammond, 63.

[76] Ibid., 39.

[77] Richardson, 62.

[78] Ibid., 63-64.

[79] Ibid., 64.

[80] Ibid., 65.

[81] Hammond, 39.

[82] Ibid., 186.

[83] Breton, Manifestoes 162.

[84] Breton, Mad Love 55-67.

[85] Ibid., 71.

[86] Ibid., 89.

[87] Ibid., 77

[88] Ibid., 78.

[89] Ibid., 97.

[90] Ibid., 114.

[91] Ibid., 119.

[92] Ibid., 88.

[93] Ibid., 79.

[94] Ibid., 93.

[95] Ibid., 95-96.

[96] Ibid., 97-98.

[97] Ibid., 116.

[98] Ibid., 84.

[99] Hammond, 74.

[100] Ibid., 159.

[101] Ibid.

[102] Ibid., 160.

[103] Ibid., 39-40.

[104] Richardson, 71.

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