A barber’s straight razor cuts through the membrane of a young woman’s eyeball to reveal the gushing fluid inside. Ants crawl out of a mysterious hole in a man’s hand. Neither of these disturbing images have context, nor do they need it in the pure insanity of Un Chien Andalou, a 15-minute short directed by Luis Bunuel in 1929 with participation from fellow Spaniard and avant-garde artist Salvador Dali. It was a monumental stepping stone for cinema; one that represents one of the earliest depictions of surrealism in film.
Flash forward to the opposite end of film history, and you’ll find Ex Machina, wherein a buzzed Oscar Isaac dances in perfect synchronization with a nearly mute, otherworldly Asian woman. In contrast, Ex Machina is actually not pure insanity—it’s no surrealist film, especially stacked up against the nightmarish nonsense of Un Chien Andalou or even David Lynch’s films, but simply a hard sci-fi film with a few mild surreal elements.
The context may be different, but these images accomplish the same goal by unsettling audiences and establishing a slight but distinct (some more distinct than others) divide between the film’s reality and our own. The uneasy but mostly grounded atmosphere of Ex Machina is distorted by this jarring scene, which serves to make the audience and the protagonist, here played by Domhnall Gleason, feel just a tad crazy.
It’s easy to imagine how some viewers might laugh at this scene’s use of uncannily coordinated dance steps, of all things, to drive the plot and the characters forward, but I’d argue such an unusual departure from the film’s reality is all too unusual. While mainstream film today has no shortage of fantastical worlds, and many independent/arthouse features do their best to depict reality as it really is, surrealism is something else, and something just as necessary.
When used sparingly, as in Ex Machina, it’s an effective tool to unsettle audiences and suggest themes without explicitly stating them. The dance scene, for example, suggests Isaac’s tech genius character is more unhinged than first anticipated and perhaps has some well-orchestrated plan ticking beneath the surface, as indeed he does. When used more excessively, as in Un Chien Andalou, it forces viewers—at least those willing to invest some time in such a bizarre work—to confront the possible meanings of all the cryptic images.
Many directors throughout film history have built careers upon surrealist movies, including Bunuel. Many of his most notable films, such as his Oscar-winning The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, use dream logic to satirize and to explore the hypocrisies of modern life. His Exterminating Angel hinges upon a contrived but inexplicable scenario—the guests of a dinner party, for some reason, find themselves unable to leave a room—to dismantle their mannered facades and explore their real feelings. It’s hard to imagine how Bunuel could have explored such themes without injecting a little madness, a little surrealism, into his films.
The more unsettling elements of surrealism are highlighted in the film of Lynch, who uses it primarily to disturb and provoke, among other things. The world of his Blue Velvet looks like a colorized version of a “Leave It to Beaver” episode before Lynch looks beneath the surface to discover a monstrous, abusive criminal element. The surreal aesthetic choices deepen the horror of the otherwise straightforward mystery tale.
Lynch’s films often blend the idyllic and the horrific, but his other films often tweak or even totally disregard conventional storytelling. Instead of cause-and-effect progression, Lynch gives us tonal shifts and often-frustrating dream logic. Mulholland Drive’s mid-film switcheroo sucks the romance and hope out of his manicured Hollywood paradise. Eraserhead, maybe his most outlandish and disturbing film, relies almost wholly on images and sound design to examine parental anxieties in the setting of a distorted urban hell. Lynch’s films aren’t interesting because they make narrative sense—they rarely even come close—but because, like nightmares, they can hone in on anxieties, using sound and visuals to unnerve audiences without any typical horror tropes.
To be clear, I don’t want every film to be Un Chien Andalou, a film that works best because of its short runtime, or even Eraserhead. There’s plenty of middle-ground between reality and pure, uncut surrealism, beyond even brief surreal interludes like the one in Ex Machina.
The films of Joel and Ethan Coen often have a surrealist bent to them. The Coens’ films are never so difficult to follow as most of Lynch’s and Bunuel’s works, but they have a keen eye for channeling the bizarre while keeping their films grounded in a reality very close to, if not exactly identical to our own. They use these choices to inject humor into dark scenarios or to deepen the struggles of their characters.
Take A Serious Man, their severely underrated 2009 effort, wherein they use subtle surrealist elements to depict their main character’s quest to deal with a series of life-altering, seemingly-fated events. Without their deliberately slow pacing, repetitive dialogue and just somehow off shot composition, the film might have been little more than a depressing account of a good man’s life dissolving before his eyes. With it, it becomes a darkly humorous, fascinating meditation on the struggle for faith in an unforgiving universe.
The list of surrealist directors goes on, as does the list of directors who have dabbled with surrealism in some form or another—Jean Luc-Godard, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Orson Wells with The Trial, Hitchcock with Spellbound and even Vertigo. More recently, the films H. and Enemy challenge the delicate balance of their realities by introducing the inexplicable—in the former, a series of dissociative disappearances (among other things), and in the latter, an aggressive doppelganger. They keep their purposes hidden, but I’d argue both films use the elements to reveal the complex emotions and fractured loyalties of the protagonists.
The style is as versatile as it is hard to pin down. I hope for more films and more directors, mainstream or otherwise, who see that versatility and learn to employ it in unique new ways, whether extensively or sparingly. Surrealism can subvert, it can provoke, it can satirize, it can disturb, it can confuse, it can reveal, it can make the mundane seem like something stranger and more fascinating than the most exotic corners of space or of Middle Earth. Or it can simply dance, and that’s still good enough for me.