Abstract from “French surrealism, fantasy, and the real” essay by Toby Woollaston – 2011

In his seminal first manifesto on Surrealism written in 1924, André Breton states that “what is admirable in the fantastic is that there is no more fantastic, there is only the real”. This statement offers a provocative range of questions which I intend to explore in this essay. Can French surrealist cinema be read as works of fantasy, or is it solely an exploration into “the real”? If they are works of fantasy, then how are they reconciled with established definitions of fantasy as a genre? Does the “fantasy”, and specifically the concept of “the fantastic”, offer a mode for exposing “the real”?

Drawing on work by Suvin as well as Le Guin, I will locate the term “fantasy” in relation to “fiction”, specifically exploring Breton’s meaning of “the fantastic” and how this reveals “the real”. I will also define the term “real” as differentiated from “reality”. Finally, I will briefly outline what is meant by the term “the fantastic” in order to establish if it exposes “the real”. Throughout I intend to illustrate my position with three French surrealist films, notably Germaine Dulac’s La Coquille et le Clergyman(1928) and also Luis Buñuel’s two films L’Âge d’Or(1930) and Un Chien Andalou (1929). This aims to shed some light on how French surrealist cinema fits into Jackson’s rethinking of Todorov’s model on “the fantastic”. Importantly, this will also illustrate Le Guin’s psychoanalytical approach to “the fantastic”, and the ambiguous dreamlike transition from a child’s reality to fantasy that appears to fit so well with the Surrealist agenda. My aim is to posit that these three films are not works of fantasy. Instead, they reveal the “real” through the use of fantasy, employing “the fantastic” as a tool for exposing “the real”, where the protagonist is essentially the spectator of the film rather than a character in the film.

Feel free to email me if you would like the full transcript.