Presented by Austin Film Society & Justine's Brasserie
Scenario by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí [with selected passages from the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom]
Produced by Le Vicomte de Noailles
Cinematography by Albert Duverger
Cast: Gaston Modot, Lya Lys, Max Ernst, et al.
France, 1930, distributed by Kino International, digital, black & white, 63 min.
French with English subtitles
In 1929 Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí shocked Parisian audiences with the 16-minute surrealist masterpiece, Un chien andalou, which featured cross-dressing, a razorblade slicing an eye, dead donkeys on a piano, ants in a hand, sexual fetishism, and a rich array of images drawn straight from the dreams of its young creators. On the strength of its powerful imagery and its unquestioned ability to épater le bourgeois [“to shock the middle class”], the leader of the Surrealist movement, Andre Breton, immediately welcomed the two Spanish artists into the inner circle of that most inflammatory artistic group.
Luis Buñuel decided that the next film should be longer and even more upsetting to mainstream audiences. Although he and Dalí had worked together so effortlessly in creating the scenario for Un chien andalou, they would spend the rest of their lives arguing over who contributed what to the scenario of what became known as L’AGE D’OR. But it doesn’t truly matter, since the completed film was solely made by Buñuel with the help of his professional crew. The scenario was mildly interesting, but the film, one of the earliest to have a soundtrack in France, was downright revolutionary and scandalous.
So scandalous that after nearly two months of public showings in Paris, the theater was closed and the film was banned in all of France… for the next fifty years! What had Buñuel put into his film that so inflamed the hearts and minds of the right-wing press and rising crypto-fascist French thugs? The images in the film show the scope of metaphors Buñuel chose to pursue his theme of love, sex in particular, and its frustration by middle class moralists and Christianity. They include scorpions and their prey, tired bandits worried about Majorcans, verbal non-sequiturs, chanting bishops turning into skeletons, a couple making mad love in the mud, the founding of Rome on a rocky isle, a flushing commode, a man with an irrational hatred of dogs and bugs, travelogue shots from a dirigible, a man kicking a violin down a street, another with a large stone balanced on his head, the sexual fetishes inherent in advertising, stylish upper class women and men, luxurious homes, a cow happily reclining on a bed, a large cart being drawn through a drawing room, flies glued to a man’s face, a father shooting his young son for misbehavior, a screaming maid fleeing a fire in the kitchen, a woman sucking on the marble toe of a garden statue, and a suggestion that the Marquis de Sade and Christ were manifestations of the same drive. In short, the film is replete with situations and images implying sexual repression and its subsequent, twisted outlets.
But it was really the “anti-clericalism” of the film which led to its banning. As the Great Depression began to tighten its grip on France and elsewhere, right-wing nationalists espoused anti-Semitic slogans and pronounced hatred of all foreigners, especially “Bolshevists.” No matter that Luis Buñuel was neither Jewish nor Communist, he was Spanish and, perhaps even worse in the desperate bigots’ minds, he was allied with the Surrealists, the most atheistic and anti-patriotic group in France.
The film’s skeletal bishops and the edited “equivalence” between a Marquis de Sade-like character and Christ were enough to make the fascists attack one Paris screening of L’AGE D’OR in December 1930, tear up the seats, beat audience members with blackjacks, slash surrealist paintings in the lobby, and force the theater to close. The film’s aristocratic financial backer was threatened with papal excommunication and disbarment from the upper levels of French society. L’AGE D’OR had truly become a cause célèbre.
Salvador Dalí continued with his decades-long career of creativity and self-promotion, which led to his being the face of surrealism throughout the world (much to the chagrin of Breton and the original founders of the movement). Luis Buñuel had a quite different trajectory. After a failed foray into the world of Hollywood filmmaking in 1930-1931, he would struggle for nearly 20 years before regaining his filmmaking footing, first in Mexico in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s. Then he entered his third creative period in France in the 1960s and 70s, which made him an internationally beloved director. Practically every one of his subsequent films would draw upon the rich treasure trove of his dream world. As much as Dalí in the art world, Buñuel became the face of surrealism in the film world.-- Chale Nafus