With Meshes of the Afternoon, her first short film, Maya Deren took the dreamlike, intellectual surrealism of Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou and made it intimate. Deren appears as a woman who returns home one afternoon, notes a few items on the way to her bedroom (a bread knife, a telephone), and then drifts off to sleep in a chair. The events that follow may be dreams—or dreams within dreams within dreams—all of which Deren presents not in the manner of Bunuel’s free-association imagery, but as layers of emotional experience.
In the dream—at least the first one—Deren reappears and reenters the house, noticing little differences (the knife is on the stairs) on her way to the bedroom, where she finds herself sleeping. This basic action repeats, until the woman has multiplied a number of times, each version having an increasingly heightened, surreal experience (the loss-of-gravity sequence is as masterful an application of practical effects as the hotel hallway scene in Inception). At various points we see a hooded figure with a mirror for a face and a man (Alexander Hammid, Deren’s husband and credited co-director), the latter of whom eventually wakes Deren with a matter-of-fact “Hi.”
That isn’t the end, however—which I won’t spoil. Instead, I’ll only say that the movie’s final, shocking image confirms what we’ve been suspecting all along. Far from simply a formal experiment (though in its avant-garde editing and acting, it is that too), Deren’s film is a portrait of increasing psychological distress and dislocation, a cinematic cry for help. Un Chien Andalou famously sliced an eyeball; Meshes of the Afternoon cuts your heart.