What is Surrealism in film? To understand the best Surrealist films, we need to know the basics of the term. You can probably imagine what “realism” might be — strict adherence to reality. Surrealism takes the “rules” and expectations of realism and turns them on their head; logic and reason need not apply. Filmmakers have embraced this freedom and creative expression for almost a century and produced some of the most fascinating work along the way. Let’s define Surrealism and take a closer look at some of the best Surrealist films.

To Define Surreal

What does surreal mean?

How do we define surreal? Surrealism gives us the ability to share our ideas in as raw and uninhibited of a way as possible. By understanding how Surrealism is used by masterclass artists and filmmakers, we’re better prepared to apply it in our own productions. 

Here's a quick example: A character is walking down the street and sees something peculiar out of the corner of his eye. It looks like chaos in the courthouse. As he reaches the scene, everything has been thrown into disarray. The benches have bite marks in them; a man in a business suit has gathered glass from a broken chandelier and is strumming like he’s playing the xylophone; the jurors have been replaced by elephants and dressed full Tory and Whig style — this is Surrealism. 


What is Surrealism?

Surrealism is an art movement that was founded by Andre Breton in 1924, and outlined in his book The Surrealist Manifesto. Over the years, ‘surrealism’ has come to be regarded as a technique in addition to being an art movement. Surrealism as a technique relies on the juxtaposition of symbols, images, or actions to create a world outside of reality, a super-reality.

Characteristics of Surrealism:

  • Dreams and nightmares
  • Human yet inhuman
  • Escape from reality

For more than 100 years, Surrealism has given artists free reign over their collective subconscious. The end result has been some of the most daring and provocative works the world has ever seen.

Now that we have defined Surrealism in film, let’s remind ourselves of the term’s origins. This next video gives us backstory on Surrealism and makes a great case for its use.

What Does Surreal Mean?  •  The Case for Surrealism

Movement Beginnings

Where did Surrealism originate?

Surrealism was “officially” founded in Paris in 1924, but the seeds of the movement were planted long before then. The early age of the movement was largely influenced by the works of Karl Marx (1818-1893), Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), and Carl Jung (1875-1961), among others.

Surrealism has deep roots in the theory of epistemology — or how we come to understand the world. Within the theory of epistemology, there are two dominant perspectives: rationalism and empiricism.

Rationalism says that the world is what it is, it exists within a reality and that reality is real. Empiricists say that it’s impossible to know whether the world is real so we have to rely on our senses to construct a reality.

But what happens when that “reality” is twisted, contorted, and flat-out ridiculed? Then one could say that the reality has become surreal.

Artists like Andre Breton, Man Ray, and Salvador Dalí used surrealistic techniques to become titans of their fields. Let’s take a look at a quick video to see how they did it.

The Big Ideas Behind Surrealism

In many ways, Surrealism was born from the ashes of World War I. The scale and magnitude of “the Great War” changed Europe and its inhabitants forever. Breton was a medic in WWI, and like many other veterans, he returned from the war a different man. For Breton, there was no return to normalcy. The world had reared its true colors to him and millions of others.

Our “society” masked the truth that laid beyond the veil. The only true way to break free of the restraints that chained us to rationalism was to release our unconscious. How does one release their unconscious? Through art: paintings, poetry, literature, and yes, cinema.

Dawn of Surrealist Cinema

The early era: Dalí, Buñuel, and Dulac

Surrealist cinema took off immediately, right from the inception of Breton’s movement. Parisian artists and Dadaists (followers of the Dada Manifesto) flocked to group meetings to engage in critical discourse. Artists shared their works with one another, and with their community. This period during the mid-1920s in Paris represented a radical shift in the way artists approached their work.

Artists like Salvador Dalí weren’t restricted by the mediums in which they created. Although Dalí is most famous today for his paintings, he was once a filmmaker as well. Now that we’ve gone over the history of the term, let’s jump into some Surrealism examples.

First Surreal Movies

The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928)

Germaine Dulac was a prolific director, theorist, and writer. Her film The Seashell and the Clergyman is widely cited as the first Surrealist film. Let’s take a look at some selected clips from the movie:

Surreal Movies  •  The Seashell and the Clergyman

The Seashell and the Clergyman follows the story of a priest who dreams of and desires a beautiful young woman. Many contemporary critics praise the film for its brilliant editing and ‘seemingly’ progressive story. I say ‘seemingly’ because your analysis is just as good as mine.

The Seashell and the Clergyman, like other successful Surrealist films, succeeds and fails in its ambiguity. Calling a Surrealist film obtuse isn’t a slight against Surrealist filmmakers; it’s a complement. In other words, one could argue there is no surreal meaning.

French Surrealist Cinema

Un Chien Andalou (1928)

Although The Seashell and the Clergyman is widely regarded as the first Surrealist film, it's legacy is somewhat overshadowed by Buñuel and Dalí’s 1929 film Un Chien Andalou. Luis Buñuel was a Spanish filmmaker who aligned himself with the Surrealism movement. To fully understand where Surrealist cinema started, we have to take a look at a clip from Un Chien Andalou.

Surreal Movies  •  Un Chien Andalou

If you’re thinking, “what the hell did I just watch?”, good! In many ways, Surrealist cinema isn’t supposed to make sense, at least not in the way we think. Surrealist cinema is all about making us feel a certain way, whether it be confused, happy, outraged, etc.

Trying to decipher meaning behind a Surrealist film can be an exercise in insanity. Consider turning off that critical part of your brain and focus instead on how Surrealist films make you feel.

British and American Surrealist Cinema

Spellbound (1945)

By the 1940s, Surrealist cinema had spread all around the world. Some of the most famous filmmakers in the world, such as Alfred Hitchcock and Walt Disney, sought out experts like Salvador Dalí to help them implement Surrealism in their own films.

Spellbound, one of the best Alfred Hitchcock movies of all time, features a Surrealist dream-sequence designed by Dalí. Let’s take a look at a short segment from that sequence:

Spellbound  •  Dream Sequence

According to star Ingrid Bergman, the full dream sequence was 20 minutes long. In the final cut of the film, it was reduced from 20 minutes to two. Still, the inclusion of it in the first place marked a major leap forward for the inclusion of Surrealism in major motion pictures.

Iconic Surrealist Examples

Destino (1945-2003)

After the release of Spellbound, Dalí was hired to help storyboard Destino, a short film for Walt Disney. But the project was quickly scrapped due to Disney’s lack of available capital at the time.

Fifty-four years after development began on Destino, Roy E. Disney rebooted the project. The short was finished in 2003, and went on to receive an Academy Award Nomination — and it was screened in the famed Tate Modern museum. Here’s how the final cut came together:

Surreal Movies  •  Disney and Dalí Surrealist Film

Destino is filled with reverence for classic Surrealist cinema. Notice anything strange about the shot of the person’s hand? It quite directly connects back to Buñuel and Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou in which the young man has ants crawl out of his hand.

Dreamlike Surrealist Films

8 ½ (1963)

Elsewhere, Surrealism in film had begun to take new forms. Take the works of Federico Fellini for example. After the huge success of his film La Dolce Vita, Fellini started to experiment with more lucid and Surrealist films.

Fellini’s 8 ½ — which is largely considered his magnum opus and one of the greatest films of all time, uses Surrealism to great effect. Let’s take a look at the film’s opening scene:

8 ½ Opening Scene

Here, we see Fellini inspired by the works of Carl Jung. The middle stage of Fellini’s career was dominated by an obsession with the “dream-state.” Jung’s interpretation of the dream-state is that we’re naturally inclined to construct stories with archetypes.

Through the existence of a collective unconscious, people of all cultures and creeds share a way of viewing the world. How does this perspective translate to Surrealism? As with most things relating to Surrealism, there’s no definitive answer. But Jungian interpretations of dream-states usually focus on how systems operate and what effect those systems have on individuals.

Fantasy Meets Surreal Definition

City of Women (1980)

Sigmund Freud on the other hand had a different view of the dream-state. Freudian interpretations of the dream-state tend to focus on sex and desire. In many of Fellini’s films, characters are stripped to their most basic and carnal roots. Let’s take a look at how Fellini used a Freudian plot to create a masterful piece of Surrealist cinema:

City of Women  •  Trailer

City of Women revolves around desire. We see this throughout the film by way of bold imagery and bizarre situations. Sex is at the heart of most of Fellini’s pictures, but it’s never been more central to the story than it was in City of Women.

Famous Surrealist Cinema

Eraserhead (1977)

Modern Surrealist cinema takes heavy influence from the works of Federico Fellini and the best films of the French New Wave. Perhaps one of the most famous contemporary Surrealist filmmakers is David Lynch, the director of films such as Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Mulholland Drive, and Blue Velvet.

Lynch’s first feature film, Eraserhead, is widely credited as a renaissance-piece for classical Surrealism. Let’s watch a great video essay that dives into the inner machinations of his filmmaking process.

David Lynch  •  The Surrealist

Eraserhead established Lynch as a respected auteur director. After the release of the film, Lynch moved in a variety of directions, but he never relinquished his grip on Surrealist filmmaking techniques.

Modern Surrealist Films

Brazil (1985)

Another director who’s known for his blend of fantasy and Surrealism is Terry Gilliam. In most of his films, Gilliam uses dreams to connect us to other worlds. His 1985 masterpiece Brazil is no exception. Let’s take a look at a video essay that suggests Gilliam’s films revolve around Carl Jung’s interpretation of the dream-state:

Terry Gilliam  •  Surrealistic Films

Through the use of fantastical imagery and Surrealist situations, Gilliam is able to explore universal themes in a sort of macro-cosmic way. We see this strategy used in many of the best Terry Gilliam movies.

Modern Surrealist Films

Being John Malkovich (1999)

In 1999, Being John Malkovich was released. The film was written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze. Many Surrealist films use a sort of “rabbit-hole” to bring characters into another world. On the other side, these characters often find things that are fantastical or surreal. In Being John Malkovich, a puppeteer goes through a “rabbit-hole” and finds himself in a world where he is actor John Malkovich. It’s insane. To fully get the picture, we have to see how it all came together.

Being John Malkovich  •  Video Essay

Many of the topics and themes in Being John Malkovich reference back to the early-days of the Surrealism movement. One major theme of the movie suggests that to break free of ourselves, we must release our collective subconscious, just like Breton supposed nearly a hundred years ago.

Surreal Meaning and Purpose

What’s the point of Surrealism in film?

After seeing all of these Surrealist films, how do you feel? Personally, these films make me feel connected to a deeper understanding of the world. Surrealist cinema pushes us towards the expansive universe of the unknown, but it also forces us into a state of introspection.

Just like filmmakers can learn a lot from philosophers/scientists like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, philosophers can learn a lot from filmmakers like Buñuel, Fellini, and Lynch.


How to use metaphor

Metaphors allow us to communicate ideas, themes, and topics in a non-literal way. In many ways, metaphors are the ying to Surrealism’s yang. Surrealism should not make sense — if it does, it isn’t working. The opposite is true for a metaphor; if it can’t be inferred, then it isn’t working. We dive deep into what makes a metaphor in this next article with examples from Parasite, and the Coen Brothers!

Up Next: How metaphor works →
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