By SIMON COLLINGS.
The surrealist poet Robert Desnos was a passionate advocate of the power of cinema. He believed film had the potential to free people from the shackles of a humdrum existence, encouraging them to dream and seek adventure. Desnos wrote a significant amount of film criticism and a number of film scenarios, though we have only one example of a completed film to which he contributed, L’Étoile de Mer (The Star Fish). The film was made by Man Ray in 1928 from a scenario by Desnos, based on a short poem. It’s a story of unrequited desire, with the twenty-eight-year-old Desnos playing ‘the other man’. The film lasts 17 minutes.
L’Étoile de Mer is praised by some film commentators, though not all agree as to its quality. Michael Richardson, an authority on surrealism and cinema describes Man Ray’s films as: ‘little more than home movies… now having only a historical interest.’ L’Étoile de Mer, whatever its merits, gives little sense of Desnos’ potential as a screenwriter. To appreciate his capability in this field we have to turn to the four scenarios for short films he published between 1925 and 1933, and the drafts of other film projects in his notebooks and papers. These works show a clear talent for screenwriting and provide insight into the kind of cinema which interested the surrealists.
In the earliest of the published scenarios, Minuit à quatorze heures (Midnight to 2pm),1 a man of thirty-five and his mistress, accompanied by a young male visitor, set out from a country villa on a fishing trip. While the woman and the visitor are kissing behind a clump of bushes, the older man falls in the river and drowns. Alone in the villa, the two lovers are haunted by a ball which starts to appear at night and then joins them for breakfast. The young man seizes the ball and hurls it from the window. It travels for many miles, eventually stopping in an equatorial forest. Here the ball grows to the size of a house before travelling back to destroy the villa, leaving a huge crater. The writing, in the second half in particular, demonstrates Desnos’ capacity to create a strong visual narrative.
The second scenario, Les mystères du Métropolitain (Mysteries of the Metro), is even stronger in terms of its cinematographic conception.2 The film concerns a cast of characters on the Paris Metro, and it is richly comic, full of visual gags and burlesque humour. The influence here is Chaplin, Mack Sennet comedies, and their French equivalents. Desnos loved the anarchic humour of these films which poked fun at pretentions and mocked social convention. Les mystères du Métropolitain has all these elements, but also an imaginative quality all its own. Desnos subverts the convention of a seamless, coherent narrative, by inserting random scenes which have nothing to do with anything else in the film. The full scenario is translated below.
As a surrealist, Desnos was strongly influenced by what Breton called ‘le merveilleux’ which he believed, when experienced in cinema or literature, would prompt people to reject the banalities of everyday life. This was a primary goal of surrealism. In a review published in 1925 Desnos wrote:
The marvelous (le merveilleux), that supreme goal of the human mind since it took possession of the creative power conferred on it by poetry and imagination, appears only rarely in cinema though it is an admirable passport for entering those regions where feeling and thought liberate themselves at last from the critical and descriptive mind which ties them to the earth.3
In another review, two years later, he wrote:
What we demand from cinema is the impossible, the unexpected, dream, surprise, lyricism which effaces the baseness in our souls and precipitates us with enthusiasm onto the barricades and into adventures; what we demand of cinema is what love and life refuse us, mystery, the miraculous.4
Desnos marks the scenario of Les mystères du Métropolitain as ‘with sound and in colour’. By ‘sound’ he is almost certainly thinking of sound effects, which would have provided opportunities for more gags. Films with synchronized dialogue were still a novelty at this point. In an article on avant garde cinema published in 1929, Desnos distinguishes between film sonore (film with sound) and film parlant (film with spoken dialogue).5 At that point he had not seen a talking film. Colour film technology had existed for some time but was expensive to use. Desnos certainly saw films in colour, for example the Corpus Christi scene in von Stroheim’s The Wedding March (1928), a film he admired.
Les mystères du Métropolitain was followed a few months later by publication of Les récifs de l’amour (The reefs of love).6 It begins in a tropical forest where we observe a solitary male figure carving the letter ‘I’ into the trees along the path he’s following. In an expensive apartment in Paris there’s a photograph of the same man we’ve just seen in the jungle. A beautiful young woman, Irène, explains to a male companion that the photo is of a former lover, Raoul, a man who loved her but who she didn’t love.
The rest of the scenario provides the back story: how they met by chance in the street, how they encountered each other again when she was involved in an attempted burglary on Raoul’s villa, how, infatuated with her, he protected her and was drawn into committing murder. They married but Raoul later found Irène with a lover and she told him she had never loved him, or anyone else. Raoul headed for the jungle where he wanders, carving Irène’s initial on the trees.
The crime scenes in Les récifs de l’amour suggest the influence of the film serials Fantômas, Les Vampires (about a gang of crooks), and Les Mystères de New York (an American serial, The Exploits of Pauline, and its sequel The Perils of Pauline, adapted for French audiences). Desnos was a great admirer of these popular, action-packed serials.
Three years later Desnos published Y a des punaises dans le rôti de porc (There are bugs in the roast pork).7 This film, set in a hotel, is another riotous comedy, but this time includes dialogue. As with Les mystères du Métropolitain, the scenario suggests the influence of Chaplin and Sennet. What makes it novel is that towards the end of the film the director (le metteur en scène) and a spectator appear on screen. ‘Where are we going?’ asks the spectator. ‘I don’t know,’ says the director. ‘It’s a scam’, the spectator says. The hotel manager then appears, followed by other characters. They pose as if for a group photograph. The film ends with everyone, the director included, singing an absurd serenade to roast pork.
Desnos worked on and off as a film critic between 1923 and 1930. His enthusiasm for burlesque, slapstick comedy and pulp crime serials has already been noted and many of his reviews deal with these genres. But he also wrote about other kinds of film, lauding some directors while attacking others. He was an admirer of René Clair, who shared the surrealists’ interest in dream and fantasy.8 He described Clair’s feature length Le fantôme du Moulin Rouge (1925) as a work of ‘pure poetry’ which ‘engages with everything which is deep in humanity.’ Clair, he said, was ‘the only French filmmaker worth following.’
The work of some of the German expressionists impressed Desnos, for example, Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) and Lang’s Metropolis. Von Stroheim’s tales of frustrated love, like The Wedding March, are also lauded. Desnos says of this director: ‘It is because von Stroheim has the courage to show love as it is that he’s the most revolutionary of directors and the most human.’9 The cinema of Sergei Eisenstein (banned from public viewing in France) also attracted his support, particularly for the way films like Battleship Potemkin and General Line made ‘abstract philosophical problems concrete’. Desnos was, of course, also a great admirer of Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou and l’Age d’Or.
In contrast Desnos panned films by French so called ‘avant garde’ directors, who he considered pretentious. Marcel L’Herbier was singled out in particular, but Jean Cocteau was in this group too.10 ‘Art’, for Desnos, killed ‘poetry’. He wanted cinema to have a visceral impact on an audience, to move them to action. It wasn’t only what happened on the screen which interested Desnos, but the whole experience of viewing with others, including the potential for sexual liaisons. Watching a film with others in the dark was an act of collective dreaming, giving license to desires the conscious mind sought to repress. Desnos protested repeatedly about the censorship of both erotic and political content in films.
In an essay on ‘The morality of cinema’, Desnos wrote:
Contrary to the tacit rules of respectable society the heroes ought to mobilise our passions. It is love, it is the spirit of adventure, which makes us love the murderer in crime stories. Poetry itself attaches to the actions of those in revolt and it is our senses which vibrate with these fine men, with these adorable women who dare to commit acts which fear prevents us from doing.11
Mysteries of the Metro (Les mystères du Métropolitain)
scenario for a film with sound and in colour
By Robert Desnos.
- Panorama of peaceful countryside. Hills, fields, windmills, farms, a river, men hauling a barge, a train, a level crossing, a metal bridge…
- In the middle of a wheat field a young and attractive woman dressed in the style of the Second Empire (a crinoline, a small hat over the eye with ‘follow me, young man’), gathers cornflowers.
- In a street in Paris a ‘modern style’ Metro station.
- An enormous crowd surges down the station stairs. We see an elderly general, a bank clerk, a large woman carrying a basket, a cavalryman, a police sergeant, a beggar, an angler with his tackle, an elderly dandy, three young girls, a multitude of men and women of whom four-fifths are ridiculous as in reality: cross-eyed, lame, one-eyed, hunchbacked, noses too long, noses too short, crooked noses, bald, hairy, mouths open, horrible ears, stomachs flabby and protruding, feet too big, umbrella under the arm, grotesque hats, affected manners, fake elegance, etc.
- The station newsagent. On a corner of her counter she is writing an interminable poem. A mass of pages is piling up to her right.
- The crowd waits at the counter, growing minute by minute. The street is ‘thick with people’.
- The adjoining streets become clogged in turn.
- The newsagent continues writing her poem, counting the feet of the alexandrines on her fingers.
- The deserted platform below ground.
- The man who punches tickets sleeps.
- The station master plays patience.
- Empty Metro trains pass.
- Posters on the wall come to life. The Dutch woman from Blooker cocoa advances, enormous. A polar bear follows her. The Pierrot of thermogenic wadding sinks, luminous, in the subterranean shadows. He has scarcely disappeared when the letters of Dubonnet shoot up one after the other out of the shadows and fall on the ground where they shatter. Bottles of ‘La Croix’ bleach burst. The black lion springs up in turn followed by the two geese from ‘Marie’ liver paté. The salamander sparkles with all its fire. The Florent licorice-men pass along the way pushing an enormous box of licorice. The pasta moon flutters in the air and multitudes of painters from Ripolin throw white paint on their faces. The Nile elephant (and its sign) carries the Cadum baby on its back, etc.
- The streets around the station. The police cannot contain the crowd.
- Riot police who charge.
- Some of the wounded who have been carried into a pharmacy.
- A burning house.
- Firemen arriving.
- A barricade: an uprooted tree on the boulevard, an overturned car; a handcart, wheel broken, lying on its side.
- It’s a riot.
- Priests are executed in front of a urinal.
- Huge crowds on the move. Shooting in the streets.
- Inside a warehouse, a dismantled guillotine.
- It’s the revolution!
- The counter of the station newsagent. She writes the word ‘end’ at the bottom of her poem.
- She starts to sell tickets.
- Faster and faster.
- On the platform the posters resume their places.
- The newsagent distributes tickets so quickly that one can see nothing but a whirlwind. Coins pile up in the booth.
- On the platform, the crowd storms the trains which arrive and depart with prodigious speed.
- The streets of Paris empty rapidly.
- They are deserted. Alone, a blind man passes tapping his cane.
- The trains packed with passengers pass through underground tunnels.
- Then on overground rails.
- At the first station workers shovel coins into carts.
- The newsagent starts another poem.
- On the platform, the man who punches the tickets sleeps. He has an arm in a sling, a dressing on one eye, and one foot in an enormous bandage. A nurse keeps watch over him.
- From time to time a train full of passengers passes without stopping.
- In one of these trains we recognise the people from the beginning of the film: the general, the fat woman, the bank clerk, etc.
- People turn away from the poor man, the poor man who is begging.
- Only the bank clerk is moved to pity.
- Then to veritable despair.
- He cries. He sobs.
- He gives the poor man everything he has in his satchel.
- The general starts to move towards the door to get out and in doing so crushes a great many feet.
- Battle. Umbrellas and canes are brandished. The melee is indescribable. Windows are smashed.
- In a corner the three little girls are crying.
- In another corner an accordionist plays, glassy-eyed.
- In the end the general is literally thrown from the train by the crowd.
- He falls on the deserted platform, and while he gets up painfully and reads the name of the station ‘Combat’, the twin taillights of the last carriage disappear into the underground shadows.
- King Francis I, in the middle of a battlefield where the crows fight over the dead, writes a note on his knee while the cavalry flee in the distance.
In the train. The three little girls are asleep.
- The accordionist takes a bunch of asparagus and some bread out of his instrument and starts to eat.
- The large woman and her basket.
- The police sergeant and the cavalryman approach and begin to court her.
- The poor man, now become rich, chats familiarly with the old dandy.
- The former pauper treads on the foot of the bank clerk who protests.
- Dispute. The former pauper seizes the empty satchel and puts it over the bank clerk’s head.
- who, blinded, struggles
- and cuffs the old dandy whose monocle falls out
- and who in turn can’t see anymore
- and who, on all fours, searches for his monocle amid a forest of legs and piles of feet.
- He arrives next to the group formed by the large woman, the police sergeant and the cavalryman.
- He passes his head beneath the skirts of the fat woman.
- The fat woman lets out a cry and raises each of her legs in turn.
- She places one foot on the elderly dandy’s head
- who briskly gets up
- and gets his head entangled in the fat woman’s skirts
- who topples over upending her basket
- out of which flops an enormous live fish which starts to wriggle on the floor.
- Laboriously, the police sergeant and the cavalryman help the large woman to her feet
- while the old dandy, still on all fours, continues his search.
- The police sergeant and the cavalryman accuse each other of having lacked respect for the fat woman who is yelling.
- They draw swords.
- They fight a duel in the middle of a circle of terrified passengers who try to flee, trampling each other, and of whom we see only their backs.
- The wriggling fish jumps between the legs of the passengers
- and in one bound jumps through a broken window into the underground tunnel
- and flies through the air.
- It reaches the front carriage and flies in front of it as though guiding the train.
- We see it sometimes in the underground tunnel, sometimes passing through a station and sometimes on the overground rails.
- The police sergeant and the cavalryman continue their duel.
- The old dandy, still searching on all fours, gets closer to them.
- He soon finds himself beneath the sabre and the shortsword crossed between the two duelists.
- The fish continues its course in front of the Metro train which seems always to follow it.
- The scenery changes little by little: at first we see areas of Paris: factories, tramways
- then the suburbs: gardens, villas, people playing boule, anglers.
- The angler on the train makes signs to them.
- The fishermen don’t respond to him, but we see them catching a large quantity of fish.
- which, once the angler’s backs are turned, leap from their box and come flying around the train which they accompany like a flock of birds.
- Soon open countryside appears. Haystacks. Crows. Forests. Rivers. A bird of prey pursues the fish, catches one and disappears, rising up into the air.
- The duelists continue to fight, the old dandy still between them on all fours.
- The little girls wake up and cry.
- What’s the matter with them? They’re hungry.
- What’s to be done? Lots of passengers are hungry, everyone reflects – apart from the two duelists and the old dandy.
- The fish which continues its aerial course.
- The angler has an idea! He takes his rod and line, ties on a hook, secures a maggot and catches some fish.
- The passengers tear out the seats and light a fire on which they cook the fish.
- Everyone eats.
- The fish bones are thrown out of the doors, but they continue to follow the train.
- The duelists continue to fight, the old dandy still between them.
- Everyone falls asleep. Night falls. The crescent moon in the sky. The flying fish bones, luminous in the dark.
102 to 121. A succession of days and nights. The men’s faces become bearded. Idylls are sketched out. The fish guides the train which arrives in mountainous country. The duelists are still fighting.
- Perilous journey through the mountains. The train slides a hundred times surrounded by glaciers, precipices and snow-covered summits, and a hundred times it doesn’t fall.
- The angler, now the possessor of a long beard, has another idea: what is the train driver doing?
- Passing through the communication doors between the carriages, he passes the length of the train where the carriages are cluttered with the skeletons of dead passengers.
- He arrives in the driver’s cab. He too is dead and reduced to the condition of a skeleton.
- The angler removes his hat before this victim of duty.
- Suddenly the train stops in front of a lake surrounded by high, snow-covered mountains.
- The large fish and the others fly over the calm waters.
- Everyone disembarks, except the two duelists.
- Suddenly a group of Red Indians on the war path appear, who yell, gesticulate and surround the passengers.
- The shouts disturb the old dandy who stands up suddenly and gets himself scalped by the two duelists.
- The Red Indians get ready to torture the passengers
- when the old dandy, the cavalryman and the police sergeant appear, the last of these wearing the scalp of the old dandy.
- On seeing this the Red Indians calm down and start to dance with the prisoners.
- Fairground entertainers arrive with a merry-go-round of cows.
- Everyone, passengers and Red Indians, mount the cows and the merry-go-round turns in the presence of the tall, snow-covered mountains and the lake into which the fish, the large one and the smaller ones, suddenly plunge.
- We see them swim, straddling two worlds, and disappear into the depths.
- The merry-go-round continues to turn.
- In Paris! The Metro packed with people.
- In the street: taxis, a bus, tramways, people passing.
- A man who kisses an attractive woman.
- On a café terrace a customer drinks an aperitif.
- At a window fairly high up a woman appears who closes the shutters.
(Trans. by Simon Collings.)
SIMON COLLINGS lives in Oxford. His poetry, short fiction, translations, reviews and essays have appeared in a wide range of magazines including Stride, Fortnightly Review, Café Irreal, Litter, International Times, Junction Box, The Long Poem Magazine, Ink Sweat & Tears, PN Review and Journal of Poetics Research. Why are you here?, a collection of his prose poems and short fiction, was published by Odd Volumes in November 2020. His third chapbook, Sanchez Ventura, was published by Leafe Press in spring 2021. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. For more information, visit his webpage.
Image credits: Paris Metro station, Paolo Gallo; Channel and railway connecting to distant Liverdun on hill top surrounded by vast natural landscape, France, Mannaggia; French cafe, vintage; Francis I in costume weapons man, Marignan, vintage engraving, Morphart; Train ticket, France, lukeruk; Train tunnel, filadendron; Flock of fish, ermingut; carousel cow, Jean Beaufort (publicdomainpictures.net).
- Published in Les Cahiers du Mois 1925, no. 12. Collected in Robert Desnos, Cinéma, compiled and with an introduction by André Tchernia, Gallimard, 1966. All of the scenarios and items of film criticism cited in this essay are in this volume.
- La Revue du Cinema, 1 July 1930.
- From a review in Journal Littéraire, 18 April 1925.
- From an article ‘The mysteries of cinema’, Le Soir, 2 April 1927.
- ‘Cinema d’avant-garde’, Documents, 1929, no. 7.
- Variétés, 15 April 1930.
- Les Cahiers Jaunes, 1933, no. 4.
- In Clair’s 1924 film, Paris qui dort (literally Paris which sleeps), the life of the city is frozen by the effects of a mysterious ray, creating a tableau vivant through which the few unaffected characters move with impunity. The English title of the film is The Crazy Ray. One of Desnos’ unpublished ideas for a film involves time going backwards with people able to ‘foresee’ the ‘future’. Clair may have been an influence here.
- ‘Cinema of the avant garde’, Documents, 1929, no.7.
- L’Herbier was a well-regarded filmmaker at the time who had a long career in the industry. For an example of his work which Desnos disliked see L’inhumaine (The Inhuman Woman, 1924.).
- ‘La morale du cinéma’, Paris Journal, 13 May 1923.