The second and last collaboration between Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, L’Âge d’Or is quite a bit more than Un Chien Andalou. Though the latter was shorter and perhaps more shocking originally (though that is arguable), this film is more complex and slightly more withheld. The outburst and subsequent ban it received for many decades would not be surprising for that time period, otherwise.
Since the two films were joint efforts between the two artists, a comparison of the two films seems fair. Both were concerned with similar themes/objects: insects, eroticism, and the church. Un Chien Andalou featured a man with a hole in his hand from which ants poured forth. I believe there were also flies at various points also coming into contact with humans. L’Âge d’Or began with what appeared to be a documentary about scorpions. The scorpion shown attached and devoured a mouse, with intermittent paragraphs about the scorpion for the viewer’s enlightenment. Later in the film, while a man is being escorted through rocky terrain, the camera closes in for a shot of a beetle on the ground. The man immediately and deliberately squashes the bug. Then the forced escort resumes.
Un Chien Andalou contained obviously erotic scenes, which, like L’Âge d’Or, were quite shocking for their time: the groping scene, the “beard,” and the woman’s bare back, most notably. This film, though comprised of a series of vignettes, largely revolved around the unconsummated love between the man and woman. The woman in particular couldn’t seem to quench her thirst from the man, even transferring her affections to a passer-by after becoming bored with her first partner. The toe-sucking scene is famous, but prior to that both characters engaged in suckling of their digits, which seemed more suggestive than the statue’s toes. Perhaps that the toes belonged to the statue of a religious figure made it more controversial. L’Âge d’Or also featured the scene of the couple attempting to make love in a mud puddle next to a large crowd of people in an otherwise dry and rocky area. The couple was broken apart against their wills, illustrating the repeated theme of very strong, uncontrollable erotic desire in Buñuel’s characters. In both films, seemingly at random, characters cannot restrain their highly sexual thoughts and actions.
The only theme of these films to which the aforementioned takes a back seat is church imagery. Un Chien Andalou had the two priests being drug underneath the pianos with rotting donkey carcasses on them. The priests in this scene are shown very comfortably despite their situation, chatting with hands folded across their chests. Similarly, L’Âge d’Or has numerous scenes with clergy in perilous or blasphemous situations, but they do not protest their predicaments. Early on, three bishops are scene in all their pomp seated amidst the rocks as the Majorcan tribe makes their way through the area looking for food. As the tribe comes back through the area, the bishops are still there but have been reduced to skeletons. Toward the end, a character by the name of “Duke de Blangis” emerges from a castle where he has just enjoyed 120 days of orgiastic living with numerous adolescent girls. When he emerges, he looks very much like the popular conception of Jesus, with white robes, a dark beard, and long-ish dark hair. A scream is heard, and he re-enters the castle. When he leaves the second time, his beard is gone. The camera cuts to a shot of heavy snow coming down on a crooked cross with seven scalps (presumably belonging to the girls) hanging on it, to the accompaniment of some very jolly-sounding music.
The surrealistic nature of these films is perhaps most “surrealistic” not in its dream-like imagery, but rather in the comfort with which it displays the images. To this day there are many films that have provocative, disturbing images, some of which are dream-like in nature. But they are encoded in such a way that they not be understood as “normal.” Buñuel and Dalí here juxtapose the vile and disturbing with the happy and flippant. The music often sounds like we should be seeing a boy running through a field with his dog, while instead we are watching a boy get shot by his father, then shot again once he is down and already dead (meanwhile, onlookers are amused but don’t care). It makes one wonder what the point is of surrealism. There are many surrealist paintings that are striking and fascinating in their own right, but they force the onlooker to question them, since the onlooker doesn’t have to stare at it for 63 minutes, as he does with this film. Buñuel’s belief in the surrealist film movement was that it could not be analyzed theoretically, but rather psychoanalytically. Most critics and academics can’t avoid picking apart these films in the way Buñuel said not to do so, which is too bad, because Buñuel’s way actually does seem best. Even if I can’t figure out why surrealism exists or to what end, it should still be greeted on its own terms. These artists were honest about the fact that they were putting into an art form what came out of their minds, apart from reason or explanation. It can be interesting to look at the sorts of things about which artistic minds obsess. But I think it stops at “interesting.” There may even be a certain beauty in it sometimes, but that beauty is incidental, really more accidental. One can no more wonder about this film than one can wonder about the nature of dreams. There is certainly much to wonder about, as Freud has shown. However, dwelling on dreams when reality is before us seems like dwelling on a dark closet when one could instead go outside. Artists who try to swim in the seas of the ineffable can easily end up drowning in them. Thank goodness for us, Buñuel moved on to different styles after this film.