“The idea was a surrealist idea,” recalls Juan-Luis Buñuel, son of the filmmaker Luis Buñuel. “It had to be without any logic.” As a description of Un Chien Andalou, this brief note is as tight as any. Since its creation in 1929, the 16-minute film has defied definition and continued to provoke discussion. Now released on an elegant new DVD by Facets, the film remains at once elusive and forceful, an expansion of the very idea of cinema.
Made in 1929, Un Chien Andalou is based on the exchange of “dreams” between two young Spanish artists, Buñuel (who would go on to make The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie andThat Obscure Object of Desire, among others) and Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí. At the time, Juan-Luis recalls for “A Slice of Buñuel,” an interview/documentary included on the DVD, “The chief of police thought that the film ‘deranged’ society… So he prohibited the film, the prohibition wasn’t taken off until 1980. So as you see,” he smiles, 50 years later, “France is a free country.”
Un Chien Andalou begins with the title card, “Once upon a time…” A man (Buñuel) appears in a sort of prologue, smoking a cigarette while whetting his straight razor; from his balcony, he can see a thin cloud approaching the moon, then, just as that image might mirror his action, he slices open a woman’s pupil as she sits before him. This is the image everyone notes and remembers from the film, so visceral that it still repulses, even 75 years after its original conjuring. Juan-Luis observes that it was precisely his father’s intention to repulse, to shock, and to push viewers into a reconsideration of their own viewing habits.
In part, this desire had to do with what seemed, at the time, a cynical culture. “As [André] Breton told my father, he said, ‘Luis, nowadays we can’t shock people anymore.’ That was his big tragedy.” But Juan-Luis is unconvinced, for today’s “sensitive” viewers. “I think you can, it depends what theme you use. For example, torturing a little bunny rabbit I’m sure would shock a lot of people. You see children dying all over the place, that doesn’t seem to do anything.” (Clearly, the son has inherited his father’s astute and aptly accusatory sensibility.)
The shock of the sliced eye in Chien Andalou gives way to another title, “Eight years later,” and what seems the narrative proper. However, as observed by the DVD’s commentator, erudite “Surrealism expert” Stephen Barber (author of Antonin Artaud: Blows and Bombs), “Surrealism is always an aberration, always a tearing in the fabric of culture.” Just so, the film tears at the concept of linear time, cause-and-effect, s-called coherent narrative, but offering a series of images and scenes that are aggressively disconnected.
A man (Robert Hommet) falls off a bicycle and apparently dies on the sidewalk; seconds later, he’s inside the apartment of a woman (Simone Mareuil), groping at her breasts and buttocks (body parts revealed in “trick” photography that cuts between her form fully clothed and her form appearing “nude,” or in a bodysuit). Though he appears to want to assault her, he’s held back by two pianos he suddenly has tied to his back (still, he presses on, surging against the ropes, as if he might still get hold of her, as she cowers in the corner). The man goes on to argue with, then shoot, another man, or perhaps himself (their exchange is cleverly staged to show them in the “same” space, long before Dead Ringers or other twins movies figured out how to do it). The dead man falls to ground not in the apartment, but in a park, where his body is inspected by authorities. Most of these scenes are framed by jumbling time titles (“Around three in the morning,” “16 years earlier,” “In spring”), which only further confuse your sense of forward (or any) movement.
The cyclical relations between opposite-seeming characters, as well as emotional or visual connections and disjunctions, form a sort of thematic hub for the film. That’s not to say that a final reading is particularly useful; Chien Andalou might be best consumed as a problem, a resistance to easy consumption. Still, some images do recur. As Barber notes, it is, on one level, about “the origination of sexual compulsions, of sexual descriptions, of sexual juxtapositions. But at the same time, it’s also a film imbued with endings, imagery of death… always contradictory, always poised between sexuality and a final termination, which takes the form of death, dereliction, disintegration, and corrosion.”
Barber suggests further that the film is, at last, not only representing and investigating the death of bodies and desires, but also “the death of cinema, death of the vitality, the experimentality, of cinema, as well as imagery of sex and death interlinked.” This sounds good, but it assumes that the film is only a function of its moment, that it doesn’t look forward to and reframe every viewer who might see it in (its) future. This is a rare film that is not only demanding and disturbing, but also impossible: ants crawling on the man’s hand as he pushes at the woman’s door certainly suggest his ugliness, but the precise meaning of the mysteriously appearing and disappearing ants remains unfixed.
Likewise, the film’s other possible significances — political and cultural, or personal and aesthetic — are ever just that, possible. While this can be alarming for some viewers, that a filmmaker might not have a readable (or perhaps more accurately, projectable) intention (aside from “to shock,” which is too easy, really), it’s also just what art does best: reflect a truth and encourage a range of readings.