As before, I feel a short warning is necessary to precede L’Age D’or, but as I am at a loss, I will instead use an excerpt from Robert Short’s excellent commentary –
‘The warm reception of Un Chien Andalou by “le tout Paris” was both a blessing and a curse for Dali, Bunuel and surrealism generally. While not going as far as to court martyrdom, the movement was ambivalent about success, especially commercial success. Its popularity implied that it was too easily recuperable by the establishment. Buñuel wasn’t going to make the same mistake again’.
L’Age D’or , a semi-sequel to Un Chien Andalou, was to be the final collaboration between the two great surrealists after Dali’s transformation upon meeting his muse Gala. The artists clashed at every turn before Dali left Bunuel to complete the production in ‘a state of euphoria, enthusiasm and destructive fever’. After its release, Dali publicly disowned the picture, stating it betrayed his intentions, and that it was outlandishly anticlerical and highly political.
It is also possibly the oddest birthday present ever given.
Every year, the Vicomte Charles De Noailles commissioned a film to be made in honour of his wife. Upon premiering in Paris’ Studio 28 in 1930, extreme reactions erupted. Threats of excommunication flooded the Vicomte, and the League of Patriots rebelled by dousing silver screens in purple ink and slashing paintings by Dali, Miro, Man Ray and Tanguy.
L’Age D’or was quickly banned and would not see the legal light of day until a US premier in 1979.
With this kind of reputation, one would approach this film like a box filled with hornets. But fifty years is an awfully long time for filmic trickery to improve, culture to relax its rigidity, and a desensitisation to ensue. Let’s not forget that between its entombment to a final re-release, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Straw Dogs and Peeping Tom emerged.
This picture may not be as shocking as these experiences, but it is certainly uncomfortable.
L’Age D’or invites viewers to sit down and take in the experience, but the seat is made of needles. Moments of comfortability arise before a spike strikes a fresh slab of skin. This sensation does not arise from explicit gruesomeness, but rather a dizzying disjointed experience. Imagery is disconnected, not in the sense of Dryer’s unique cinematography in The Passion of Joan of Arc, but rather the transitions between scenes or moments within them. Every sequence keeps us far outside, as if every moment is a different movie beginning halfway in.
In one instance, a speech delivered on the rocky cliff ace by the sea is interrupted by the moans of a man and woman writhing sexually in mud. A mob angrily tears them apart and the man is dragged away, but he struggles free briefly to return and kick a small dog before being forcefully escorted. The intended meaning may be a mystery, but the we know for certain that the word ‘consequence’ has no meaning here.
Scenes such as this justify my belief that Surrealism is a two sided coin – on one side is horror, on the other is comedy. Emotions, no matter what the subdivision may be, fit inside these two boxes. For example, a scene unfolds in which the couple finally meet in the seclusion of a moonlit garden, music triumphantly swells as they romantically embrace. In any other picture it would be a multitude of emotions, but it generates only two – laughter as the woman sucks the toes of an inanimate statue, and horror as she bites the fingers clean off of her lover’s hand.
L’Age D’or retains its shocking nature because of its stubbornness to be classified and its reluctance to generate a veneer between bizarre ideas and the audience. As self-confessed anti-visualists, surrealists jettisoned narrative, dramatic compositions, expressionistic lights and grand effects to force audiences to swallow stark black and white ideas raw.
But then, L’Age D’or ignites that age old argument echoed throughout art’s history – does it mean anything? Is there true meaning behind the imagery or are these merely vignettes of weirdness? Perhaps we as an audience simply have an innate need to attribute a meaning to create logic out of clashing images, a kind of extreme Russian Montage Theory. But then, if we do not work to find meaning, it becomes meaningless.
Films of this abstract quality are exercises in two parts, the lesser fraction is the watching of the film, the grander is the discussion. Interpretation breathes life and layers into the experience. For instance, Robert Short’s commentary reads the commencing documentary on the volatile nature of scorpions as a warning that ‘the film itself will behave like a scorpion and mimic the shape and function of the scorpion’s tale formed of “a series of five prismatic articulations ending in a sixth vesicular joint, the poison sac’.
Each prismatic segment, although difficult to delineate, attacks a different value of culture. The final poison sac is the most deadly and assuredly led to banishment. Buñuel’s fetishistic obsession attacked religious oppression by constructing a theoretical ending to Marquis De Sade’s venomous novel The 120 Days of Sodom. The elite emerge from the orgy weary and ready to descend to civilisation, but De Sade is depicted as Jesus. It is inflammatory without definition.
Even between the creators there is a split of definition, as Buñuel once stated ‘Dali wrote that his intentions [in writing the screenplay] were to expose the shameful mechanism of contemporary society. For me, it was a film about passion, l’amour fou, the irresistible force that thrusts two people together, and about the impossibility of their ever becoming one’. But films of this nature, once released, transcend the creator’s intentions.
L’Age D’or marked a precipice in the career of Luis Buñuel. It was the end of a promising epoch and the beginning of a drought until the 1950s with the revival piece Los Olividados. But it was not until the 1960s that Buñuel earned his place as a cinematic genius. Thankfully this picture has been recognised as the unique classic it is, and instead of reeling off an essay on the meaning behind it, which would be futile, I will instead allow Buñuel to summarise his experience.
‘All my life I’ve been harassed by questions: Why is something this way and not another? How do you account for that? This rage to understand, to fill in the blanks, only makes life more banal. If we could only find the courage to leave our destiny to chance, to accept the fundamental mystery of our lives, then we might be closer to the sort of happiness that comes with innocence’.
As before, a surreal film deserves a surreal classic moment. Buñuel and Dali had fallen out by the time production began, so much so, that Dali refused to have anything to do with the actual making of the film. Reportedly, on the very first day, Buñuel proceeded to chase his former partner off set with a hammer.