Dir. Luis Buñuel; Scr. Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí
Luis Buñuel began his movie career with the most notorious opening sequence in movie history. Un Chien Andalou, which Buñuel and his then pal Salvador Dalí first sprang on the world in late 1929, begins with the apparent close-up of a razor slicing open the eyeball of an impassively seated actress.
Buñuel and Dalí were young punks hoping to impress Paris's ruling surrealist clique. With Un Chien Andalou, they succeeded beyond their wildest fantasies. What to do for an encore? The pair was commissioned to write a script by a wealthy nobleman. As with Un Chien Andalou, Dalí provided Buñuel with a number of fantastic images and outrageous notions; once more, Buñuel directed and edited the movie himself. But this time he raised the stakes by making L'Age d'Or (The Golden Age) at once more banal and more shocking than Un Chien Andalou — privileging politics over poetics (much to Dalí's dismay).
From a surrealist perspective, the movie couldn't have been better. L'Age d'Or sparked a riot and was banned by the Paris police. The aristocrat producer was threatened with excommunication, and although a print was smuggled to Britain, the camera negative was locked behind seven seals for nearly sixty years. Why? A collage of modes, L'Age d'Or begins as a documentary, shifts to an entropic costume drama, turns blatantly allegorical, pretends to be a travelogue of imperial Rome, drops in at a snooty garden party, and winds up cribbing the conclusion of the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom. Ten minutes into the action, L'Age d'Or declares its subject: a pompous nationalist religious ceremony is disrupted by the noisy lovemaking of a passionate couple who are forcibly separated and will spend much of the movie trying to get back together.
Although Bunuel would write that L'Age d'Or was about "the impossible force that thrusts two people together [and] the impossibility of their ever becoming one," he scarcely idealizes the lovers, who, having been introduced rolling in the mud, are no less self-absorbed than their fellow bourgeois. Together at the garden party, they resume their love-making with thrilling ineptitude—biting each other's hands, falling off the lawn furniture. When the man is called away to take a telephone call from the minister of the interior (a transmission from his unconscious?), the woman consoles herself by fellating the toe of a marble statue.
L'Age d'Or climaxes with murder rather than sexual release (inviting Jesus Christ to the orgy). Despite this and several instances of blatant scatology, however, the movie refuses to be as visceral as Un Chien Andalou. Thanks to his mastery of montage, Bunuel naturalizes Dali's images into a duplicitous rhythm of normality and outrage. The film suggests instances of sex and violence far more extreme than any actually represented, while contriving effronteries so offhanded you can't believe you've actually seen them. [J. Hoberman, 1/28/04]
Once upon a time, there was a little film that sundered virtually every classic Old World taboo, against sexual lust, fetishism, sadism, coprophilia, blasphemy, antinationalism, anticlericalism, you name it. In those youthful, passionate, surrealist days of yore—1930 — the film's affront was such that right-wing groups protested and mobilized their newspaper readers to physically decimate the theater in which it played (slashing Dali and Ernst paintings hanging in the lobby as they went); two days later, police shut the movie down for good. Four years later, beset by a sudden Catholicism, the family of the vicomte who financed the film officially withdrew it from circulation. Beginning famously with an educational documentary about scorpions and climaxing with the revelation of a beardless, Sadean orgy-exhausted Christ, Bunuel's devilish gob-in-the-eye can now reclaim its rightful throne as subversive culture's seminal anthem film. [Michael Atkinson, 12/8/04]
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