Everything is ambiguous in Dadaist-to-Surrealist Man Ray’s— Emmanuel Radnitzky’s—L’étoile de mer, whose very title finds the star of the sky in the “star” of the sea. Accompanied by a poem by Robert Desnos, Ray’s silent masterpiece revolves around a man and a beautiful woman as they walk outdoors or otherwise unite. As its object, she embodies his desire—and the eternal mystery of this desire. But she is a tease. When we watch them as a seeming couple mount the stairs to her room, watch her undress and lie down in bed, we assume that he will follow; we assume that he also assumes this. No; the title card reads “Adieu.” Obediently, he takes his leave. Or is it he who has said “Adieu” to cover his embarrassed disappointment? Or to tease her? In life’s dance of desire, someone has to lead, someone has to follow. When they earlier seemed to be walking together, was one in fact leading the other?
Much of the time images are distorted, out of focus. (Ray, who cinematographed, had smeared his camera lens with vaseline.*) At other times, images are supernally clear. Dream and waking, possibly—or do both sets of images belong to dreams, the latter belonging to a fever dream whose “distortion” is its brilliant clarity?
A starfish is encased in a glass jar; another, mysteriously, thrillingly alive in its vast sea-home, is as erotic as the rip in a paper curtain that invites us in.
“And if you find on this Earth a woman of sincere love.” We expect a main clause to complete this title, but it never does, unless it is this, a couple of title-pages later: “You do not dream.”
But you do. All desire is dreamt, even as it is lived.
* Oswald Morris attributed his Oscar for photographing Fiddler on the Roof (1971) to his having smeared the camera lens with vaseline.
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