One of the first sound films made in France, L’age d’Or or “the age of gold” is a surprisingly compelling surrealist film with a screenplay written by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, a companion of sorts to their earlier film, Un Chien Andalou. It is a strangely Freudian film linked together only by a series of vignettes, connected by similar sexual themes of a woman and a man (never named) trying to consummate their relationship but always prevented from doing so by the repressive mores of various establishment institutions, such as the church, aristocratic clubs, and general bourgeois values.
By the time this film was ready for production Salvador Dali had already fallen out of the project, as it threatened to ruin his career. Conservative activists and the press demonstrated heavily against the film and even went as far as to throw ink at the screen and destroy works of art by Dali in protest. Though I am generally not a fan of the absurd or surrealist movements broadly speaking, I will admit this film is surprisingly charming.
Freudian free association abounds in Un Chien Andalou (“An Andalusian Dog”), an experimental, surrealist short film devoid of a plot. Clocking in at about 15-21 minutes (depending the version), this was the collaborative result of Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel.
The film begins with a title card reading “One Upon a Time” (as if to invoke a fairy tale) and it introduces us to an unnamed man (Luis Buñuel) who is sharpening his razor while he gazes up at the moon. He sees some clouds pass by and imagines a young woman (Simone Mareuil) as her eyeball is sliced open with a razor. In this most famous scene of the film, it is Buñuel’s hand actually holding the razor which slits the eyeball (in reality, they used the eyeball of a calf).
Next, a title reads “Eight Years Later” and a young man dons a nun’s habit as he bicycles down the street before suddenly crashing. Meanwhile, in the young woman’s apartment, a doctor and the young man appear. A hand with a hole is revealed near the door as ants begin to crawl outward. A young girl pokes a severed hand with a stick. The young girl is then struck by a car and the young man in the apartment begins to chase the woman around, cupping her breasts. She runs away into the room and he reaches down for a racquet in self defense, but instead finds two ropes dragging two grand pianos with mutilated donkeys on them along with the ten commandments and two confused priests, one of whom is played by Dali.
The next title card reads “Around Three in the Morning.” The man is awoken by the sound of a martini shaker through the wall to find himself suddenly at the door instructing to remove a nun’s clothes. The next title reads “Sixteen Years Ago” as we find both men purchasing books, but one man shoots the other when his books transform into pistols. Dying, the other man vanishes into a meadow beside a nude woman who disappears on a rock.
The young woman is then back in her apartment to find a moth with a skull and a man who makes his mouth disappear until it is covered with her armpit hair. She flees the room sticking her tongue out at him, shutting the door and then turning to find herself on a sunny beach with a man. They romantically walk hand-in-hand until the next title reads “In Spring” where the two of them are buried up to their elbows, appearing to be dead. The final title reads “Fin”.
The idea for this film came to Dali and Buñuel, the latter of whom was an Assistant Director for the great French Impressionist film-maker, Jean Epstein, while Buñuel told Dali about a dream in which he parted the moon like a razor slicing through an eye. Dali, in turn, told Buñuel about a dream with a hand infested with ants, and with these vague concepts they set about to make a non-linear film. Their chief rule was that no idea or image would lend itself to rational explanation for the film because nothing symbolizes anything.
The entirety of the film was financed by Buñuel’s mother and was shot in about 14 days in Paris and Le Havre. It was edited by Buñuel in his kitchen without the help of technology, due to budget constraints. Upon its release in Paris many notable members of the surrealist community attended, others included Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau. Though the film was intended to shock the tastes of the bourgeoisie in France, it was met with wild critical reception. Buñuel was shocked by this, thinking that it would instead be an inspiration for people to murder one another.
To end on a note of tragedy, both the leading actors in this film later committed suicide: Pierre Batcheff killed himself by overdosing in a hotel in Paris (1932), and Marueil self-immolated by pouring gasoline on herself and lighting it in a public French square (1954).