Cemetery of Splendor as New Queer Surrealism
Jen’s (Jenjira Pongpas Widner, right) love for an afflicted soldier leads to new understandings of gender and sexuality through their surreal relationship with a spiritual medium.
When the surrealist movement began in the 1920s in Europe, the surrealist group sought to subvert the social and political order. They believed the tyranny of cultural rationality contributed to the onset of the First World War. The surrealist movement embraced understandings and experiences of the world that were contrary to entrenched bourgeois values and their emphasis on reason. In various art forms — especially cinema — surrealists produced works that attacked and mocked the status quo. However, the leading figures of the original surrealist group were limited by their lingering investments in patriarchy and heteronormativity. Additionally, they believed they could only pursue the goal of political subversion if their films alienated and offended their viewers, which meant that their conception of surrealism could never reach an audience already primed to experience the surreal and see the social and political order undermined.
Despite these limitations of cinematic surrealism at its inception, a surrealist attitude survived in film and underwent significant revisions over time. One such film with a surrealist attitude is Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor (2015). This slow, contemplative film is about a woman in a Thai village who forms a relationship with a soldier afflicted with a sleeping sickness. Through this relationship, she is aroused to exploitative aspects of the Thai political order. The film is surreal in the ways its slowness draws attention to performative gestures that disrupt gender and sexual conventions, which mark this film as an example of the ways surrealism has radically adapted from its conception in the 1920s.
A Brief History of Surrealism
Before I can demonstrate how Cemetery of Splendor signifies surrealism’s radical shifts from the perspectives of its conceivers, a general definition of surrealism is in order.
In his 1924 “Manifesto of Surrealism,” André Breton defines surrealism as “psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express…the actual functioning of thought…in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern” (26). This definition suggests that surrealism is automatic and not controlled by reason. Existing social and political values are the product of some form of conscious rationality that determines that they ought to be the order. Surrealism is the antithesis of these things. The concept is that when one exists outside the realm of rationality, one can experience the automatic functions of the mind at a level between the conscious and the unconscious. Thus, for the purposes of this argument, I define the surreal as the experience of receiving understanding at a level separate to conscious rationality. The goal of the surrealist movement was to subvert the social and political order perpetuated by conscious rationality.
Early surrealists expressed their understanding of surrealism in ways that suggest the divergence of the goals of surrealism as a movement and the thoughts of individual surrealists. Among the members of the surrealist group was Luis Buñuel. In his later writings, he describes what the surrealist movement meant to him. He says, “for the first time in my life I’d come into contact with a coherent moral system that, as far as I could tell, had no flaws. It was an aggressive morality based on the complete rejection of all existing values.” (107). Consider this understanding of surrealism in comparison to Breton’s definition; surrealism necessarily resists coherence and is exempt from morality. Buñuel’s statement is contradictory, and the assertion that it could be a flawless moral system—while not being a moral system at all — indicates a desire to understand morality at a level different to that prescribed by the social and political order. Thus, Buñuel seeks to reject existing values, but is inevitably trapped by the value of the desire to find a coherent moral system.
Buñuel reveals other problems with the pursuit of the surreal within the realm of the real in his book. After the premiere and success of Un Chien andalou (1929), Buñuel received payment and agreed to publish details related to its production. These facts angered other members of the surrealist group. Buñuel recalled this incident in detail: “We were going to have a trial. Aragon was the prosecutor, and in violent terms he accused me of selling out to a bourgeois publication. Moreover, there was something suspect about the commercial success of my film. How could such a scandalous film draw such an enormous public?” (108).
In a shocking assault on the bourgeois social order, a man cuts a woman’s eye in Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou (1929).
This situation highlights a problem: advancing the surrealist movement involved engaging in the very social order the surrealists resisted. However, the disbelief that the public could be drawn to a film that permeates a surreal experience suggests that the surrealist group’s understanding of surrealism was predicated on the inability of the intended targets of their critique — members of the current social order—to self-reflexively change and recognize critiques of their own order. Conceivably, a broader audience might experience frustration with the social and political order just as the surrealists did, thus desiring an experience of understanding outside of conscious rationality. The disbelief in this possibility suggests the group was unprepared for the possibility that the surreal might have to evolve to reach its goals.
The limitations of the attitudes of the surrealist group are evident from the ways they were willing to critique some existing values but not others. Homophobia was the social order at the time and surrealists were content not to challenge these norms. In his book on sex and media, Brian McNair discusses homophobia in the surrealist movement: Even the avant-garde artists of the surrealist movement, as we have seen, for all their anti-bourgeois, anti-clerical posturing displayed an ugly intolerance of their gay colleagues. Emmanuel Cooper records that ‘Jean Cocteau was hated and despised by his one-time associate André Breton precisely because he was homosexual’” (180).
Embracing homophobia upholds the contemporary social order. The ways Cemetery of Splendor surreally blurs sexual lines rejects social distinctions on the lines of sexuality and advances surrealism’s goals in ways Breton and his contemporaries could not.
The same argument applies to the surrealist group’s attitudes towards women. In Shari Benstock’s discussion of women in art and culture in the early twentieth-century, she highlights the “underlying misogyny of Surrealism… ‘For all their desire to live unconventionally and to shock the bourgeoisie, the Surrealists had highly conventional, even traditional, ideas about women. No woman writer or painter emerged to join their activities or sign their manifestos’” (217). When surrealists perpetuate traditional ideas about women, they uphold the social order and fail to advance the goals of surrealism Cemetery of Splendor draws attention to the ways gender is socially constructed to critique order along the lines of gender.
From this section, consider that surrealism is the experience of receiving understanding at a level separate to conscious rationality. The goal of the surrealist movement was to subvert the social and political order perpetuated by conscious rationality. Despite beginning this movement, early surrealists failed to advance its goals thanks to conventional attitudes towards homosexuality and women. Through textual analysis, I justify how Cemetery of Splendor advances surrealism’s goals in ways this group could not.
Gender, Performance Gesture, and Ambiguous Sexuality
An abbreviated understanding of some of the literature related to gender theory is necessary to understand the ways Cemetery of Splendor breaks downs conventions of gender and sexuality. In “Gender Trouble,” Judith Butler writes that “Acts, gesture, and desire produce the effect of an internal core or substance, but produce this on the surface of the body…such acts…are performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs” (173).
Gesture constructs the genders that the social and political order uses to structure society. But the implication of this, as Butler discusses, is that anyone could do these performative acts. When drag queens perform, they reveal how fabricated conventional notions of gender really are.
Performative gestures in Cemetery of Splendor disrupt gender and sexual conventions. Jen (Jenjira Pongpas Widner) forms a relationship with a soldier, Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), who suffers from a sleeping sickness with supernatural yet historical and political ramifications. To be precise, Itt, along with several other soldiers, is being conscripted to fight an ancient war on behalf of imperial forces while he dreams. While he is asleep, Jen communicates with him through the psychic medium, Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram). This creates a disruptive dynamic because Keng is female, but Itt is male. When Keng is Itt, gender is ambiguous. Performative gestures that Butler claims construct gender are fundamental to Rueangram’s performance in this role. The slowness of the film draws particular attention to subtle changes in her performance. When she is Keng, she and Jen engage in female-female homosocial gestures: she is forward with body movement and touches Jen platonically. These gestures fabricate with corporeal signs the sense that they relate in this way because of their shared gender. But when Rueangram is Itt, her performance of gesture is visibly more reserved. She walks with hands by her side as a soldier might. This performance subverts social and political values because it indicates that aspects of gender that the surrealists upheld are fabricated.
The pairing of genderless skeletons and the presence of Itt in Keng’s mediumistic body complicates traditional concepts of gender.
This subversion of gender conventions is supported and extended to capture sexual conventions by the mise-en-scène in the film. In the scene where Jen says that she was confused about love, the frame shows a statue of a man and a woman embracing each other. This mise-en-scène represents sexual conventions. A camera pan reveals that beside the statue of the man and the woman is a statue of two skeletons embracing one another. This is significant because the skeletons are not gendered, making it an ambiguous embrace. Additionally, it is ambiguous with regards to the sexualities of the people represented. Consider the camera pan in combination with the dialogue that establishes the scene as being about confusion in love. The pan’s revelation of the skeletons suggests that they resolve the confusion in love. It implies that gender and sexuality are irrelevant to expressions of love. Furthermore, this scene is subversive because it suggests sexual and gender conventions cause confusion in love.
The surreal elements introduced by the film’s ambiguous engagement with gender and sexuality culminate in the sex scene. These elements are surreal because on the consciously rational level, Keng is a woman. However, the psychic elements of Keng’s character shift her beyond the rational. Additionally, the performative gestures that construct Keng’s gender exist on an unconscious level. When Rueangram changes performative expression, she reveals to the audience this unconscious level of our understanding of gender. Thus, the audience experiences an impression of Keng/Itt that is distinct from conscious rationality. The audience’s understanding of sexual ambiguity based on the skeletons is also surreal.
Cemetery of Splendor is also an example of slow cinema. The slow pace and the subdued atmospheric elements draw audience attention unconsciously to subtle elements of the film. This slowness enables surreal experience because it causes the audience to notice the ways it comes to understand aspects of the film unconsciously. This is the case with the camera pan because the gradual revelation of new information changes experience in a surreal manner.
Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), while inhabiting the body of Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram, right), licks Jen’s scarred leg in a display of affection within the film’s ambiguous sexual dynamics.
These factors are relevant in the sex scene because the audience already has a surreal understanding of the sexual and gender dynamics taking place. In the scene, Keng/Itt pours a tincture on Jen’s scars on her leg and then licks it off her. The scene is sexual because it involves intimate contact between Keng/Itt and a part of Jen’s body she is not always comfortable revealing, but she does here because of their intimate understanding of one another. The motivations of the sounds Jen makes in this scene are ambiguous. They could be cries of pain in relation to contact with her scars. They could be gasps of pleasure as a result of intimate contact. They could be tears of joy as a result of feeling less confused by love and experiencing intimacy with a person separate from the conventions of gender and sexuality. The ambiguity indicates it could be all three of these things at once. The understanding that it could be any of these things indicates the role of the surreal in subverting sexual and gender conventions that would normally be in play in such a scene.
These surreal elements in Cemetery of Splendor relate to the underlying theme of the film. The soldiers in the film (including Itt) who suffer from the sleeping sickness are being held in sleep by ancient dynasties keeping them to fight in their spirit wars. In her article on this film, Violet Lucca summarizes the relevance of this:
“Just as everyone in the country [Thailand] is deprived of the right to speak against the government, so must these soldiers serve unwillingly and unconsciously; conversely, their dormancy can also be understood as suggesting a public that passively refuses to revolt against the dictatorship” (24).
The surreal elements of the film indicate Jen’s awakening from her dormancy; the surreal experience of subverting sexual and gender conventions awakens her to a broader revolution against the social and political order in Thailand.
Cemetery of Splendor pursues the goals of surrealism in ways members of the surrealist group would not. The original surrealists believed their experiments should be offensive to members of the social and political order they critiqued. In contrast, Cemetery of Splendor uses surrealism to subvert rather than offend the social and political order, directing this subversion at an audience of people, like Jen, who have underlying confusions about this order and are prepared to be awakened by these subversions. As of 2019, this film has not been shown in Thailand. Apichatpong himself explained his thinking on this, saying, “I’m not sure if it’s the right time with a lot of censorship going on” (Lucca 26). Thus, the film has not had the opportunity to speak to the national audience who might desire and need this awakening. But it won the Un Certain Regard category at the Cannes Film Festival. For an audience ready to be awakened, it exists as a subversive work.
Benstock, Shari. Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940, University of Texas Press, 1976.
Breton, André. “Manifesto of Surrealism (1924).” Manifestoes of Surrealism, translated by Richard Seaver and Helen Lane, University of Michigan Press, 1972, pp. 3–47.
Buñuel, Luis. “Surrealism (1929-1933).” My Last Sigh, translated by Abigail Israel, University of Minnesota Press, 1983, pp. 3–47.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge, 1999.
Lucca, Violet. “Dream State.” Film Comment, Mar.-Apr. 2016, pp. 22-27.
McNair, Brian. Striptease Culture: Sex, Media and the Democratisation of Desire, Routledge, 2002.