Binge-Worthy #6½: The Films of Man Ray (Part 2)

Binge-Worthy is a series that explores films made by iconic photographers.

A great deal of ink has been spilled about Man Ray’s third short film, L’etoile de Mer (1928). It’s a rhapsodic Surrealist meditation on lost love that attempts to interweave the lived experience with the dream-state. Fusing cinema and poetry, it’s a more mature work than his earlier forays into “pure cinema” and arguably his most significant cinematic experiment.

Man Ray was inspired to make the film after hearing the Surrealist poet Robert Desnos recite his work “La place de l’etoile.” Marking a departure from his previous films, the process of making L’etoile de Mer was both more collaborative and more planned out. Desnos’s poem provided an outline that Man Ray interpreted visually, and Desnos himself makes a brief cameo appearance towards the end.

Desnos wrote “La place de l’etoile” while in a self-induced hypnotic or trancelike state. In theory, this process, termed automatism, enabled his subconscious mind to compose poetry in an almost automatic way that emphasized spontaneous composition and free association. The idea behind it was to strip away the artifice that one consciously overlays onto the creative process in order to reveal deeper truths via an unmediated act of creation.

Man Ray’s treatment of Desnos’s poem is a much more conscious effort—in fact, this is the first film in which he isn’t simply improvising as he goes along. But it is also a powerful representation of the subconscious state that never appears contrived. Like the poem, it generally follows the stream-of-consciousness logic of a dream.

Yet, as abstract and free of narrative trappings as both the film and the poem are, there is still some semblance of a basic story: A failed seduction between a man and a woman results in the woman choosing to be with another man. While there is a purposeful lack of drama, each moment is highly consequential.

Kiki de Montparnasse, Man Ray’s muse throughout much of the 1920s, appears in “L’etoile de Mer”

Much of the film was shot with a celluloid filter in front of the lens that obscures the male and female figures, rendering them abstract and faceless—archetypes, as opposed to characters. The viewer can’t quite hold onto their images or picture them clearly, much less study their expressions. Nevertheless, the filmmaker provides brief glimpses of them at certain moments, indicating that actual memories are mixing with the dreamer’s subconscious imagination.

The symbolism is purposefully bewildering. Words, images, and gestures all carry oblique, arbitrary connotations that are difficult to pin down. Even the starfish, the film’s central symbol, is an empty signifier waiting to be endowed with meaning (or, rather, multiple meanings). Sometimes the starfish appears trapped in a jar. At several points, it is superimposed over the action. In one sequence, it is part of a classic still life (wine, fruit, a newspaper). In another sequence, it is portrayed erotically as a sensual creature in close-up.

It seems likely that Man Ray intended for such meaning to be created solely within the viewer’s mind. After all, the act of watching cinema involves placing oneself in a kind of trancelike state, as we perceive and interpret the flickering images on the screen. Perhaps thereby, the film’s subconscious explorations enable us as viewers to tap into our own subconsciouses.

Their identities obscured, Man Ray and his photography assistant Jacques-Andre Boiffard roll the dice in “Chateau”

Surrealist touches enliven Man Ray’ fourth and final film, Les Mysteres du Chateau du De (1929). Unlike his previous films, Les Mysteres was a patron-commissioned work. In his 1963 autobiography Self Portrait, Man Ray dismisses the film as a work-for-hire and claims that he saw it more or less as an opportunity for a paid vacation. Yet, despite his disavowel, it is still an important Surrealist film.

The backstory is as follows: The Vicomte Charles de Noailles, a patron of the arts and the owner of the titular chateau, wanted Man Ray to make a film that showcased his contemporary art collection as it was displayed in his mansion. (He had an extensive collection that included several important Cubist works by Picasso and Miró as well as commissioned sculptures by Giacometti and Brancusi, among others.) De Noailles also desired to show his well-to-do guests enjoying leisure activities there, making particular use of such modern luxuries as the covered swimming pool and gymnasium. The film was intended as an addition to his private collection that would be screened for future visitors. De Noailles would go on to finance several significant avant garde films, including Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel’s groundbreaking provocation Un Chien Andalou a year later.

Within those parameters, Man Ray was given the freedom to pursue his unique creative vision, which he took full advantage of. The Surrealists embraced the notion that an individual’s fate was largely determined by chance, so the film begins with a lighthearted riff on this concept. Two travelers, their faces masked, roll a pair of dice to determine if they will go on a journey to the mysterious “chateau of dice.” The travelers are played by Man Ray and his assistant, artist and writer Jacques-Andre Boiffard, who was working as Man Ray’s studio assistant at the time.  

From there, the film spirals into a twisty, windy tour of the palatial modern villa. At the swimming pool, the bathers disappear, reappear, and move backwards and forwards. These unusual guests sometimes pose or act in ways that resemble Greek gods. Their identities are hidden—or more to the point erased—so that they become interchangeable avatars, with as much agency as a frequently-appearing mannequin hand that holds a pair of dice. Innovative, slow-moving, low-to-the-ground tracking shots (similar to the ones that Stanley Kubrick would design decades later for The Shining) create a foreboding atmosphere as the camera explores different rooms in an otherwise empty villa. To paraphrase Bill Murray, that is one nutty chateau.

Like so much of Man Ray’s work, Les Mysteres is the vision of a truly original and groundbreaking artist. Once again, poetry provides inspiration for the onscreen vision. In this case, the work is “Every Thought Sends Forth One Toss of the Dice” by French Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, a lengthy poem that had a great influence on the Surrealists.

There were several attempts at filmmaking after this one, including a potential collaboration with André Breton, but none of them came to fruition, so we are left with only these four short films.

Le Retour à la Raison (1923), Emak-Bakia (1926), L’etoile de Mer (1928), Les Mysteres du Chateau du De (1929).

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