Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Movie Musings: The Films of Luis Buñuel - Un Chien Andalou and L'Age d'Or

***This post contains movie spoilers**

Luis Buñuel directed our two best known surrealist films: Un Chien Andalou and L'Age d'Or. Salvador Dalí and Buñuel co-wrote both screenplays. They became close friends, along with poet/playwright Federico García Lorca, while studying at the University of Madrid. These two films form what is thought of as Buñuel's First French Period. Part of the reason I choose him for this film survey is because he's made films in many different countries, in different languages, and I thought it would be fascinating to see how the director evolved and matured over time.

Un Chien Andalou (1929) - This is a silent film and it clocks in at 16 minutes though they are 16 crazy minutes. There's no plot. Mostly, it's a series of bizarre surrealist and disturbing images involving a man and a woman. The primary theme in the film seems to be sex and death. This film boasts the most infamous and famous opening sequence ever filmed: a man slitting open a woman's eyeball with the straight razor while she sits impassively. Other famous scenes include a man fondling a woman's naked breasts and buttocks, ants crawling out of a hole in the man's hand (you just know that was Dalí's contribution), the man using ropes to pull on two pianos with rotting donkeys and bewildered priests in tow (one of whom is played by Dalí himself).

I liked the film. Because there's no real plot, you're forced to focus on the images themselves which gives it a very different feeling from most films. This isn't film as the storyteller, this is the filmmaker's attempt to speak to the viewer's subconscious in a visceral, uncomfortable way.

The DVD I rented has commentary but I really couldn't make heads or tails as to what the guy was talking about. He wasn't really talking about the film or how it was made though he did repeat several times that the film was about sex and death. I was craving some additional information about how they came up with some of the ideas for it but there was no such information. Buñuel stated the film isn't about anything at all and it's not supposed to make a statement, religious, political, or otherwise.

L'Age d'Or (1930) - This film clocks in at one hour. It's very obvious Buñuel's intent when making this film was to offend as many people as possible especially the Roman Catholic Church and bourgeois society. He also manages to offend families, conductors, respectable folks, and parents.

The film starts as a documentary about scorpions before moving onto a short sequence about some poor, wounded soldiers attempting to hold back the enemy (who turn out to be a bunch of church leaders) but are unable to do so. The film then switches to a group of respectable folks gathering at a civic ceremony. The solemnity of this ceremony is interrupted by the ecstatic cries of a lusty couple who are rolling around in the mud. They are soon separated by the crowd and for most of the film they attempt to get back together but are thwarted again and again. (Heh, sounds like a reoccurring dream I have every once in a while.) Most of the film takes place at a fancy party where our couple desperately tries to consummate their passion. The last scene shows a group of debauched men leaving a certain castle after indulging in a murderous orgy for 120 days (based on The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade). The first nobleman who emerges strongly resembles Christ.

I thought Buñuel's use of sound in the film was ingenious. He was very selective about it. From the sound of the wind blowing out of a mirror which shows the sky and clouds instead of a reflection (one of the most famous sequences in the film), to the crunch, crunch of a man's shoes on gravel lining a garden path, to a pet cow's rather persistent cow bell ringing during a dinner party, the sounds were interesting and surprising.

I really liked this movie. I've had a few days to digest this film and it just seems to get better and better. Though the ending is disturbing (esp if you know anything about de Sade's story), the rest of the film has plenty of black humor. One of my favorite sequences is when the man, apparently rejected by the woman, goes to her bedroom and in his rage throws a bunch of stuff out her window including a burning bush, an archbishop, a plow, a giraffe (but not the cow), and some goose down from her pillows. I also love the part where the man gets a phone call and leaves the woman. The woman expresses her sexual frustration by fellating the toes of a religious statue she's sitting next to in the garden. This scene could be described as pornographic.

The film caused a riot in Paris, was banned for almost 50 years, and there was a rumor that the aristocrat who commissioned it might be excommunicated by the pope. This is the kind of film that certain folks today would call an affront to family values and point to it as a breakdown of society's morals. Certainly people in 1930 thought this was true. Some people say the film's message is that sexual repression leads to violence. It's as good an interpretation as any.

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