Dig Deep into Surrealist Cinema with Five Stunning Films
Surrealist films provide an alluring visual gateway to the subconscious, with imagery inspired by dreams. Fitting for these strange times, we’ve rounded up five of our favorite explorations of the human psyche, from the 1940s to the 2010s, so you can bask in their transfixing and untamed symbolist beauty.
- Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
Spike Jonze turned Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s picture book into a widescreen feral fantasy, punctuating its introspective narrative with a string of surrealist devices. It’s a wonderfully whimsical portrait of the child we all once were.
Tantrum-prone little Max takes us on a fantastical adventure on the wild side of his emotions, to a fictional land where he’s king. There, his swelling loneliness at home, the piercing question marks and fear of growing up take the form of giant furry beasts — playful, violent, unpredictable, bursting out against a backdrop of towering forests and vast, sun-bleached deserts. It’s a vivid psychoanalytical canvas that gives free rein to Max’s and our imagination, as we travel beyond the grounding hows or whys of our adult minds.
- Alice (1988)
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland takes a darker turn in Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer’s hands. Flowing freely between live-action and stop-motion animation, the conscious and the unconscious, this largely dialogue-free ‘80s reading of the cult fairy tale follows Alice, a girl on the cusp of womanhood, magically shrinking and growing in size in what looks like a creepy dollhouse — the surreal corridors of a child’s mind.
Following the white rabbit through impossibly tiny doors and drawers, she discovers new passages, and boundaries. Despite adulthood’s bewildering curveballs, however, she remains oblivious to moral barriers, giving in to every whim and devouring every tart in sight. An apt metaphor for bottomless snacking during lockdown, perhaps?
- Beauty and the Beast (1946)
French polymath Jean Cocteau’s surrealist monochrome masterpiece dives into Beauty’s psyche in a cascade of mesmerizing metaphors. This divinely romantic fairy tale emerges from the darkest recesses of her female fantasy, as she is devotedly courted by a cursed prince. She seductively glides through the dim-lit hallways of France’s majestic Château de Raray, transformed for the movie into a spellbindingly black and white kingdom harboring the Beast’s sweeping melancholy and alienation.
The prince’s inner turmoil is also eloquently drawn on every inch of strapping beau Jean Marais’ beastly transformation — but it still can’t hide the tenderness that ultimately captures Beauty’s heart. Cocteau’s post-war visual poem is a balm for every cinephile soul in isolation.
- Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)
For more surrealist escapes in black and white, avant-garde pioneer Maya Deren and husband Alexander Hammid offer this nightmarish short. A visual collage of foreboding slow motion and uncanny déjà vus, it’s like ripples of repressed emotions resurfacing in a hypnotic loop. Deren (who also stars here) hints at both the manifestation of the subconscious and a strange out-of-body experience as she meets her double. Elsewhere, she chases a cloaked figure, who eerily reveals a mirror where a face should be. Pitch-perfect notes of symbolism all around — and you’ll probably never look at your dreams the same way again.
- The Act of Killing (2012)
Joshua Oppenheimer took an unorthodox approach to this Oscar-nominated doc. Zooming in on the mass killings of 1965 during Indonesia’s military dictatorship, he challenges the proud death squad leaders — heroes, still, in the eyes of the regime — to re-enact their past crimes on camera. They choose to do it garishly disguised as the protagonists of their favorite gangster movies and westerns.
Amplifying this arguably surrealist take on actual events are the director’s operatic fictional scenes. Take the one on the movie’s eye-catching poster, where a line of alluring dancers make their way out of the bowels of a giant fish.
Lingering in a fertile cinematic terrain between reality and make-believe, the documentary strikingly puts the killers — and us with them — in other people’s shoes, breaking emotional walls of resistance on either side. It’s gut-wrenching, but a chillingly potent lesson in empathy.