The Dreamy Art of Oneiric Film

Erica Ostlander analyzes the fantastical and often perplexing dreamworlds of auteur cinema

Image(s): Mulholland Drive


Upon waking up in the morning, I will often find myself frantically piecing together a dream I had the night before. These dreams are the ones that linger just long enough for me to recall the small fantastical details, and then like clockwork, completely vanish from my thoughts. As frustrating as this is, the reconstruction of our dreams is still worth the exciting opportunity to compare them to the countless theories and translations circulating the internet and in literature. However, the world’s fascination with dreams does not stop at dream journals and dictionaries but has managed to branch out into the world of cinema as well. Like film, dreams are a method of communication, a tool for expressing what troubles us, and a channel for creativity, but regardless of their commonplace presence in our lives, it is difficult to describe our nonsensical stories to other people. On the other hand, film is a medium where I have witnessed the retelling of dreams at a master level, which has prompted academic debates regarding the fundamental properties of a film and its alignment with reality. In film theory, the term oneiric refers to when dreams are used as a visual plot device, and this term was first referenced in the early 1900s by film theorists like Ricciotto Canudo, who began to note the ‘dreamy’ quality of some videos. He argued that film was an imaginative art rather than an attempt to perfectly reflect reality. This debate on whether film stems from a subjective image has inspired a creative rebellion against the status quo in the era of post-surrealism. Since then, there have been countless productions that purposely lack continuity as to differentiate itself from other classical Hollywood films, proving just how flexible the medium of film can be.


One of the most prolific oneiric filmmakers is David Lynch, who has made a point of working exclusively in the oneiric realm of cinema and has been a pioneer for arthouse television. Lynch’s work has remained prominent even after his retirement from film, as there is still discussion on how much of Mulholland Drive was a dream or what is the true meaning of Twin Peaks’ rich dream sequences. Yet there are still misinterpretations of Lynch's narratives, especially when they are deemed as illogical or as a failed attempt of packing too much into a limited timeframe. These types of critiques confine narratives to the box of linear storytelling, but under the flexible rules of dream logic, narratives can have multiple interpretations and even change meanings upon a second or third viewing. Lynch’s dream worlds have their own fierce logic, as a large number of his films are playing on what is absent from the screen which forces his audience to get lost in their own heads. People naturally look for patterns and connections in what is presented to them and dream logic is the art of taking away the ability for rationalisation. The only way for the viewer to understand the film is to surrender themselves to what is on the screen and let it wash over them in order to discover the film’s meaning. Lynch actively encourages this method of viewing his work as he refuses to explain his own projects, believing that “a film should work on its own” and “leave room to dream.” Whether this is because he is a stickler for mystery or he is truly set on his belief that cinema cannot be translated is up for debate, but this notion does show parallels between Lynch and Canudo’s belief that film is an art separate from reality. Many filmmakers like Lynch navigate the direction of a story through instinct rather than concrete ideas. As Lynch explained to the Irish Times Newspaper, “it is a feeling, more of an intuition. It is the idea that you have fallen in love with, and you try to stay true to that. You see the way that cinema can say that idea, and it’s thrilling to you.” This personal treatment of film could explain why dream logic is so appealing to an audience, as human emotions leave room for mystery and intrigue.

Despite Lynch’s far-reaching hold on the oneiric subgenre, the vast majority of dream-like films dance on the edge of this classification. The vague description of oneirism has crept into a multitude of genres, as dream logic is now used as an alternative to linear narrative structures. Movies such as Spirited Away do not use dreams as a visual plot device, but instead enter the realm of fantasy, a concept which already teeters on the edge of oneirism. In fact, the key difference between dreams and fantasy can be boiled down to their levels of surrealism. Fantasy requires world-building and the creation of new societal norms to immerse the viewer into a new reality, rather than the complete absence of reality as seen in dreams. Surrealism in film is the creation of something outside of reality and relies on the senses to communicate ideas to an audience. Our sensory perception of a film allows us to focus on factors like light, colour, and sound when we are not guided by a linear narrative. These slight variations are fundamental to surrealism, but fantasy movies often take inspiration from this form of storytelling. Spirited Away is an example of a fantasy movie that was able to build a dream-like atmosphere through its poignant soundscape, colour-scheme, and its unique episodic structure-- earning it a spot in the oneiric hall of fame. Despite most Ghibli films being marketed to a younger audience, I have known people of all ages who have been enchanted by their magic. When I speak to people about the global appreciation of Ghibli movies, we always come to that same conclusion of simply enjoying how the movies make us feel. This is accredited to Hayao Miyazaki’s surreal and abstract ideas which have become tangible through his expert application of dream logic, making it sensible enough for an adult and magical enough for a child. This careful treatment of the film’s atmosphere is also seen in oneiric filmmakers like Lynch, who are experts in creating undefinable emotions through sound, narrative, and visuals.

Across the centuries, many film theorists have attempted to define how dreams and their absurd logic have been used in film. The loose connections, the metaphoric nature, and the surrealist visuals all have a unique power to take away reason from an audience, communicating in a way that exists outside of language. At their core, dream logic and oneirism are a rebellion against classical language, through their dependence on feelings and emotions to tell a story. Oneirism is what is found in every moment of sudden understanding when watching a movie, connecting the viewer and the creator through not what is being said, but the nonsensical world in their heads.