Cinema and Media Studies Surrealism and Film
Robin Walz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 December 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0139


Affinities between surrealism and film have been noted since the beginning of the surrealist movement in the 1920s. The nascent motion picture industry at the dawn of the 20th century was by definition experimental, a new media form that combined and extended features of serial publications, theater, photography, and collage. The objective and technical processes of filmmaking shared affinities with the surrealist project of disassembling reality into a multiplicity of images, and then reassembling those images to achieve a marvelous and uncanny “dream world” that redoubled reality and captured the consciousness of mass audiences. The early surrealists wrote enthusiastically about the cinema of their time, particularly the comedies of Mack Sennett, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin, and the criminal exploits of the silent film serials Les Mystères de New York, Fantômas, and Les Vampires. Moving from a surrealist reception of film to the production of surrealist cinema, an article on Un Chien andalou by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí appeared in the countersurrealist journal Documents (June 1929) and the film scenario was published in the final issue of La Révolution Surréaliste (15 December 1929). Beginning in the 1930s, avant-garde, commercial, and experimental filmmakers continued to produce films that, in some aspect or another, came to be critically recognized as surrealist. Yet, unlike poetry, fiction, painting, photography, and collage, film never became a dominant medium of surrealist art. Consequently, scholarship on surrealism and film is extremely varied, having developed in stages and having moved in multiple directions. The earliest approach was to examine film, both popular movies and avant-garde productions, through writings of mainly French surrealists on the cinema. A second wave of scholarship from film studies focused upon a canonical body of surrealist films, directors, and scenarios, most notably on the work of Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel. In recent decades, contemporary scholars internationally have examined the intersection of surrealism and cinema with the goal to develop theoretical concepts and nomenclature applicable to the fields of literary theory, critical theory, and cultural studies. This bibliography is designed to assist researchers informed by any of these approaches while remaining inclusive of all of them.

General Overviews

Scholarly works concerned with the intersection of surrealism and film began to appear in the mid-20th century with Kyrou 2005. An eminent film critic affiliated with the French cinema journal Positif, Kyrou considered film an inherently surrealist medium. Subsequent scholarship has sought more precision in identifying affinities and critical intersections in surrealist preoccupations with the cinema. The foundational works in English are Matthews 1971 and Kovács 1980, each of which moves from the general interest of the surrealists in the cinema to an examination of specific cinematic aspirations of the surrealists. Two of the strongest contemporary works in this vein are Short 2008, which examines films by Buñuel and other surrealist filmmakers, and Richardson 2006, which discusses many surrealist filmmakers and works typically absent or neglected in general overviews of the topic. Williams 1981 ushered in a theoretical turn in scholarly focus on surrealism and film with a Lacanian psycholinguistic analysis of surrealist film. Two contemporary collections of essays, Kuenzli 1996 and Harper and Stone 2007, express this newer theoretical impulse in the study of surrealist cinema, the former focusing primarily on French surrealist cinema of the 1920s and 1930s, while the latter widens the cultural field to include international films from a variety of genres.

  • Harper, Graeme, and Rob Stone, eds. The Unsilvered Screen: Surrealism on Film. London: Wallflower, 2007.

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    A collection of contemporary critical essays on surrealist films, canonical and iconoclastic. Considers a wide range of surrealist impulses in cinema internationally, from the canonical surrealist films of Luis Buñuel in Spain and Jan Švankmajer in the Czech Republic to a wider range of commercial, animated, documentary, and digital films from the United States, Britain, Japan, and Russia.

  • Kovács, Steven. From Enchantment to Rage: The Story of Surrealist Cinema. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1980.

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    Explores the issues of why the surrealists were interested in movies and how their aims and concerns were expressed through films. In this work primarily focused on the 1920s, Kovács discusses both realized and unrealized film projects of Francis Picabia, Man Ray, Antonin Artaud, Salvador Dalí, and Luis Buñuel.

  • Kuenzli, Rudolf, ed. Dada and Surrealist Film. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 1996.

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    Originally included in the issue of the journal Dada/Surrealism 15 (1986), this collection of critical essays covers a number of films and scenarios by members of the Dada and surrealist movements in the 1920s and 1930s. In addition, the volume contains a useful bibliography of books, dissertations, and theses on Dada and surrealist films as well as books and articles on individuals from these movements involved in filmmaking.

  • Kyrou, Ado. Le surréalisme au cinéma. Paris: Éditions Ramsay, 2005.

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    Explores surrealist tendencies in film across the spectrum, from highbrow cinema classics to lowbrow horror movies and popular Hollywood musicals. Animated more by a shared enthusiasm for surrealism and the movies than by a critical perspective, Kyrou’s work remains a valuable starting point for surrealism and film broadly conceived. For selections in English translation, see Hammond 2000 (cited under Surrealist Writings on Film). Originally published in 1953.

  • Matthews, J. H. Surrealism and Film. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1971.

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    In this foundational scholarly work in English, Matthews emphasizes the ability of films to produce the surrealistic sensations of disorientation and the “marvelous” in movie audiences, toward the goal of achieving a higher poetic reality. These issues are explored in relation to the commercial cinema, surrealist film scripts and films, and the movies of director Luis Buñuel that aimed to produce a cinema that was both surrealist and commercial.

  • Richardson, Michael. Surrealism and Cinema. Oxford: Berg, 2006.

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    This major reevaluation of surrealism and the cinema examines the tensions between the aspirations and activities of the surrealists as historically realized through specific films. Richardson moves beyond surrealism in the 1920s and the films of Luis Buñuel to examine a range of surrealist films and scenarios, the collaborative projects of Panique, and surrealist aspects of Hollywood films, documentaries, and the contemporary cinema.

  • Short, Robert. The Age of Gold: Surrealist Cinema. Los Angeles: Solar, 2008.

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    A superb recent overview of films made by surrealists. Short examines the scandalous receptions of Un Chien andalou and L’Âge d’or by Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel, respectively, the tensions between Antonin Artaud and Germaine Dulac concerning experimental cinema in The Seashell and the Clergyman, and the influence of Hans Richter, Jean Cocteau, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray upon surrealist cinema.

  • Williams, Linda. Figures of Desire: A Theory and Analysis of Surrealist Film. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981.

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    The foundational psychoanalytic-semiotic study of surrealism and film. Williams employs a Lacanian approach in psycholinguistics to examine how interactions among language, imagery, and the unconscious that are constructed into the surrealist films of Luis Buñuel produce “figures of desire.”

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