If anything, the disconcerting and subversive effect of Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel’s L’Age D’Or (1930) increases with the years. It has the power to satirise and provoke still. When made, it used recognisable conventions of performance, such as melodramatic gesture and poses from silent cinema and stage which were familiar to global audiences. Amidst this familiarity the artists overwhelmed the viewer with the unexpected, lurid and absurd.
Over time acting conventions have so drastically changed that now what once read as the uncomfortable and twisting surrealist creativity for viewers in the ‘30s is more familiar to us after 80 years of cinema, and in its place the expressions and contortions of the actors’ performance style have taken on an alien aspect. Anything melodramatic is viewed with suspicion nowadays – yet all it really entails is drama with music and certain physical conventions. With L’Age D’Or, Surrealism created the perfect marriage for modern cinema. There is an enduring disconcerting atmosphere, whether via the imagery and problematic symbolism, or via the exaggeration and contortion of the performance.
In the interview he gives as part of the extras, Robert Short explains things (with as much clarity as Surrealism can ever allow for) when he says: ‘[there is] Fertile and enigmatic resemblance between cinema and dreams … that has preoccupied Surrealism in cinema.’ The fluid nature of the action, with then the insertion of random elements and juxtaposition of objects, is a vocabulary very familiar to us now but still has the power to amuse, bemuse and surprise. Such as: a man kicking a violin down the street, the lingering commentary on battling scorpions at the beginning, the Lover throwing a bishop, a burning tree, and a model giraffe thrown out of the window in a rage.
I was tempted, I must admit, to simply give this ten out of ten and submit a review that read: sewing machine, lobster, giraffe, and umbrella. What can be said about Surrealism – really? And critiquing this film is like critiquing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. We are talking about a landmark, masterpiece artistic creation. Before such endeavours as this film, narrative structure, sense, clarity, was everything in composition. Buñuel and Dali – along with others of the movement – brought a new vision definitely, but they also supported that with technique; leaving a legacy for filmmakers and artists of all kinds via new modes of visual communication. They were part of Modernism, but helped to give birth to post-Modernism.
One of my favourite moments is the jump cut from the sight of a man’s shoes next to a desk with a phone and some drops of blood on the floor, to the man lying dead on the ceiling. In committing suicide he has fallen upwards and a black chandelier hangs ominously beside him. What is also interesting is the supposed eroticism of the lovers as they vainly attempt their tryst. Whilst the depiction of this situation was originally deemed to be controversial, it is now amusing and incongruous and actually the more naturalistic for it.
In a film that borrows, and plunders, from nature and makes it extraordinary and bizarre, the thrashing about of the man and woman at the centre of the action as they act on their sexual instincts holds a quaintly normal quality amongst the bombardment of surrealist imagery. It’s the one aspect that represents a thread of feeling that offers the viewer any kind of association with the action. They are not being consciously ‘erotic’ either in the way that a contemporary audience would understand, which further exposes the gradual changes in the performance of sexuality.
‘A visual collage’ says Short, himself an underground filmmaker of many years standing; and his commentary along with the critical essays that the BFI provide help with the context and vision. Any disc that offers Le Chien Andalou as an ‘extra’ is pretty damned fine in my opinion! I have got this far without mentioning the razor blade and the eyeball – oops!!!