In the short film L’Etoile de Mer, Man Ray portrays the story of a love affair. Using gel to cover the lens of the camera, most of the scenes of the lovers together and of the woman by herself are seen through a gauzy film, as if we are underwater.
The human story is familiar – two people meet in public and walk together, get to know each other better, and then move to a private space. Plot-wise, they move away from each other in their own narrative lines, and then return to each other for brief heightened moments of interaction.
Alongside this narrative is the image of a starfish, which we see in three forms: preserved in a glass jar filled with a clear liquid, alive and in motion in the sea, and dried and dead, lying on the floor.
L’Etoile de Mer is, like Nadja, the story of a man’s encounter with a beautiful and unknowable woman. The text of the film compares her at various points to different kinds of flowers: “beautiful like a flower of glass,” “beautiful like a flower of flesh,”and “beautiful like a flower of fire.” Like Breton’s work, we could consider this film the attempt to catch the beauty and intensity of an interesting woman, and this attempt’s successes and failures are gauged by the state of the starfish.
When we first see the starfish, it is contained in glass. It is unclear whether it is still alive or not – the clear liquid might be water or formaldehyde. It does not move, but its body is preserved in its original state. Enclosed in glass and stationary, the couple first examine the starfish together, and then the man observes the starfish at home in private. This reminds me of Nadja, how initially she was as excited as Breton about their chance connection, and of how it might help each of them see things in the world they could not see separately. But after their time together, Breton feels the need to pull away and show us his separate life, to refocus the lens of observation not on him and Nadja, but on his observations of her.
After viewing the starfish preserved in glass, and still quite early in the film, we see the starfish underwater and in motion, the arms drifting down to rest on coral, its many tiny tube feet, in separate motion (6:00). It is a captivating moment. We view the starfish in a moment of everyday intimacy, and it feels as though we are looking into another world. In this moment we see the starfish with a clarity and a closeness that often occurs at the beginning of a relationship, and the rest of the film, like the following period of a relationship, seeks to recapture this closeness.
Following the underwater scene, we see pieces of newspaper blowing through the street, cartwheeling like starfish across the ground. This is followed by a collage image of two starfish in glass jars, a kind of manufacturing taking place with glass, and spinning baubles of glass with what might be either flowers or starfish trapped inside. These two scenes convey the flurry of excitement, the desire to see more and to capture each moment that Breton initially shows towards Nadja. He is angry with himself that he has scheduled a one-day break in between their meetings and has an overwhelming urge to find her. Breton’s descriptions of these next meetings are fractured, trying to capture moments clearly and preserve them under glass. They give an echo of Nadja, but they do not present as clear an image as the first meeting when she was alive in her own world, before Breton briefly enclosed her in his.
In the last third of the film, we see the woman lying in bed through a gel-covered lens. She sits up and places her foot on a book, beside it a dried starfish. Then the lens changes, and we see the same scene only clearly, with no filter. In this frame we have the connection of living woman, written text, and dead starfish. This forms a kind of hierarchy of representations of the living. Nadja is, to us as readers, a dried starfish. Preserved and observable, but limited in its motions by the author. L’Etoile de Mer more closely approximates the reality of an experience, the starfish in a jar, where we can examine the characters as if they were living, because they are captured in time.
The film closes with the image of the woman sitting by a fire. She seems to pass her hand close to it, and then eats something out of her palm. She is a “flower of fire,” and this transitory nature is what captivates writers like Breton and directors like Man Ray. And in their work we see the artist’s continual struggle to take the enchantment of real life and translate the spell.