L’âge d’or + Un chien Andalou

Director: Slavador Dali, Luis Buñuel

Un chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog). France| 1928. Black and white. 17 mins. L'âge d'or (The Golden Age). France-Spain| 1930. English subtitles. Black and white. 63 mins.

To mark the centenary of Salvador Dali’s birth, the British Film Institute has re-released new prints of the two films the painter made in collaboration with fellow Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel. Both films created an enormous fuss when first shown in Paris, and the short Un chien Andalou (1928) is still perfectly capable of jolting modern viewers with its famous opening sequence, in which a shot of a passing cloud is followed by a close-up of a razor slicing through a woman’s eyeball. What follows is a succession of sometimes outlandish images to which no literal meaning can be attached. ‘Our only rule,’ said Buñuel, was very simple: ‘no idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation would be accepted.’ Yet this has not deterred commentators from expounding its implication, variously interpreting it as, among other things, an evocation of the dream experience, an oblique picture of the battle of the sexes, and an attack on the dead weight of culture. Buñuel himself called the film a ‘passionate, desperate appeal to murder.’
L’Âge d’or (1930) is less extreme in its assault on the spectator’s sensibilities, but it’s also the more substantial achievement. It shrugs off the taint of intellectual chic that sometimes mars Un chien Andalou and was mainly contributed by Dali. Dali worked with Buñuel on the original scenario for L’Âge d’or but was not present during filming; he subsequently repudiated the finished product because it had been completely rewritten. Belonging to Buñuel alone, L’Âge d’or speaks with his authentic voice from the very opening sequence: a documentary study of scorpions, complete with learned explanatory captions, followed (as a scorpion kills a rat) by a laconic title introducing a scene on a rocky shore where a bandit lookout sees four archbishops performing mysterious rites.
What still shocks and delights here is the abrasive humour with which Buñuel ruffles audience expectations, encapsulates whole edifices of human belief in a single image (the collapse of ecclesiastical imperialism’s golden age intimated in a shot of a house being blown up), and contrives to employ concrete symbols that stretch the imagination into making connections and associations. The documentary footage at the beginning, for example, is apparently irrelevant to anything that follows: yet the scorpion and the dying rat remain inescapably in mind as analogies when man, having reduced the archbishops to a heap of mouldering bones, sets out to fulfil his hitherto forbidden desires.
In a sort of coitus interruptus that prefigures the structure of frustrations on which the director’s late masterpiece Le charm discret de la bourgeoisie (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) is built, Buñuel’s hero then finds that he has escaped from spiritual domination only to fall victim to a secular authority bent on forestalling the fulfilment of any desires whatsoever. Here Buñuel’s imagery of frustrated eroticism—man and woman rolling in frantic embrace in a puddle of mud from which they are dragged by outraged dignitaries, the woman forlornly sucking the phallic toe of a statue in a garden—is so persuasively powerful that the film has generally been hailed as a call to sexual arms.
Yet there are other images, in particular a shot of the hero gazing in ecstasy as the woman sits on a lavatory (the sound of a flushing cistern is followed by a shot of lava bubbling suggestively around the foot of a volcano), that make one wonder exactly who is the scorpion and who the rat. Given Buñuel’s long-standing distrust of the way man is ever-ready to wallow morbidly in self-pity, self-deception and self-glorification, it is surely no accident that the Marquis de Sade’s Duc de Blangis, emerging from the sexual liberation of his one hundred and twenty days in Sodom at the end of L’Âge d’or, should bear such a striking resemblance to conventional portrayals of Jesus Christ.
L’Âge d’or, in other words, is a film in which there is more than meets the eye, and through which revolutionary cultists are advised to proceed with caution. ‘Beware of the dog,’ as Jean Vigo said about Un chien Andalou, ‘it bites.’— .

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