In “Independent Study in World Cinema,” a self-educated film nerd attempts to fill in some fairly serious gaps in his self-education. In this seventh entry in the series, I experience Un Chien Andalou (1929), a short cinematic fever dream from the minds of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí.
Though I can’t honestly claim there was much method in my madness, I think it’s appropriate that Man with a Movie Camera and this week’s entry, Un Chien Andalou, are the last two silent films on my arbitrarily assembled syllabus. I can think of no two more fitting swan songs for an art form that was—when these films premiered—already on its last breaths.
In October 1927 Warner Bros. had a smash hit with The Jazz Singer, the first feature-length film with synchronized dialogue. By February of 1929 all of the major Hollywood studios were producing “talkies,” and millions of dollars were being spent investing in better sound technology, and installing sound equipment in theaters around the world. The market had spoken, and silent movies were on their way out.
And—make no mistake—the ascendancy of sound changed everything. While the accepted narrative is that sound was a natural evolution of film from its silent beginnings, historian Scott Eyman argues in The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution 1926-1930 that sound “grew up alongside silents…expanding voraciously and choking off the more fragile strain.” According to Eyman, sound so fundamentally altered the nature of cinema that its domination constituted “the destruction of one great art and the creation of another.” Eyman writes:
“The primarily visual was supplanted by the primarily verbal. Sound standardized movies, made them less malleable, less open to individual interpretation. Allusion and metaphor were the bedrocks of the silent medium, but dialogue literalized every moment, converted it from subjective to objective…
“Talkies were not an evolution, but a mutation, a different art form entirely; as a result, an art form was eliminated…”1
So, for this moment when the verbal was supplanting the visual, and rough “film scenarios” were being replaced by precise “screenplays,” Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera is one suitable valedictory for a vanishing art form that embraced images over words. As we discussed last time, it has no words, written or spoken, and in fact it has no scenario, and no characters: it is a deliberate, defiant renunciation of narrative cinema, and an orgiastic celebration of the camera’s eye.
But Luis Buñuel’s short film Un Chien Andalou serves as perhaps an even better reminder of what we lost as a culture when movies gained the power of speech. Man with a Movie Camera may have been non-narrative, but it is not—despite its playful special effects—particularly ambiguous: if anything, it is aggressively literal, insisting on observable, external, universal reality as a fit subject for art. Buñuel’s film, as we shall see, is something altogether different, a film that embraces that subjective, allusory aspect of cinema of which Eyman speaks. Un Chien Andalou is not an experience in and of itself, but a thing—like a painting, or a poem, or a piece of music—that exists to encourage each of us to have our own, unique, individual experiences. It does not capture, or even evoke: it provokes.
Though there were great silent movies made after it, and though there have certainly been wonderfully surreal and ambiguous movies made with sound, Un Chien Andalou now seems like a remnant of a faded alternate reality in which the entire concept—and purpose—of the cinematic art form was very different.
The first thing I should say is that we will have several more opportunities to discuss Luis Buñuel (1900–1983) as we conduct our Independent Study in World Cinema. Of all of the directors straddling my arbitrary timeline of movie history, Buñuel has one of the widest stances, having made well-respected movies for nearly fifty years. (We are tentatively scheduled to revisit him in 1967 for Belle du Jour, and then again in 1972 for The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie.)
So I’m going to resist the temptation to plunge too deeply into Buñuel’s colorful life here, though his 1983 autobiography—entitled My Last Sigh—is one of the strangest and most enjoyable books I’ve read in years. Fascinating enough are Buñuel’s recollections of his friends and acquaintances, who included Salvador Dalí, Andre Breton, Federico Garcia Lorca, Man Ray, Octavio Paz, Pablo Picasso, and Charlie Chaplin, among many, many others. But the book itself is a masterpiece of insight, non-sequiturs, and strangeness. One moment he is discussing the “bungled orgies” of his youth; the next he is waxing rhapsodic about his recipe for a perfect martini; a few pages later he is claiming supernatural powers of hypnotism, prophecy, and the laying on of hands. One never knows quite how seriously we are supposed to take any of these stories, but after a while it scarcely matters. (And any temptation to assign the randomness of his recollections to age—My Last Sigh was published shortly before Buñuel’s death—is overwhelmed by the suspicion that this was probably how Buñuel’s mind always worked.)
Un Chien Andalou was Buñuel’s first film, made at the tender age of 29, on a shoestring budget financed by the director’s mother. It was as a student in Madrid that Buñuel had become friends with some of the people who would be the most influential artists of his generation, including Dalí and Lorca. But, in their many conversations about art, film does not seem to have factored in. (Buñuel himself flirted with being a composer, a poet, or a philosopher.) They saw a lot of movies—cinema was a burgeoning industry at the time—but they didn’t take them seriously. As he writes in My Last Sigh:
Basically, however, movies were still only a form of entertainment. None of us dreamed that film might be a new mode of expression, much less an art form that could compete with poetry, fiction, or painting. Not once during this entire period did I imagine becoming a filmmaker. Like so many others, I preferred to write poetry.2
This appears to have changed, in part, due to the influence of some of the directors we’ve already discussed. After they left the university, Buñuel and most of his compatriots relocated to Paris, which was becoming the center of the cinematic world. It was there Buñuel saw Battleship Potemkin, which, he writes, he thought for many years the most beautiful film in the history of the cinema. (“When we left the theater…we started erecting barricades ourselves. The police had to intervene before we would stop.”3) The strongest influences on him, however, were the films of Metropolis director Fritz Lang. “Something about this film spoke to something deep in me,” Buñuel writes, of seeing Lang’s Destiny. “It clarified my life and my vision of the world.”4 (After having seen Un Chien Andalou, it makes sense to me that—while Buñuel admired the technical achievement of Eisenstein—he was drawn emotionally more to Lang’s allegorical, mythopoetic visions.)
Buñuel started writing film criticism, took acting classes, and begged his way into a position as director Jean Epstein’s assistant so he could learn how movies worked. Contentious and opinionated, however, Buñuel didn’t hold this position long, and he recall’s Epstein’s final warning to him after their collaboration came to an end: “You be careful,” Epstein told him. “I see surrealistic tendencies in you. If you want my advice, you’ll stay away from them.“5
I am far from being an art historian, and I can’t possibly pretend to do justice to the tenets of the surrealist movement here. (For one thing, it is a faith that seems to have as many definitions as adherents.) But a few words seem to be in order, and it is appropriate that those words should come from one of the movement’s founders, and certainly the most influential surrealist in Buñuel and Dalí’s immediate sphere: André Breton.
In October 1924 Breton published his Manifesto of Surrealism, a peculiar, meandering philosophical tract that itself embodies many of the movement’s characteristics. (In contrast to Vertov’s aggressively pedantic manifesto, Breton’s seems more a personal, scattered collection of thoughts and reflections than a call to artistic arms.) Like Vertov—albeit for very different, and, to my mind, far more humanistic reasons—Breton has a severe distrust of linear thought and traditional narrative. (He disparages the novel form, which he sees as alienating the reader by leaving too little room for individual imagination and interpretation. “So many questions resolved once and for all, as chance directs,” Breton writes. “The only discretionary power left me is to close the book, which I am careful to do somewhere in the vicinity of the first page.”)
The chief enemies of the surrealists were reason and logic, which—as their Dadaist predecessors had done—they saw as pathetically bourgeois, and dangerously limiting:
We are still living under the reign of logic: this, of course, is what I have been driving at. But in this day and age logical methods are applicable only to solving problems of secondary interest. The absolute rationalism that is still in vogue allows us to consider only facts relating directly to our experience. Logical ends, on the contrary, escape us. It is pointless to add that experience itself has found itself increasingly circumscribed. It paces back and forth in a cage from which it is more difficult to make it emerge…Under the pretense of civilization and progress, we have managed to banish from the mind everything that may rightly or wrongly be termed superstition, or fancy; forbidden is any kind of search for truth which is not in conformance with accepted practices.
Drawing on the influence of Sigmund Freud, the surrealists saw the means with which “the human explorer will be able to carry his investigation much further”:
The imagination is perhaps on the point of reasserting itself, of reclaiming its rights. If the depths of our mind contain within it strange forces capable of augmenting those on the surface, or of waging a victorious battle against them, there is every reason to seize them—first, to seize them, then, if need be, to submit them to the control of our reason.”
“Can’t the dream also be used in solving the fundamental questions of life?” Breton asks in his Manifesto. And indeed, it is the “future resolution of these two states, dream and reality” that Breton imagines as an “absolute reality,” or surreality.
As I’ve said, I can’t possibly do justice to all of this here. But a few thoughts strike me as relevant to our overall conversation about film. First of all, as I’ve suggested, there are similarities between this philosophy of surrealism and the seemingly diametrically opposed viewpoints of the Soviet realists Eisenstein and Vertov. Each of these two movements—the communist and the surrealist—viewed their approach to art as revolutionary, in the purest sense. Each of them dismissed traditional narrative, and prioritized the image over the individual character. Breton also extensively quotes the French poet Pierre Reverdy, and in this I think we hear an echo of Soviet montage theory, from a slightly different angle:
The image is a pure creation of the mind.
It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities.
The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be—the greater its emotional power and poetic reality.6
So where Eisenstein exploited the emotional power of deliberately juxtaposed images, what Breton imagined was a form of art—in whatever medium—that drew heavily on the unconscious, and which unleashed the infinite potential of images juxtaposed without deliberation. He offers these tentative definitions, for dictionary and encyclopedia:
SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express—verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner—the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.
ENCYCLOPEDIA. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all all other psychic mechanisms, and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life.
There is much more to say and explore about all of this, of course, but I think it’s enough to be getting on with for now. Let’s turn our attention to the theory in wonderfully imperfect practice, in the form of Un Chien Andalou.
Let us get this out of the way: the title of Un Chien Andalou translates to “An Andalusian Dog.”
There is, of course, no dog in the movie, Andalusian or otherwise.
To describe what is in the movie, however, presents a unique challenge. We have all experienced the glazed stares of an unwilling audience to whom we have attempted to explain our dreams. (“No one’s really interested in other people’s dreams,” Buñuel writes.7) Attempting to recount the “events” of Un Chien Andalou, I fear, would be an exercise in tedium and futility, akin to recounting, second-hand, someone else’s dream to a third party.
Which, appropriately enough, is more or less exactly what Un Chien Andalou is. It began life when Buñuel shared with Dalí an image from one of his dreams: that of a cloud crossing the face of the moon like a razor across an eyeball. Dalí—confirming the universal truth that telling someone about your dream instantly makes them selfishly start talking about their own dream—shared an image from his own slumber: that of a hand, crawling with ants. This, as Buñuel recalls, was the impetus for Un Chien Andalou:
“And what if we started right there and made a film?” [Dalí] wondered aloud. Despite my hesitation, we soon found ourselves hard at work, and in less than a week we had a script. Our only rule was very simple: No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted. We had to open all doors to the irrational and keep only those images that surprised us, without trying to explain why. The amazing thing was that we never had the slightest disagreement; we spent a week of total identification.8
I will do some summarizing and recapping of the result as best I can. But, really, it’s much easier if you just take 16 minutes and watch the film yourself. Several versions are available on YouTube, and frankly most of them they are of equal or better quality than the rather poor DVD copy I watched. I’ve embedded one of the better versions here:
What are we to make of this? Are we to attempt to make anything of this, beyond what is on the screen? For any quest for coherent meaning seems not only futile, but actually counter-indicated by the authors’ intent. Our only rule was simple, Buñuel writes. No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted.
And yet we can’t quite help ourselves, can we? I can’t quite help myself: the longing to assemble a narrative—however psychological, however disjointed—is almost instinctual. In much the same way our brains automatically assemble any two dots and a line into an icon of a human face, we almost can’t prevent ourselves from filling in the gaps between discordant images with projected meaning.
Nor, ultimately, do I think we should. I think it is a false dichotomy to say that something is meaningless just because it is irrational, or to assume that images summoned from the unconscious are somehow without depth or truth. Indeed, if we accept the surrealist viewpoint, the juxtapositioning of such images may yield more truth than those more consciously and deliberately assembled. It is not the “intellectual montage” of Eisenstein’s theories, perhaps, but a different kind of effect generated in us. It is an emotional montage, or even a spiritual montage, that is not carefully constructed by the artist, but one that is allowed to explode differently for every viewer, and perhaps even on every viewing. It is far too simplistic to call it a cinematic Rorschach test: the effect is far more deliberate than that. But it is a crafted commandment to do here, with awareness, what we often do without such awareness: to both apply ourselves actively to the experiencing of art, and to openly allow for our own reactions.
Myself, I have watched Un Chien Andalou five or six times now, and each time I find myself constructing a slightly different narrative: it is always tentative, and it is always fluid, and—the moment I think I have pieced something together—I inevitably find that the fragile narrative tapestry comes apart in my clumsily weaving hands like spiderwebs. In the end, I don’t know of any way to approach writing about the film except to share a little of this experience.
Un Chien Andalou opens with a simple credits sequence, white text on black, set to Argentinean tango music. It is uncertain how much we are to make of the music, which will alternate throughout the film between the tango music and the “Liebestod” theme from Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. From Buñuel’s recollections, it sounds as though the original choice of music was slightly haphazard: he was simply alternating records, nervously, during the Paris premiere of the film. (The score featured on most prints of the film now is one Buñuel oversaw in 1960 to approximate this experience.) Like nearly everything in Un Chien Andalou, we are left to decide how much (or how little) meaning we wish to attribute to the music: is it entirely random, casually crafted, or precisely intentional? (For me—not a music expert—it is simply evocative: the playfulness of the tango music countered against the gravity of the Wagner. And yet is there not something in the erotic, push-and-pull tension inherent in tango that has deeper meaning for Un Chien Andalou? Is there not something more significant to be drawn from Wagner’s Liebestod—which means “love death,” and represents Tristan and Isolde’s consummation of their love after Tristan’s death? Do not these seemingly whimsical choices begin to seem deliberate and loaded with significance?)
After the credits come those fabled words of comforting narrative—Once upon a time—and then a prologue, of sorts, which still stands as one of the most memorable and startling sequences in cinematic history. A man—played by Buñuel himself—stands in the moonlight, sharpening a straight razor. He tests its sharpness against his thumb, and then goes out on the balcony to stare up at the night sky as a thin cloud approaches the full moon. The man goes inside, where a woman (Simone Mareuil) sits placidly in a chair. He raises the razor to her eye, which he pries open: the woman does not resist, or even react. We cut to the cloud cutting across the moon’s face—Buñuel’s dream realized on-screen—and then back to the man slicing the razor deeply and gorily through the woman’s eyeball.
It’s a horrific, unsettling scene. (The effect was achieved through the simplicity of cutting a dead calf’s eye, shot closely and brightly exposed to sell the illusion.) But what does it mean? Or—a far better way to phrase the question here—what does it provoke? For me, the first level is pure shock value: it is simply the director announcing his intention of assaulting the viewer out of their passive complacency. (“Sometimes, watching a movie is a bit like being raped,” Buñuel writes, in one of his many throwaway provocations.9) But linger over the scene a little longer, and other associations begin to fuzzily form. The film links the woman’s eye to the moon, a symbol of nighttime, dreaming, and the unconscious. The razor passes across the eye—as the cloud passes across the moon—and a glob of disgusting junk comes out: the uncomfortable reality hidden beneath the pretty exterior has been exposed, revealed, through an image that is all about seeing. We must see differently, see the disturbing truth beneath surfaces, and we must not resist or fear the result. (The woman is completely accepting of the process, a willing participant in the man’s experiment.) I even make a more direct and potent association to the filmmaker’s art, a connection that is influenced by my own recent reading and viewing. (It makes me think, for example, of how Man with a Movie Camera visually linked this kind of razor blade to the razors used by the film editor to censor, splice, and reshape the reality we experience when we watch a movie.)
Obviously, these are only my reactions, uncertain and not particularly coherent associations born of my own experiences and obsessions. (Buñuel doesn’t know that I just watched Man with a Movie Camera, after all, so that particular echo could hardly have been intended.) But does that make my reactions and interpretations any less authentic, any less valid? Or are they more authentic, more valid, more powerful, because they are not imposed upon me by the artist, and instead arise genuinely from within? I think these are the questions Un Chien Andalou forces us to ask, and I think the search for definitive answers—for “correct” interpretations—is the first thing of which we need to let go. Art that can be distilled to a single, universally agreed-upon meaning is art that limits, art that denies the subjective reality of the individual viewer. The creation of frozen, reductive art objects seems to me exactly what the surrealists were taking such great pains to avoid. They wanted a piece of art to be a thing that didn’t make sense on the screen (or page, or panel), so that it could instead make sense in us.
From this prologue we get a title card reading “Eight years later.” It is only the first of several such title cards, and we quickly realize we cannot take them seriously. (A later scene will be interrupted by a card reading “About three in the morning,” but the card seems to represent no actual time-lapse in the scene. Another sequence will be split up by a card reading “Sixteen years earlier,” but, again, there is no shift in the scene itself, which returns precisely to the same characters doing the exact same things they were doing before the card appeared.) These cards seem first and foremost to be a playful mockery of traditional cinematic storytelling.
(Or are they? If we read the scenes psychologically or symbolically—and it is hard not to—could these temporal locators not have specific, deliberate meaning? Let us propose that one way to view the film might be as a sort of metaphoric autobiography, with significant scenes in the director’s personal, spiritual, or artistic progress rendered symbolically in dream logic. Might not the razor scene represent a sort of awakening to possibilities, which culminated eight years later in what follows? Might not the “Sixteen years earlier” scene hearken back to formative experiences of childhood, which still live within the artist and matter as greatly now as they did then? The dream logic shows everything happening at the same time, but it might encapsulate the non-linear, holistic reality of our consciousnesses, which are formed and reformed from the constant churning of past and present in our own unconsciouses. I do not necessarily propose this reading, but I suggest that it is possible, only to point out the delightful challenge Un Chien Andalou offers us. We can read nothing in the film as having particular meaning, or we can read everything in the film as having particular meaning, or we can pick and choose as we see fit, depending on how much work we want to do and how much of ourselves we want to bring to the viewing. What is certain is that the Un Chien Andalou I experience will never quite be the same one you experience, and my own reading may change entirely depending on my mood, my experiences, and my openness to exploration.)
After the “Eight years later” card, Wagner takes over from the tango music, and we see a young man (Pierre Bancheff) riding a bicycle through the empty streets of a city. He is wearing peculiar pieces of fringe over his dark suit. (I have seen various write-ups of the film refer to this character as a “transvestite,” or say he is dressed as a nun. Certainly, there is something both feminine and evocative of a nun’s habit in the getup—the first of many Catholic references throughout the film—but the original screenplay simply says “His head, back and loins are adorned in ruffles of white linen.”) Around his neck hangs a striped wooden box. Buñuel fades in and out on this figure, at one point superimposing his image over blackness, and then fading it in so it hangs transparently over the city: the effect, for me, is to make him an ethereal figure out of dreams, out of the subconscious, more vision than character.
A woman—the same woman we saw earlier, albeit showing no sign of eye trauma—sits in an apartment reading. She seems to hear, or sense, the approach of the bicyclist, and rushes to the window. In the process she drops her book, which falls open to a page showing Vermeer’s painting The Lacemaker. Is this random, or significant? It seems a throwaway moment, but it is specified in the screenplay, and either way can be unpacked for meaning. (The woman drops work by the great realistic painter, as she enters the surrealistic story? Or perhaps the painting and the woman represent a kind of mature domesticity towards which the peculiar man is moving?) Interestingly, Dalí himself was a great admirer of Vermeer, and particularly of this painting, a copy of which had hung in his father’s study. “Up till now, The Lacemaker has always been considered a very peaceful, very calm painting,” Dalí said. “But for me, it is possessed by the most violent aesthetic power, to which only the recently discovered antiproton can be compared.”10 A quarter century after it turned up in Un Chien Andalou, in fact, Dalí would paint his own version of The Lacemaker, one exploding with the most violent aesthetic power.
As the woman watches from the window, the bicyclist rides up to the curb outside her building and immediately falls over, without any effort to break his fall. She hurries down to the street to find him lying, either dazed or totally mindless, in the gutter, and she kisses his face emotionally. Then we fade in on the striped wooden box: she opens it, using a key, and removes a striped necktie wrapped in striped tissue. She picks up the man’s stiff shirt collar, and lovingly threads the tie through it, then places it down on the bed where all the man’s unusual garments and accessories—the pieces of linen, the box, etc.—are assembled as if around a human form. Her work completed, she sits in a chair and stares at the bed. She seems to be alone, and almost falling asleep.
But then she looks up, and the man is standing elsewhere in the room, staring at his own hand. Or is it the same man? It is the same actor, but he looks different: darker, more serious, dressed now in a severe black suit. She rises to see what he is looking at, and they both stare—with concern, but apparently little surprise—as ants pour out of a hole in the center of his palm.
Let me pause here, briefly, to offer—not an interpretation—but the attempt at an interpretation I find running through my mind as I watch these scenes. The narrative I begin to construct at this point goes something like this. The bicyclist is a creature of youth, of imagination, of uninhibited expression, in touch with his feminine and masculine sides, symbolizing the surrealist marriage of dream and reality. But his journey of expression ends as he falls before the woman’s apartment, before the calm, realistic, domestic scene represented her, and by The Lacemaker. The woman loves him—and perhaps loves him exactly for the imaginative curiosities of his expression—but in loving him she has changed him: she opens the box of his heart, and preserves what she finds within affectionately on her bed, but the man himself is no longer wearing those trappings of free-spirited youth. In meeting the woman, he has “grown up,” assumed a traditional role, become serious and severe. In doing so, however, a corruption has set in: the ants pour from a stigmata in his hand, symbolizing civilization and religion’s suppression of the feminine, of the unconscious. It is adulthood, domesticity, maturity and reason, as the death of creativity and freedom.
I want to be clear, I am not proposing this as the “correct” reading of the film, and certainly not as the “intended” meaning of the film. I am not even proposing it as, necessarily, my reading of the film, except in this moment, on this viewing. For this is what I think is the peculiar effect of Un Chien Andalou: we find ourselves trying to construct “coherent” symbolic and thematic narratives that order what appears to be disordered, that arbitrarily construct lines of cause and effect between disjointed and non-linear events. It must mean something, we think, and so we weave meaning from the images we see.
I also want to be clear about this: I think this is a good thing, and I suspect it is exactly what Buñuel and Dalí intended art to do. My reading might sound plausible—at least so far—but I don’t know that it’s more or less plausible or valid than any number of alternate readings other people might propose, or which I myself might stumble upon in the future. Thus the film becomes a living, changing thing, and whatever meaning it has exists not on celluloid or in its screenplay, but in the creative act of montage that actively occurs in the fluid space between me and it.
I also think this process necessarily requires us to overlook certain things that don’t happen to fit whatever arbitrary scheme we’ve superimposed over the film. The shot of the ants in the man’s hand, for example, fades first to a shot of the armpit hair of a woman lying on a beach, and then from that to a shot of a sea urchin. Can I make this fit my tentative meaning? Sure: there is a sexual element introduced in these shots, I believe, that I could interweave into my narrative of maturity and domesticity as the death of innocence and imagination. (The armpit hair—a symbol of sexual maturity, and evocative of pubic hair—and the spiky, threatening image of the sea urchin as a symbol of pain and death.) But it feels a little too pat: it feels, to me, like reducing something rich and unwieldy into something straightforward and simplistic.
And those shots fade back to a hand—but a different hand, this one disembodied and lying in the street. Viewed from above, we see what appears to be a man—but is in fact an androgynous woman (Faso Messan)—poking at the hand with a stick while a crowd gathers around to watch. (The IMDB page for Un Chien Andalou lists this character as “Hermaphrodite,” which frankly feels a little unwarranted and over-interpretative: Buñuel and Dalí’s screenplay refers to her simply as “a young woman.”)
The (other) woman and the man watch from the windows of the apartment, the man growing increasingly excited, even titillated. A police officer pushes through the throng to salute the androgynous woman. He is carrying the same striped wooden box from the earlier scenes, and he puts the severed hand inside this box and gives it, with great formality, to the androgynous woman. She clutches it to her breast and seems almost to go into a trance, overwhelmed with emotion.
As the crowd disperses, leaving the woman alone in the frame, she stands motionless in the street as cars pass perilously close to her. Watching from the window, the young man grows more and more excited as he watches, seeming to thrill in her danger. Finally, she is struck by a car and killed, and the man seems uncontrollably aroused by her death.
What can we do with this? It’s a scene I feel like I understand emotionally more than intellectually, and I don’t know that I can articulate what I get from it. Somehow, to me, Messan’s character is the feminine side of the young man, who was separated from him with his frilly garments. She picks up and mourns the symbol of his transformation—the hand, which links to his ant-infested hand—and puts it in the box that symbolizes his heart. He, however, is transformed, and now the death of his feminine side thrills him, titillates him, arouses him.
And with its death he becomes more monstrously masculine, and sexually predatory: with the death of the feminine within, he seeks to conquer the feminine without. He immediately begins forcing himself on the woman in the apartment, groping crudely at her breasts as she backs away from him. (The tango music kicks back into life here: the push-and-pull tension of erotic attraction.) He corners her: at first she fights, but then she resigns herself to his assault. As he mauls her, her dress disappears, and he is fondling her bare breasts. Then the breasts themselves dissolve away, and he is groping her bare buttocks instead. As he does this, his face becomes inhuman, ghoulish.
Finally she gets away from him, and he chases her around the apartment. She grabs a tennis racket off the wall and uses it to fend him off, holding it threateningly and triumphantly above her head. He apparently decides he needs to subdue her, and bends down to grab two lengths of rope off the floor. But the ropes are attached to something, and—against their unexpected weight—he falls on his ass in a comic pratfall.
This is perhaps the funniest and most playful scene of Un Chien Andalou, an example of absurdity at its very best. The ropes, it turns out, are each attached to quite a haul: as he tries to get at the woman, the man finds himself dragging stone tablets, two pianos—each with a dead donkey on top—and a couple of confused Catholic seminarians (played by Jaime Miravilles and Dalí).
Easily the most bizarre scene in Un Chien Andalou, this also seems, in most ways, one of the easiest to interpret. The man, driven by uncontrollable lusts, wants the woman—but he is held back by religious morality (the priests, the Ten Commandments), by his art (the pianos), and by a fear of—or awareness of—his own mortality (the donkeys). He carries all of this baggage with him, unable to let go of it even as he pursues his more primal desires. But is this a good thing, or a bad thing? The crushing weight of these things hardly seems like a positive, but then neither does his attempt to rape the woman: the man seems torn between undesirable impulses.
(The powerful, formative triumvirate of religion, sex, and death seems to have been on Buñuel’s mind from the beginning. Note their presence in the following passage from the first chapter of My Last Sigh, complete with dead donkey.)
It was in Calanda that I had my first encounters with death, which along with profound religious faith and the awakening of sexuality constituted the dominating force of my adolescence. I remember walking one day in the olive grove with my father when a sickeningly sweet odor came to us on the breeze. A dead donkey lay about a hundred yards away, swollen and mangled, serving as a banquet for a dozen vultures, not to mention several dogs. The sight of it both attracted and repelled me…I stood there hypnotized, sensing that beyond this rotten carcass lay some obscure metaphysical significance.11
The woman takes advantage of the man’s slow progress and flees into the bedroom; as he grasps after her, she closes the door on his hand, which is once again swarming with ants. As she turns, however, she sees the other version of the man—the bicyclist—now laying on the bed, once more clad in his unusual garments, with the box resting upon his chest. (The return of the man she loved, having somehow reclaimed his heart? Or is this a ruse of seduction, with the predatory man trying to remind her why she loved him in the first place?)
But then we get the “Around three o’clock in the morning” title card. We see a new man—we cannot yet see his face—press the doorbell outside. (Amusingly, the sound of the doorbell’s ringing is represented by two hands rattling a cocktail shaker.)
The woman admits the new man to the apartment, and this man quickly goes over to berate the bicyclist on the bed. He hauls the bicyclist up and begins tearing the strange items off of him: he throws the pieces of fabric, and the wooden box, out the window. (The young man desperately tries to hide a scrap of fabric in his suit pocket—to preserve one small piece of his unique identity—but the other man catches him, and makes him surrender it.) Once stripped of his fanciful adornments, he looks more or less exactly like the lecherous man who attacked the woman. Finally, the new man orders him to stand against the wall in the corner, with his arms outstretched—a gesture that conjures up both schoolboy punishment and crucifixion. Then the new man turns, and he, too, is played by Batcheff. Yet another, third version of the same man has entered the story.
There is a brief flash of another title card—”Sixteen years earlier”—and then we cut back to the exact same scene, and the new man in the exact same act of turning around. But, in slow motion, we see he does look slightly younger than the other versions: more boyish, more innocent, more hopeful. He gathers some books off a nearby desk full of art supplies, and hands them to the man standing in the corner. It seems a sad—even compassionate—appeal to the other man. He reaches out—almost as if to embrace him—and then seems to turn away in despair.
As he does, the man against the wall turns, an evil look on his face, and the books become guns in his hands. He calls out to the new man, orders him to put his hands up, and then guns him down in cold blood.
The new man falls, and as he does he is suddenly falling in an idyllic wood by a lake; he dies, grasping in his final gesture against the bare back of a woman—the woman?—who fades away as the man dies. A group of men discover the body of the young man in the woods, and carry it off like a fallen hero.
Having only recapped for several paragraphs, I feel I should interject some interpretation here, but I don’t know exactly what I make of it. It all feels like it makes a sort of sense, but putting it into words it starts to lose coherence, the way a dream begins to slip away as we try to remember it. There is something about the dualities of man, capable of both good and evil. There is something going on with past and present coming together: the idealistic young man (from sixteen years earlier) judging the more complicated choices of his older self. He tears away his older self’s eccentricities, and leaves only the mature monster. Ultimately, this older man must slay his younger self, resenting his judgement, and refusing to surrender to the tyranny of youthful expectations. (This feels darkly true to me. Don’t we all feel the accusatory eyes of our younger selves, staring at us in disappointment? Don’t we both fear and resent their judgement? Don’t we have to symbolically kill them within ourselves, to get on with our lives?) But with the death of his younger self also comes the death—or disappearance—of the perfect feminine vision, the romantic ideal, the dream of the woman by the lake who instantly fades with the death of youth.
Then we are back in the apartment. The woman enters, and stares at something on the wall: an iris effect closes in on the small object, and we see it is a death’s-head moth, the camera moving progressively closer until the skull markings on its thorax fill nearly the entire frame. Suddenly, the woman—who has not moved her eyeline—is not staring at the moth, but at the man. (Is this the lecher, or the bicyclist? They seem now to be the same person, or perhaps they were never two different people at all.)
The man wipes his hand across his mouth, and his mouth disappears. Defiantly unimpressed with this trick, the woman mockingly applies lipstick to her own mouth. But then the man’s mouth grows a clump of hair, and she examines her own armpit, furious to discover he has stolen her armpit hair. This is the final straw, and she screams at him and backs out of the apartment, sticking her tongue out at him in hatred. This, at last, is the bitter end of their complicated relationship.
It’s comic, absurd, and, yes, surreal. I don’t begin to pretend I understand it. He has stolen her sexuality? That doesn’t seem quite right. He accuses her of somehow silencing him with her sexuality? That seems closer to the mark, in light of earlier suggestions that he has changed to accommodate her. Through their relationship, he has lost his voice, and he blames her for allowing himself to be stripped of the things that made him special and unique?
I don’t know. But what’s remarkable is that, somehow, in light of everything else that has happened in the film, it feels like a real break-up. There is an authentic bitterness to it, an ugliness, even a sense of absurd regret, that carries through the dream logic of it all.
And the aftermath, too, feels appropriate both to dreams and the bitterness of break-ups: she turns out of the apartment directly onto a beautiful beach, having seemingly forgotten all about the man forever. She has—instantly—moved on with her life. Another, handsome young man waits for her there, and she embraces him and kisses him warmly, walking happily arm-in-arm together up the shore. A little ways up the beach, they come across the tattered, drowned remnants of the bicyclist’s attire: his now ruined ruffled fringes, and the utterly shattered box of his heart. They examine them, bemusedly, contemptuously, for just a moment, and then discard them again. Stepping carelessly over the pieces of the man’s broken heart, this new couple walks off together without a care in the world.
But fate, or death, or the filmmaker gets the laugh last: after one final title card—”In Spring”—we see the woman and her young man buried up to their chests in sand, quite dead, rotting in the sun. Time, corruption, misery, gets us all in the end.
It should go without saying that I do not pretend to understand Un Chien Andalou. I have tried to share some thoughts, associations, and impressions it generates in me, without attempting to impose on it too strict or coherent a thematic scheme. I do not doubt a coherent interpretation could be made—with minimal Procrustean alterations—but such a reading would never be definitive, and I doubt it would be terribly convincing. I react to it—mostly—as a psychological post-mortem on a doomed love affair, exploring the tensions between the youthful call of freedom and rebellion on the one hand, and the mature demands of conformity and domesticity on the other. But this is just one possible reading, and others might find not just different nuances but a completely different reading of what the film is “about.”
(For example: I began my discussion of the film talking about the prologue as a metafictional commentary on cinema itself, and then I promptly abandoned that reading. Couldn’t we have continued it, however? I feel like I could re-write this entire post reading Batcheff as the surrealist filmmaker and Mareuil as the bourgeois audience. She is initially charmed by his eccentricities, but ultimately she is horrified by the sexual and psychological undercurrents he really wants to explore; in the end, she rejects him for something safer and more traditional, and dooms herself—and all of us?—to the barren wasteland of the final shot.)
I am only half-serious in this, and only half-certain about anything I have said—which I think is right where Un Chien Andalou wants me.
Buñuel had no idea how his film would be received. At that first viewing in Paris in 1929, he claims he had stones in his pockets, and was prepared to use them to fend off attackers if his audience hated the film and came for his head. As it turned out, the audience loved it, which itself disturbed Buñuel: what did it mean if the movie he created to alienate the bourgeoisie was celebrated by them instead? It disturbed his fellow surrealists, as well, who distrusted Buñuel’s success and celebrity, and essentially put him on trial for allowing the screenplay to be published in a film journal. “Moreover, there was something suspect about the commercial success of my film,” Buñuel says. “How could such a scandalous film draw such an enormous public?”12
“The real purpose of surrealism was not to create a new literary, artistic, or even philosophical movement,” Buñuel writes, “but to explode the social order, to transform life itself.”13 This revolution never happened, of course: such revolutions never do. We are still living, as Breton wrote nearly a century ago, “under the reign of logic.” We probably always will be. Sound was the revolution in cinema that was on the horizon, and it would take the art form nearer to, not further from, the objective uniformity of logic and realism. There would be less room for dream logic, less room for mythopoetic allegories like Caligari and Nosferatu and Metropolis, less room for the subjective, “discretionary power” Breton spoke of the audience craving. Movies would remain, and probably will always remain, primarily “a form of entertainment.”
Films like Un Chien Andalou, which do not seek to comfort and entertain, and which do not prioritize accessibility and logic as organizing principles, will remain niche curiosities. They are strange and stubborn examples of another kind of cinema, of another purpose for cinema, in which the audience was not a passive consumer of art but an active participant in its creation. I can’t, honestly, even bring myself to regret this state of affairs: a world with nothing in the movie theaters to watch but confusing surrealist dreams would not be a world in which I’d care to live.
But I sort of loved Un Chien Andalou, which—after 87 years—still feels radical, and still has so much life, urgency, vibrancy, and inexhaustibly provocative mystery. I don’t begin to grasp what it all means, and I’m delighted to think I never will.
Next on the Syllabus
First, I should apologize for the lateness of this post: I had to travel for my real job last week, and it put me slightly behind schedule. (I really do intend to stick closely to my announced schedule on these, but there will occasionally be unavoidable—hopefully minor—delays of this sort. I’ll do my best.)
Next, on March 30, we will explore the first “talkie” on our syllabus, Fritz Lang’s 1931 masterpiece M. (Despite my misgivings about Metropolis, I am really, really looking forward to this one.) M is available for rental or purchase on Amazon’s streaming service, or there are several versions available on YouTube.
After that, I’ll be on vacation for the middle of April, but I’ll return to this series on April 30 for Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934).
I found the following texts and websites useful in writing this piece. As always, anything I got wrong is my own damn fault.
Breton, André. Manifesto of Surrealism, at http://www.tcf.ua.edu/Classes/Jbutler/T340/SurManifesto/ManifestoOfSurrealism.htm
Bunuel, Luis. My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Bunuel. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Bunuel, Luis, and Salvador Dalí. Original shooting script for Un Chien Andalou, translated by Haim Finkelstein, at http://www.surrealisme.nl/bunuel.htm.
Ebert, Roger. Review of Un Chien Andalou, at http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-un-chien-andalou-1928
Eyman, Scott. The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution 1926-1930. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
“The Accommodations of Desire.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, at https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1999.363.16/
Janson, Jonathan. “Salvador Dali and Vermer’s The Lacemaker,” at www.essentialvermeer.com
IMDB page for Un Chien Andalou at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0020530/fullcredits?ref_=tt_cl_sm#cast
- Eyman, Scott. The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution 1926-1930. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition. (Kindle Locations 191-223).
- Bunuel, Luis. My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Bunuel. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. (Kindle Locations 1159-1161).
- Bunuel, My Last Sigh, (Kindle Locations 1352-1353).
- Bunuel, My Last Sigh, (Kindle Location 1358).
- Bunuel, My Last Sigh, (Kindle Location 1391).
- Breton is quoting Pierre Reverdy’s essay “L’Image,” published in Nord-Sud, March 1918.
- Bunuel, My Last Sigh, (Kindle Location 1505).
- Bunuel, My Last Sigh, (Kindle Locations 1646-1649).
- Bunuel, My Last Sigh, (Kindle Location 1061).
- This quote, and the information about the painting hanging in Dalí’s father’s study, come from Jonathan Janson at www.essentialvermeer.com.)
- Bunuel, My Last Sigh, (Kindle Locations 183-188).
- Bunuel, My Last Sigh, (Kindle Location 1722).
- Bunuel, My Last Sigh, (Kindle Locations 1697-1698).