Surrealism in Films

Surrealism, with its subconscious dream-like imagery and bizarre incongruities, represents a symbolic and psychologically charged view of the world. It provides the storyteller with the opportunity of expressing an emotional experience, within a ‘standard linear narrative’, or through a total Surrealist vision. It can be used to reveal a disconnect (the contradictory nature of the world), and to question reality itself. Surrealism enables the storyteller to imbue the story with the resonance of poetry, art, and symbolic meaning.

While not strictly ‘Surrealist’ — in other words, not part of the 20th Century European art movement — elements of the surreal (fantastic beings, dreamlike symbolism, and strange juxtapositions) have been around for a long time, most commonly in fantastic art and fiction: from the half-human half-animal beings of ancient Greek myth, to Aesop’s Fables, the weird portraits of Giuseppe Arcimboldo (15227 – 1593) which incorporate fruit and vegetable arrangements to mimic human portraits; to Richard Dadd’s (1817 – 1886) depictions of fairies, and the fantastic world of Alice in Wonderland (1865).

Surrealism entered Hollywood through the dream sequence. The dream sequence in Spellbound (1945) expresses deep-rooted, subconscious fears, and sexual desires, in a stylistically Surrealist package. These dream sequences often act as a precursor to a dramatic event, a premonition of what will occur.

The Wizard of Oz (1939), a popular fantasy, brought surreal elements to mainstream cinema, featuring a story, which is later revealed to be a child’s fever-ridden dream. A decade earlier, in the 1920s, actual Surrealism had hit a European art audience with films like the 21 minute Un Chien Andalou (1929). More recently, Surreal-influenced art films like Mulholland Drive (2001) and Barton Fink (1991) deliberately confuse the ‘standard linear narrative’, blurring the line between storytelling and visual symbolism.

Surreal elements, within otherwise conventional stories, provide a twist, or edge. In Apocalypse Now (1979) the sound of a helicopter plays over an image of a hotel ceiling fan, soldiers attend a rock concert in the middle of the Vietnamese jungle, and much of the story feels like a nightmare. In Magnolia (1999) frogs inexplicably rain from the sky, seemingly as a metaphor for life’s weird unpredictability.

Surrealism also feeds into the comedy of the absurd, and the shock of the unexpected. In Sex Mission (1984) two men wake up in the future, in a repressive all-female society. While in the dysfunctional future-world of Brazil (1985) none of the technology works properly, and the persecuted hero dreams of flying, powered by his own bird-like wings, through the clouds.

The unsettling nature of Surrealism makes it suitable for the horror genre. La Cabina (The Phone Box) (1972) explores existential angst, when a man becomes trapped inside an apparently ordinary phone box. In The Thing (1982) an alien life-form mutates, turning itself into a series of ghastly monsters, before creepily mimicking the human form. Eraserhead (1977) plays with the psychological horror of urban angst, and in The Cell (2000) a female psychologist enters the disturbed comatose sub-consciousness of a sadistic killer (in order to discover the location of his last victim).

Surreal elements can be used as a motif within a conventional narrative, or to form a completely surreal landscape: the whole experience questioning assumptions about time, space, and the nature of perception. In Inception (2010) a group of characters enter into their victim’s dreams, to steal information; in these dreams mere moments can be experienced as virtual lifetimes. In The Matrix (1999) reality appears surreal, because it is a simulation of reality. This is also the case in Vanilla Sky (2001) where ‘reality’ is a construct designed to keep the hero’s mind active while he is kept in suspended animation.

In the surreal western El Topo (1970), the inexplicable perplexities of life are explored through a series of surreal encounters, each one possessing almost mystical implications, like a Zen koan.

The surreal can also indicate mental collapse: in Old Boy (2003) the central character, mysteriously incarcerated, goes crazy, and hallucinates that ants are crawling under his skin and coming out of his hand (a direct reference to Un Chien Andalou). In The Naked Lunch (1991) a drug addict hallucinates giant insects, and in Barton Fink (1991) an exasperated writer meets a serial killer, who could be the devil, or his alter ego. The hotel they are staying in feels alive with gloopy ‘perspiration’ dripping down the walls, reflecting the anxious, claustrophobic atmosphere — as if the building is a metaphor for his psychological state.

Surreal concepts have are part of the mainstream. The famous Benson and Hedges Gold cigarette adverts from the 1970s recall Magritte paintings. Children’s storytelling, such as Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach (1961), Rango (2011), and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009) all incorporate surreal ideas. The surreal influence is so pervasive it’s almost normal to see dancing chicken carcasses, frogs raining from the sky, and worlds that aren’t quite real enough — or seem impossibly real (like Magritte’s 1929 painting The Treachery of Images of a pipe that isn’t a pipe). The surreal gives the mundane an edge. It transforms the ordinary into the intriguing, and forces us to question reality.