As a director and theoretician of experimental film, Germaine Dulac proclaimed her goal to make “pure” cinema, which she spoke of as “musically constructed” films or “films made according to the rules of visual music.”  At the heart of Germaine Dulac’s controversial collaboration with Antonin Artaud, La coquille et le clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman, 1928), source of fabulous misunderstandings with the Surrealists, lies Dulac’s revolutionary poetics.

The Seashell and the Clergyman

Advertised as “a dream on the screen,” The Seashell and Clergyman’s premiere at the Studio des Ursulines on February 9, 1928 incited a small riot, and critical response to the film has ranged from the misinformed – some American prints spliced the reels in the wrong order – to the rapturous – acclaimed as the first example of a Surrealist film.  Dulac would have liked to have a preface accompany the film, but Artaud thought otherwise. (1)

Alain Virmaux’s revised and augmented study La Coquille et le Clergyman:  Essai d’élucidation d’une querelle mythique, accompanied by a DVD with interviews, provides valuable new information on the vexed collaboration of Artaud and Dulac, which permits us to examine Artaud’s scenario and Dulac’s film in a new light.  For Virmaux, Dulac’s resolute position safeguarding her authority as director of the film contributes as much to Artaud’s quarrel with her as does her differing poetics.

In principle, Artaud and Dulac would seem to agree on the need for a new kind of cinema that was based on emotional truth, neither a purely abstract cinema removed from the world of sensations, nor a cinema that projects psychological situations more suitable for the stage or literature:

Deux voies semblent s’offrir actuellement au cinéma, dont aucune certainement n’est la vraie. Le cinéma pur ou absolu d’une part et de l’autre cette sorte d’art visuel hybride qui s’obstine à traduire en images plus ou moins heureuses des situations psychologiques qui seraient parfaitement à leur place sur une scène ou dans les pages d’un livre, mais pas sur l’écran, n’existent guère que comme le reflet d’un monde, qui puise ailleurs sa matière et son sens. (2)

[Two paths seem to be currently offered to cinema, neither of which is likely the true one. Pure or absolute cinema on the one hand, and on the other, this sort of hybrid visual art that persists in translating into images, more or less apt, psychological situations that would be perfectly at home on stage or in the pages of a book, but not on the screen, they hardly exist but as the reflection of a world that draws its source and meaning elsewhere.]

The Seashell and the Clergyman

However, their creative practices follow two distinct tendencies in the avant-garde of the early twentieth century:  Dulac, much like an artist such as Wassily Kandinsky, who would explore the meanings of colour through emotional counterparts in music, advocates for a cinema whose light, lines and volumes operate on the spectator in ways analogous to music; whereas Artaud’s aggressive vision of cinema, akin to the surrealist’s, seeks to fathom the dark side of consciousness, and make the sequences of images on the screen translate dreams and function like the language of thought.

Indeed, the term “dream” as used in the initial advertising for The Seashell and the Clergyman became a source of controversy. According to Virmaux:

“Dulac avait envisagé de présenter le film par la formule “rêve d’Antonin Artaud, réalisé par Germaine Dulac.”  Artaud protesta avec énergie, en particulier par la note qui accompagnait la publication de son scénario dans la N.R.F. (novembre 1927). […] On accusa bientôt Dulac d’avoir donné du scénario une interprétation uniquement onirique.  […] Paule Thévenin a démontré […] que c’était le couple Allendy qui était responsable de l’appellation ‘rêve’ pour qualifier le film:  ils avaient utilisé le mot dans divers communiqués et annonces, sans qu’Artaud ait jamais protesté” (3)

[Dulac had envisaged presenting the film with the formula “dream by Antonin Artaud, directed by Germaine Dulac.”  Artaud vigorously protested, in particular with the note that accompanied the publication of his scenario in the N.R.F (November 1927).  Dulac was soon accused of having given the scenario a solely oneiric interpretation.  Paule Thévenin demonstrated that it was the Allendy’s who were responsible for qualifying the film with the designation “dream”; they had used the word in various press releases and announcements without Artaud’s ever having protested.]

When Dulac showed The Seashell and Clergyman, along with L’Invitation au voyage (1927), for Filmliga during a brief trip to Holland, (4) she told the public that subjects that were most suitable to the medium of film (“sujets cinégraphiques”) were those capable of releasing emotion through the play of images on the screen (“dégager l’émotion par le jeu des images seules”).  For Dulac, recent cinematic progress was the result of “la découverte des accords d’harmonies et du rythme envisagés comme facteurs dramatiques” [the discovery of harmonic chords and rhythm viewed as dramatic factors.]

In what would seem a response to the controversy surrounding the use of the term “rêve” (dream) in general advertising for the film, Dulac prefaced its screening with the intertitle:  “Non pas un rêve, mais le monde des images lui-même entraînant l’esprit où il n’aurait jamais consenti à aller, le mécanisme en est à la portée de tous.” [“Not a dream, but the world of images itself taking the mind where it would never have agreed to go, the mechanism is within everyone’s reach.”] The choice of the term “mechanism” seems an unusual one for Dulac, more in keeping with Artaud’s notion of how the mind works.  The film was subsequently advertised as “Screenplay by Antonin Artaud; Filmed by Germaine Dulac.”


Asked by Filmliga to explain several technical points in The Seashell and Clergyman, Dulac wrote: “Je puis dire que tout mon effort a été de rechercher dans l’action du scénario d’Antonin Artaud, les points harmoniques, et, de les relier entre eux par des rythmes étudiés et composés” [“I can say that all my effort was to look for harmonic moments in Antonin Artaud’s scenario, and to link them up through carefully designed and composed rhythms”].  She offered the beginning of the film as an example:  “Chaque expression, chaque mouvement du clergyman sont measurés selon le rythme des verres qui se brisent.  Tel aussi la série des portes qui s’ouvrent et se referment, et aussi le nombre des images ordonnant le sens de ces portes qui se confondent en battements contrariés dans une mesure de 1 à 8.” [“Each expression, each movement by the clergyman is measured according to the rhythm of breaking glass.  So also the series of doors that open and close, and the number of images ordering the direction of these doors that merge in opposing beats measured from 1 to 8.”]

Artaud’s scenario calls for “une succession de gros plans la tête du prêtre doucereuse, accueillante quand elle apparaît aux yeux de la femme, et rude, amère, terrible quand elle considère le clergyman. [… ] [Le clergyman] se retrouve au sommet d’une montagne; en surimpression à ses pieds, des entrelacements de fleuves et de plaines. […]  [Le clergyman] se jette sur [la femme] et lui arrache son corsage comme s’il voulait lacérer ses seins.  Mais ses seins sont remplacés par une carapace de coquillages.  Et arrache cette carapace et la brandit dans l’air où elle miroite.  Il la secoue frénétiquement dans l’air et la scène change et montre une salle de bal.  Des couples entrent; les uns mystérieusement et sur la pointe des pieds, les autres extrêmement affairés.  Les lampadaires semblent suivre les mouvements des couples.  Toutes les femmes sont court vêtues, étalent les jambes bombent la poitrine et ont les cheveux coupés. […] Des servants, des ménagères envahissent la pièce avec des balais et des seaux, se précipitent aux fenêtres.  De toutes parts, on frotte avec intensité, frénésie, passion.  Une sorte de gouvernante rigide, toute vêtue de noir, entre avec une bible dans la main et va s’installer à une fenêtre.  Quand on peut distinguer son visage on s’aperçoit que c’est toujours la même belle femme.  Dans un chemin dehors on voit un prêtre qui se hâte, et plus loin une jeune fille en costume de jardin avec une raquette de tennis.  Elle joue avec un jeune homme inconnu.” (5)

[ A series of close-ups of the priest’s head, unpleasantly sweet, welcoming when it appears in the woman’s eyes, and hard, bitter, terrible when it considers the clergyman…[The clergyman] is on the summit of a mountain, in superimposition at his feet, rivers and plains interlaced…[The clergyman] throws himself on the woman and rips off her blouse as if he wanted to lacerate her breasts.  But her breasts are replaced by a carapace of seashells.  And snatches this carapace and brandishes it in the air where it shimmers.  He shakes it frenetically in the air and the scene changes and shows a ballroom.  Couples enter; some mysteriously on tiptoe, others extremely busy.  The lights seem to follow the movements of the couples.  All the women are wearing short dresses, legs on display, breasts bulging, hair cut short. […] Servants, housekeepers invade the room with buckets and brooms, rush to the windows.  They scrub all over with intensity, frenzy, passion.  A sort of rigid governess, dressed all in black, enters with a bible in her hand and goes to stand by a window.  When we can distinguish her face, we notice that it’s still the same beautiful woman.  On a path outside, we see a priest who is hurrying, and further away a young girl in a garden dress with a tennis racket.  She is playing with an unidentified young man.]

Artaud even provided a “découpage” (Scénario II), which some say Dulac chose not to follow, though Artaud’s letter (27 June 1927) does not suggest this, (6) and the contract signed on 13 June 1927 between Dulac, Artaud, and Louis Ronjat, Dulac’s producer and assistant, would prohibit her from doing so:

A dater d’aujourd’hui, aucune modification ne pourra être apportée:  1) au scénario avant ou pendant la réalisation.  2) au film après la réalisation, sans l’assentiment des trois parties contractantes. Sous réserve de l’article c) Mme Germaine Dulac, sera entièrement libre de réaliser le film à son gré.

[From today on, no modification can be made:  1) to the scenario before or during production.  2) to the film after production, without the agreement of the three contracting parties. Subject to article c) Mme Germaine Dulac, is entirely free to make the film as she pleases.]

Respectful of Artaud’s scenario, Dulac put what he wrote on the screen, even if she did not fully consult with him about his conception of the film, keeping to her own cinematic theories and practices as was her right by signed agreement. (7)

If Artaud’s script called for close-ups, double exposures, reflections, frenzy and passion; Dulac’s sense of a measured rhythm, within shots and between them, would put her own stamp on the film.  Moreover, in a letter to Dulac (13 July 1927), Artaud wrote to the filmmaker that he liked what she had told him about rhythm in the film, probably with respect to the ballroom scene. (8)

Germaine Dulac’s treatment of Antonin Artaud’s scenario The Seashell and the Clergman recalls motifs from previous films, e.g., the tennis racket in La souriante Madame Beudet (The Smiling Madame Beudet, 1923), which was wielded by an imagined lover in Madame Beudet’s fantasm against a brutish husband.  However, the woman holds the racket playfully in The Seashell and the Clergyman, ready for a match with a stranger.  Crystals, falling water and clouds are all motifs that reoccur in the three short films that Dulac made immediately after The Seashell and the Clergyman, between 1928 and 1929:  Disque 957; Thèmes et variations; and Arabesque.  The scenes of brief nudity, exposure of women’s breasts in rapid cuts between corsage, breastplate, and seashell, are new to Dulac’s work.  In fact, European copies of The Seashell and Clergyman were censored and the scenes with exposed breasts were cut.  The British Board of Film Censors took exception to the film and found it “impossible to pass the subject for exhibition.”

The Seashell and the Clergyman

In Surimpressions (2009),  a DVD extra that accompanies Alain Virmaux’s revised study of The Seashell and the Clergyman, Tami Williams speaks of the rethinking of gender roles and oppositional acting styles in Dulac’s film, which she relates to the representation of a New Man and a New Woman in many of the Arts after the First World War. We can also see strong evidence of Dulac’s portrayal of women at work in The Seashell and the Clergyman, their tasks incorporated into the rhythm of the film.  The scenes in which the maids sweep and dust; the governess enters, bible in hand; and the camera passes in close-up over the maids aligned with the butlers are as carefully choreographed to restore order as were the ballroom dance scenes with couples in embrace and women in décolleté, filmed in sweeping motion and crescendo, to intimate passion and sexual liberation.

As noted by Prosper Hillairet and Sandy Flitterman-Lewis in Surimpressions, Dulac’s The Seashell and the Clergyman already includes aspects of the kind of documentary filmmaking that she would dedicate herself to making in the 1930s for Gaumont.  Much like Agnès Varda whose films contain groups of everyday women in contrast to trained actresses, where both contribute to the actualization of the scenario, Dulac has recorded women in all walks of life as she films the streets of Paris in The Seashell and the Clergyman:  women in aprons at work; stylish women glancing at their reflections in shop windows; women on balconies with their presumed lovers.

In keeping with her revolutionary poetics, The Seashell and the Clergyman can be seen as a crucible in which traditional symbols, and the images that represent them, undergo complete transformation.   The coquille, or seashell, from the film’s title is a case in point:  the seashell is a vessel from which the priest drinks and is reminiscent of the seashell from which the beauty Venus arises in a Botticelli painting.  As a vessel, the seashell suggests the fount of holy water in a catholic church; a font in the language of printers, a “coquille” can have the connotation of an error where a letter is dropped and “coquille” becomes “couille,” a sexually charged term for male genitalia.  Dulac incorporates this confusion of masculine and feminine, sacred and profane, in the plasticity of the films’ images where a woman’s bodice becomes a carapace, aflame and resembling the Holy Ghost; and a clergyman’s ministrations, shot from a low camera angle, suggest masturbation.  One image is changed into another and sexual identity and religious comportment are challenged.

Similarly challenging to conventional norm in Dulac’s film is the actress Genica Athanasiou who, in the role of the beautiful woman, is a subject in her own right:  she is more than the object of our gaze as Laura Mulvey (9) would put it; she carries the episodic action in the film with her movements, and we must read her facial expressions in order to be privy to what is happening off screen. That Artaud had selected Genica, his former lover, for the role, and that Artaud, ultimately, did not perform the role of the clergyman, as Dulac’s double budget for Artaud as scenarist and actor suggests was originally intended, further complicates reaction to Genica’s performance. (10)

In the scene with the confessional, where the screen is split and shots alternate between Genica and the general, the expression on the actress’ face in close up comments on the action, and her reactions subsequently cue the spectator’s response.  Repeated attempts to make character and plot cohere, which are continually frustrated, contribute nonetheless to active engagement with the film “without recourse to the traditional mechanisms of identification,” as Sandy Flitterman-Lewis argues in To Desire Differently. (11)  In a later scene in which the clergyman seems to use the woman’s tongue as a rope to climb, we are reminded of the feminist artwork of Nancy Spero, Codex Artaud, in which the artist uses Artaud’s texts (in his native tongue) with her own images (women who stick out their tongues) to liberate herself from strictures that prevent her from speaking out. (12) Equally interested in the power of rhythmic cinematic composition to engage and provoke the viewer, Nancy Spero’s work can be seen as a modern counterpart to Germaine Dulac’s pioneering feminist perspective.

Germaine Dulac’s place in film history has been obscured by the notoriety of the Paris screening of The Seashell and the Clergyman, February 9, 1928, at the Studio Les Ursulines. (13) Stories vary as to the origins of the tumult and whether or not Artaud and Dulac were both even present on the occasion.  In notes from a 1952 meeting of the Commission de Recherche Historique on the first French Ciné-Clubs, Mme Colson-Malleville, Dulac’s companion and assistant on a number of her films, but not The Seashell and the Clergyman, is quoted as saying that all the young surrealists were outraged that Artaud did not get to act in the film, but that it was at Dr. Allendy’s insistence, Artaud’s psychiatrist, on account of Artaud’s perceived nervous condition.  At the same meeting, Tallier, founder of the Ursulines, said that he saw a man take a whistle from his pocket that night, before the film had even started.  When Tallier asked the man why he would protest the film before it began, the man said, “Je siffle parce que j’ai horreur du cinéma!”  [I’m whistling because I abhor the cinema!].  When Alain and Odette Virmaux met Marie-Anne Malleville in the 1960s, she claimed that neither Artaud nor Dulac were present at the screening of the film that night at the Ursulines (14); whereas, other accounts place both Artaud and Dulac at the Ursulines, Artaud, accompanied by his mother. (15)

It was not unusual that Surrealists would stage protests to draw attention to their cause; in fact, the previous evening a brouhaha was raised by Surrealists at the Salle Adyar, “a cinema where Artaud, along with Breton, Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard, René Char and Benjamin Peret had turned up to disturb the showing of a naturalistic film – a common Surrealist activity.” (16) After more than seventy years, Germaine Dulac’s film The Seashell and the Clergyman surely merits that we take another look, as we reclaim Dulac’s rightful place among pioneering filmmakers of the early avant-garde.

All translations by the author. The article has been peer reviewed. 


  1. In a letter to Germaine Dulac, dated 25th  September 1927, Artaud wrote:  “On m’a parlé d’un texte explicatif à projeter en tête du film.  Mais en ce qui me concerne je ne suis pas très partisan d’un préambule écrit.  Je pense que le film suffit à lui-même et qu’il n’y a pas d’erreur possible.  Je n’ai jamais considéré ce film comme la démonstration d’une théorie quelle qu’elle soit.  C’est un film d’images pures.  Et le sens doit se dégager du rayonnement même de ces images” [They spoke to me about an explanatory text to be projected before the film.  But as far as I’m concerned, I’m not very much in favour of a written preamble.  I think that the film is sufficient in itself and that there’s no possible mistake.  I never considered this film as the demonstration of any theory whatsoever.  It’s a film of pure images.  And the meaning must be gotten from the radiation itself of these images.] In Artaud Oeuvres, ed. Evelyne Grossman, Paris: Quarto Gallimard, 2004, p. 255.
  2. Antonin Artaud, “Cinéma et réalité,” in Artaud Oeuvres, p. 247.
  3. Alain Virmaux, La Coquille et le Clergyman:  Essai d’élucidation d’une querelle mythique, Paris: Editions Paris Expérimental, 2009, p. 35.
  4. This version of The Seashell and the Clergyman is the one used to restore the film in 2009.
  5. Antonin Artaud, Oeuvres Complètes, Tome III , Paris: Gallimard, 1970, pp. 26.-30.
  6. Artaud to Dulac:  “Les quelques mots que vous m’avez dits touchant certains moyens de réalisation que vous comptez employer me donnent à penser que vous ferez de ce film quelque chose d’absolument sensationnel.” [The few words that you’ve told me concerning certain technical means that you intend to employ make me think that you’ll make this film something absolutely sensational.] In Oeuvres Complètes, p. 136.
  7. See Artaud’s letter to Dulac (17 June 1927) in which he writes:  “Tout ceci qui est une question de conception et pas du tout de réalisation n’empiète en rien sur la mise en scène proprement dite qui ne me regarde pas et sur laquelle je n’ai pas l’intention d’empiéter” [All this, which is a matter of conception and not at all filming, encroaches in no way on the actual mise en scène, which is not my concern and upon which I have no intention of encroaching.] and also, “Je sais bien que je me suis engagé à ne pas modifier mon scénario, mais je crois que si j’ai quelques idées intéressantes, capables de l’améliorer il n’y a pas de raison de les repousser, sous réserve que ces idées seront vérifiées et acceptées par tout le monde.” [ I know full well that I contracted not to modify my scenario, but I believe that if I have several interesting ideas, capable of improving it, there’s no reason to reject them, subject to these ideas being confirmed and accepted by everyone.]  Artaud’s letter to Dulac (13 July 1927) suggests that Dulac and Artaud met that afternoon to clarify certain aspects of Artaud’s scenario. In Artaud Oeuvres, pp. 252-254.
  8. “J’aime beaucoup par exemple le rythme dont vous m’avez parlé.” [I really like, for example, the rhythm that you spoke to me about.] In Artaud Oeuvres, p. 254.
  9. See Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative cinema,” Screen 16.3 Autumn 1975, pp. 6-18.
  10. See Virmaux, p. 50, and DVD interview.  Ultimately, as Virmaux and Hillairet point out, Dulac’s choice of Alex Allin in the role of the clergyman gave the film its gendered contrast and Allin was known to avant-garde circles for his esteemed performance in films by Jean Epstein, Jean Renoir, and René Clair.
  11. Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, To Desire Differently: Feminism in the Fench Cinema, New York: Columbia University Press, 1996, p. 117
  12. Codex Artaud is a series of some 33 different scrolls produced from 1971-1972, which represents Nancy Spero’s very first use of text as well as image.  Codex Artaud quotes Egyptian, Roman, and Celtic images; it contains imaginary mirror portraits of Leonardo da Vinci along with images signifying Spero’s earlier work; the Artaud texts, typed in the original French and arranged to resemble concrete poetry, date from the early 1920s through 1948, articulating the poet’s extreme physical and mental anguish.  The image of the tongue – body part and symbolic system – that Spero extracts from Artaud’s writings becomes the focus of the Codex Artaud.
  13. The account in the satirical weekly Le Charivari (1928) has been the oft-cited reference for the event.
  14. Alain and Odette Virmaux, Antonin Artaud, Paris: La Manufacture, 1986,  p. 20.
  15. Accounts by Thomas Maeder, Artaud’s American biographer (1978), and also by Alexandra Pecker, close friend of Artaud, interviewed by Alain and Odette Virmaux, Antonin Artaud (Paris:  La Manufacture, 1986), pp. 105-106.  See also Prosper Hillairet’s excellent video La Tumulte (2006), an interview with Alain Virmaux on this subject, filmed by Nicolas Droin, Laurent Navarri, and Alexandre Deschamps, in the Studio les Ursulines, historic site in its own right.
  16. See Mark Taylor-Batty, Robert Blin:  Colloborations and Methodologies, Oxford:  Peter Lang, 2007, p. 35.