Un chien andalou / L’Age D’or

| February 16, 2004

A man watches from a balcony as a cloud flits across the moon. In the next shot the same man opens a passive woman’s eye wide and slits it with a cut-throat razor. Aggressive, disturbing, subversive–in two swift cuts (pun intended) lies the essence of Un chien andalou, Buñuel and Dali’s still astonishing film/artwork from 1928, re-released in a cleaner print to celebrate the centenary of Dali’s birth. What is staggering, actually, having seen this relatively often (and knowing that the eye is that of a calf), is the assurance with which Buñuel directs–there is a beautiful sense of balance and strangeness that served him well in his later career. What is also evident is that Dali’s influence on this piece has been overemphasised–according to Buñuel he spent most of the time smearing the donkeys with wax. Because whilst this is a surrealist exercise, it is first and foremost a moving image. Buñuel explores altered states and challenging aesthetic ideas whilst demonstrating a profound understanding of the economical language of film and image that I’d suggest are lacking in his compatriot’s more famous works. Simple effects–shadow, close up, shot-reverse shot, fades, editing–meld together brilliantly, and demonstrate a master filmmaker at work.
Buñuel described his first film as ‘original and provocative’ in his memoir My Last Breath, and it is the best description I know of the piece. That and his description of the shoot: ‘most of the time no one quite knew what he was doing’. The essence of the film (such as it is) would be that ‘no idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted’–and this rejection of the bourgeois repression of linear rationality forms a film that can quite rightly be termed ‘art’ (last time I saw it was as part of the Surrealism exhibition at the Tate Modern, for instance). Early enough in the history of the medium to be relatively unencumbered by cliché and tired trope, the film is a refreshing attempt at showing what cinema might achieve if it were allowed.
Discordant images cluster together, and the film plays with the audience, suggesting relationships and meanings that simply don’t exist. You are forced to work at making this film mean, to react to it within your conscious and subconscious, to understand it at a level which rejects understanding. Lacking plot or seeming purpose, Un chien andalou dispenses with the linearity of time and character to instead explore dreams and images. It is quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen, and represents a difficult and controversial assault on the audience quite unlike anything attempted before or, really, since. The eyeball slicing scene suggests that the film literally cuts open the passive eye of the viewer, invading and destroying–such an aggressive image demands reaction rather than agreement, insists you engage. At other moments ants crawl from an unknown man’s stigmata, priests appear, people die for no reason. Sections are anti-modernist, anti-clerical, anti-art–and all with bizarre and dissonant musical backing. Funny, disturbing, thought-provoking and challenging, Un chien andalou demands to be seen still.
Buñuel was not done with the Surrealist project, or Dali, and his longer L’Age D’or attempts to extend the discordant anarchy and chaos of the earlier collaboration with the madman from Figueras. The film begins to develop the style for which Luis Buñuel would become influential and famous, a hyper-surreal form in which seemingly dissonant images are stitched into a narrative of sorts. It also introduces various of his standards motifs–sexual degradation, class warfare, absurdity, anti-clerical politics. L’Age D’or lacks the focus and the muscle of Un chien andalou, and is simply not as new, as fresh, or as aggressive. Whilst it was politically radical enough to provoke riots and to be effectively banned in France for 50 years, it has somehow lost the energy and the fuck-you subversion of the earlier work. Perhaps this is simply length–you can’t really do feature-length weirdness or you lose your audience (quite literally); perhaps more simply a developing of an awareness that cinema might be subversive even if mainstream; perhaps, sadly, it simply reflects that the initial alien banshee wail of the earlier film was already being incorporated and sanitised.

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