On the evening of the premiere of The Seashell and the Clergyman my skin was a riot of inflamed cysts again, and I elected to stay home with an analgesic and a warm towel on my face. It was just as well, for reportedly there was another public scandal. While the raging, lustful priest onscreen tore around after the character played by Génica’s Athanasiou waving the seashell-brassiere he’d ripped from Génica’s body, Desnos, along with fair-weather foes André Breton and Louis Aragon, ran around in the theatre and yelled insults about Germaine Dulac. People in the audience then shouted support for, or protest against, the director. Then someone broke mirrors in the lobby. The damage was blamed on Artaud who staunchly proclaimed his innocence. Dulac herself claimed Artaud was never there on opening night, yet other witnesses swore he merely sat quietly at the back of the theatre with his mother and yelled only once: “Enough!”
After this debacle rumors circulated again about Artaud’s tempestuous nature. To make matters worse, Paul Éluard and Benjamin Péret started following Artaud around, and I suspected they were jealous that Breton and Aragon were—temporarily—sympathetic to Artaud again. I didn’t like it; I didn’t trust Breton. Artaud getting sucked back into that Commie-Surrealist gaggle would surely rope in Desnos too, and Desnos was so happy with Breton no longer in his life. I didn’t want to hear the gossip and I did my best to stay out of this fray.
At any rate, both the supporters of Dulac and the supporters of Artaud claimed The Seashell and the Clergyman was a groundbreaking film, Surrealism’s first. It was promptly banned by the government as obscene. Nevertheless the film circulated underground. A week after the opening I managed to see it at one of the seedy dives that dared show it. Yet it was being shown abroad, in Spain, in Germany, and in Great Britain but it was soon banned there too.
Artaud denied misbehaving at the screening but he denounced the film as a betrayal. And yet when I praised Entre’Acte, the Dadaist film released back in 1921 which also still circulated underground, Artaud made an about-face and defended Dulac’s effort against such a “derivative” work. I kept my skepticism to myself, although I did tell Artaud that I found Seashell, when I finally saw it, to be a sketch rather than the embodiment of his ideas. And beautiful though they were, even the sight of Génica’s naked breasts in Artaud’s film couldn’t dislodge the more compelling image in Entre’Acte of a crowd cheerfully running in slow motion after a coffin down the street. Artaud’s scenario did take great cinematic risks but it was cold and lacked the humor of Entre’Acte. There was simply no comparison in my opinion.
Artaud proudly showed me a letter from a Spanish-Mexican filmmaker named Luis Buñuel, who had written Artaud to say The Seashell and the Clergyman had inspired him. Artaud allowed me, in a rare display of trust, to read the letter myself. This Buñuel had turned down the opportunity to be an assistant to Abel Gance while filming Napoléon.
“What a pity,” I said to Artaud, “or you and he might have met.”
Artaud scoffed. “Read what it says here,” he said, pointing to the text.
When I refused, Epstein berated me, saying, “You little asshole, who the hell do you think you are, turning down a great director like Gance? Do you think you would work with or even get near people like Josephine Baker were it not for me?” As it turns out, Gance was Epstein’s mentor and my refusal insulted him.
“You mean, Jean Epstein, the director?” I gasped. Epstein was one of the most successful film directors in France as well as a literary critic and novelist, and he had also adapted Poe’s works into film.
“Yes, yes,” replied Artaud impatiently. “Read on. I thought of you when I read it.”
I continued reading:
This happened when I was in Épinal, assisting on a shoot. Epstein told me to pack immediately, that I was fired and he would drive me to Paris that same day. During the drive he warned me: “You seem rather surrealist. Beware of surrealists, they are crazy people.” I hate Gance’s kind of cinema. At present I am in Paris, working as a film critic for various magazines. Perhaps we could meet.
“He must know you were in Napoléon, though,” I said.
“Well, of course he does,” Artaud replied. “Buñuel himself was an extra in Epstein’s film Mauprat. Buñuel has had considerable success and even fame in the Netherlands but wishes to chuck that to realize his own vision.”
“As you do,” I said and smiled at Artaud. “This letter made you think of me? It makes me think of you!”