WORLD CINEMA CLASSICS: L'Age d'Or / Blu-ray review

This high-definition dual format edition, of perhaps two of the most well-known film experiments of the 20th century, sees the BFI return to surrealism again after their recent release of Jan Švankmajer's Alice this month. L'Age d'Or (1930) was Luis Buñuel's first feature film, condemned upon release by, amongst others, the League of Patriots, banned by the Parisian Board of Censors and it is released here with the equally notorious 16 minute short Un Chien Andalou (1929).

Both films were a collaboration between Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. Buñuel, born in Calanda, is highly regarded as one of Spanish cinema's great iconoclasts. Gaining his early reputation in France in the 1920s and 1930s, he then directed a remarkable run of films in Mexico (after gaining Mexican citizenship) during the 1950s with Los Olvidados (1950) winning him the Best Director prize at Cannes and securing his reputation, and both Subida al cielo (1952) and Él (1953) entered in the Official Selection for the Festival.

Having left Spain in 1936, knowing that the Spanish Civil War and Franco's rise to power would not provide him with the requisite freedoms to make films the way he wanted to make them, he was later invited to return to Spain by Franco in 1960 purely as a propaganda exercise. However, the film that resulted from this reunion, Viridiana (1961) in which a tableaux of Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper is created by drunken beggars, was banned after Franco's regime who, believing in Buñuel's integrity and sending the film to Cannes sight unseen, reacted to the outrage it caused. Franco attempted to have it withdrawn, destroying any copies his authorities located. Seen at Cannes, it eventually went on to win the Palme d'Or. It was sixteen years before it was finally shown in Spain. Buñuel's status was further elevated by the films he then made in France with his screenwriting and producing partnership of Jean-Claude Carrière and Serge Silberman, including Belle de Jour (1967), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), The Phantom of Liberty (1974) and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977).

... illuminates central surrealist attitudes towards society and human relationships
L'Age d'Or was commissioned, as a result of the success of Un Chien Andalou (1929), by wealthy sponsor of the avant garde Vicomte Charles de Noailles who commissioned a film every year for the birthday of his wife Marie-Laure de Noailles (a descendant of the Marquis de Sade, the irony of which was probably not lost on Buñuel given the film's last scene). This vanity project offered Buñuel, Dalí and the rest of the Surrealist Group enough freedom to collaborate together towards a collective vision.

Although the script is credited to Buñuel and Dalí it has been mooted that many of the Group, including Max Ernst, contributed ideas to the script. As a true cinematic expression of the Surrealist cause it also acted as the visual equivalent of the Group's Second Surrealist Manifesto, drafted by André Breton in 1930, a reproduction of which is included in the booklet accompanying the set, as an extension to the themes the film provides.

L'Age d'Or opens with what seems to be a misdirecting sequence of battling scorpions, showing one of them attacking and killing a rat. As this plays out the subtitles fill us in on their violent and anti-social nature. However, the anthropological nature of this sequence dovetails thematically with the rest of the story, of a man who completely rejects a society he finds himself part of while in pursuit of his own desires and conversely of the society that then rejects such violent desires. It is therefore a film that Michael Richardson, in Surrealism and Cinema, sees as an "uncompromising revolt that illuminates central surrealist attitudes towards society and human relationships."

It is a more structured narrative than Un Chien Andalou that examines the power of desire, sexuality and fetishism in counterpoint to the moral edifices of society, tradition and religion. Many of the themes in the film could be seen as the genesis for much of Buñuel's later work in cinema. A series of linked sequences, the film focuses on a couple who are constantly thwarted in their attempts to consummate their love. It opens with a peasant keeping a look out across the coast while a group of priests, in their finery, mumble away in the rocky landscape. After telling his dilapidated companions (played by members of the Surrealist Group, including Max Ernst) that the Majorcans are coming, they hobble out to to seemingly fend off these invaders and all collapse with exhaustion save one who observes that the priests have since been reduced to skeletons. The film then cuts to the arrival of a delegation of dignitaries, including priests, to lay a foundation stone on the same coast. It is a sequence that suggests the rise of colonialism and empire, driven in part by the power and authority of religion, out of the the struggles of the poorest and weakest men at the bottom of such hierarchies. 

While they attempt to do so, a young man and woman (Gaston Modot and Lya Lys) passionately couple in the mud and an angry crowd eventually splits them up. The man longingly stares at the woman as she is dragged away. This dissolves to a shot of a woman in a bathroom which is interrupted by the sound of a toilet flushing over a seething flow of molten magma but which could easily symbolise excrement, perhaps highlighting what Robert Short describes on the commentary as the alchemical conjunction between gold and shit that the film's title alludes to. We return to the man, now covered in mud, as he is dragged away. He hears barking and seeing a little white dog he rushes over to it and gives it a powerful kick. It's a blackly comic moment that will leave you feeling ashamed for laughing. The man is clearly upset and furiously stamps on a beetle as he's led away.

The film then jumps to modern Rome, including some aerial shots of the Vatican, an emblem of the ancient and modern city, of values enshrined by the Catholic church. A title card, "Sometimes on Sundays" appears and footage of several buildings falling down follows to underscore the rather cynical commentary about the hurly-burly of the Imperial city. In a series of visual non-sequiturs, we see a man kicking a violin down the street and violently crushing it and then a man with a stone on his head sauntering past a statue also with a stone on its head. Meanwhile, the man from the beach, in the custody of two others, has a strange, erotic reaction to posters he sees in the street.

One of these images dissolves to the woman, still longing for the man, as her parents prepare a formal reception for the Majorcans. The woman has to shoo a cow out of her bedroom, the soundtrack dominated by the cow bell it wears, as she continues to desire the man. It is revealed that the man is on an officially appointed goodwill mission and leaving his captors behind he takes a taxi to the villa (and kicks over a blind man in the street before he gets into the vehicle).

During the party (briefly interrupted by a horse drawn cart full of peasants, a maid on fire emerging from a blazing kitchen and a gamekeeper shooting his own son for stealing his tobacco to which the bourgeois party guests are completely indifferent) the man arrives and slaps the woman's mother after she spills a drink on him. Despite being asked to leave, he returns and disappears with the woman into the garden. They become involved in a series of dreamlike and erotic exchanges, all bursting with their pent up desire, symbolic of the celebrated amour fou championed by the surrealists, that reaches a climax with the now famous sequence where she fellates the toe of a statue.
... the film's coda recreates de Sade's The 120 Days of Sodom
They are interrupted by a phone call from the Minister of the Interior and then by the strange intentions of the conductor of the orchestra performing at the party. Angry again, the man takes to hurling objects (including a burning tree, a bishop and a giraffe) out of a bedroom window to the accompaniment of thundering drums (the people of Calanda, during the Easter week, play the drums without cease for twenty-four hours. Luis Buñuel was highly influenced in his film-making by childhood memories of this event).

The film's coda recreates de Sade's The 120 Days of Sodom and provides the film with a scorpion-like sting in the tail as the depraved Duc de Blangis, leader of de Sade's deviants seen leaving the Château de Selliny, is depicted as Christ. He comforts a young girl as she emerges from the Château and after taking her inside (we hear her scream on the soundtrack) he re-emerges beardless. The final shot is of a crucifix with scalps, beards or pubic hair, depending on your reading, nailed onto it and blowing in the wind.

The scorpions, as Robert Short's commentary points out, are symbolic of sexual desire, that which is entirely frustrated by the conventions of the Majorcan bourgeoisie and their veneer of sophistication and manners. The insect's five segmented body (described as 'prismatic' and therefore suggesting each of the five sections of the film reflects the other) is realised as the five sequences herein and its poisonous sting added in that final blasphemous transposition of Christ with de Sade and the adorned crucifix. The film's bite struck a nerve and it was effectively banned after a near-riot at a nighttime screening on December 3, 1930 at the Studio 28 theatre, in Montmartre, followed by a vociferous right-wing media campaign and complaints from the Italian ambassador.

The film's depiction of "impulse and inhibition" as the two lovers attempt congress exposes the suppression of paganistic sexuality and violent irrationality by civil society, by middle and upper classes and the church. It is probably the closest reflection of the Surrealist's revolutionary ambitions, released at the zenith of the movement's political success where Buñuel himself claimed, "the real purpose of Surrealism was not to create a new literary, artistic or even philosophical movement but to explode the social order to transform life itself."

It remains a Buñuel film, first and foremost, with Dalí distancing himself from the film and Buñuel not long after its completion, and the attacks on religion reflect similar material in later films such as Viridiana and The Exterminating Angel.

Special Features

Un Chien Andalou (1929, 16 minutes): the 1960 restoration
Buñuel's association with Dalí began in 1917 when he befriended a group of students at University of Madrid, including Dalí and poet Federico García Lorca, living in the Residencia de Estudiantes. The documentary included in this set A Propósito de Buñuel covers much of Buñuel's early development as a surrealist and film maker and provides a fascinating insight, through a number of interviews with contemporaries, into the friendships that developed. It also tells us that the development of what would become their first collaboration Un Chien Andalou was initially sparked by their dreams.

Buñuel, working for Jean Epstein at the time, told Dalí of his vision in which a cloud sliced the moon in half "like a razor blade slicing through an eye". Dalí's response was that he had dreamed about a hand crawling with ants. From these two images Un Chien Andalou expands into a montage of anti-establishment delight, a Freudian stream of consciousness where Buñuel and Dalí refuse to explain anything rationally while attacking authoritarianism and religion. As Buñuel attests in his autobiography My Last Breath, the undercurrent of sexual desire that floods into the film's imagery is based on guilt and the associations between sexual desire and the repression of it by the Roman Catholic church.

Un Chien Andalou opens with that still deeply arresting image of a man, played by Buñuel, slicing open a woman's (Simone Mareuil) eyeball with a razor and the graphic close up of this intercut with images of the moon bisected by cloud. This jolting image initiates the plethora of free association that continues with each apparently unconnected scene that follows, only interspersed with title cards such as "eight years later", "around three in the morning" and "sixteen years ago" that suggest a non-linear and non-temporal narrative. A man on a bicycle, wearing something similar to a nun's habit and carrying a box, is tended to by the same woman from the opening sequence after he falls off the bicycle. She is later seen lying out his clothes on a bed in her apartment and as she does he seemingly materialises out of nowhere. They both become fixated by the man's hand. It has a hole in it and ants begin to emerge from it.

This image is replaced by a close up of an armpit which then dissolves to an image of a sea urchin on a beach. We switch back to the apartment. Outside, in the street a woman has drawn an angry mob and the attention of the police as she pokes at a severed hand with a cane. The police remove the hand, placing it in the box the man on the bicycle was carrying, and the woman is is then run over by a car.

Watching from the apartment, the man obviously takes enormous pleasure at the woman's death. He seems to be sexually charged by the event and assaults the woman in the apartment. There is a shot of him fondling her breasts through her dress, dissolving to her nude breasts and then transposed by a shot of her buttocks. As she tries to defend herself and escape from his attentions, he picks ups ropes and attempts to drag two pianos, filled with dead donkeys, the tablets of the Ten Commandments and a pair of rather overwhelmed looking priests (played by Jaime Miravitilles and Salvador Dalí), across the room.
"nothing in this film symbolises anything" 
The relationship between the man and the woman continues to play out through the rest of the film. Another man arrives at the apartment and he is shot when the books that he hands to the man in the apartment turn into pistols. The dying man finds himself in a meadow, desperately clawing at a female nude which abruptly vanishes. When the woman comes into the apartment, she sees a death's head moth. There is a strange sequence where the man wipes away his mouth from his face and then makes the woman's armpit hair replace his missing mouth.

After the woman leaves the apartment, the street becomes a beach and she is seen walking arm in arm with another man, clearly romantically involved. However, the final scene reveals them presumably dead and buried in sand.

The film has provoked intense study and on this release is accompanied by a commentary from Robert Short who analyses the Freudian aspects of the imagery very thoroughly, offering a complex interpretation of what ostensibly is the story of a young couple attempting to fulfill their desire in the face of the repressive forces within society, particularly religion. In The Cinema of France, Philip Powrie sees the Surrealists attempting to show the "concrete manifestations of desire" in Un Chien Andalou as "a series of displacements and hallucinatory transformations which most accurately capture on screen the Surrealist 'free functioning of thought'."

Dalí's influence on the film can be seen in the recurring motifs of the hand and the ants. These symbols were already part and parcel of his repertoire as a painter prior to the creation of the film. As Powrie also points out much of the translucent or dissolving imagery also preempts "a number of other paintings (that) testify to Dalí's sustained preoccupation with notions of spectrality, with ghostly apparitions and transparency effects."

But then as Buñuel and Dalí insisted, "nothing in this film symbolises anything" and that's the nature of surrealism, its paradoxes setting out to reveal new realities, creating striking, often absurdist images, full of conflicting emotions and desires. The opening title of the film, "Once upon a time" seems to suggest that they concocted the film as a dark fairy tale to lure in and shock the intelligensia and the bourgeoisie of the period with images that fetishised bodies and objects, blurred the boundaries between male and female desire and subverted the rational and linear structure of narrative cinema.

Selected scenes commentary for L’ Age d’or by author and filmmaker Robert Short
Short, author of the books Dada and Surrealism and Surrealist Cinema, provides a brief overview of the film's themes that is more interested in the analytical rather than just presenting a basic 'making of' track. It is nonetheless a fascinating listen.
Alternative score for Un Chien Andalou by Mordant Music
An electronic score offered as an alternative to the original excerpts from Richard Wagner's Liebestod, the concert version of the finale to his opera Tristan und Isolde, and two Argentinian tangos that Buñuel played on a phonograph during the original 1929 screening. These were later added to the 1960 restoration presented on this disc. 
Commentary for Un Chien Andalou by Robert Short
Another fascinating track from Short that particularly focuses on the infamous opening sequence. Again, it does look at the Freudian aspects of the film in some detail and it does require some concentration to fully understand his analysis.
A Propósito de Buñuel (2000, 99 mins, DVD only)
The real jewel in this crown is this feature length documentary from José Luis López-Linares and Javier Rioyo. This is not a specific look at his films but more an appreciation of the man and the influences that came to bear on the films. It explores his relationship with organised religion and the bourgeoisie, his friendship with Jose Bello, Dali and Lorca and how other artists and writers influenced the director, particularly Cervantes, Goya and Velazquez. It certainly provides a memoir, that also includes his marriage to Jeanne Rucar, his sense of humour and penchant for martinis, rather than a complete overview of his films even though there are plenty of appropriately used clips. The only drawback is the lack of onscreen identification of the speakers and the clips used. Other than that, it's great.
Filmed introduction by Robert Short (25 mins, DVD only)
A direct to camera piece that provides a wealth of detail about the making of both films and how they were both received at the time. Lots of anecdotes, well delivered but visually very staid with Short on camera the entire time and no back up from clips or stills to make this more interesting as a viewed experience.
26-page illustrated booklet with essays from Robert Short, biographies of Buñuel and Dalí, the Manifesto of the Surrealists reproduced from the presentation at the 1930 screening of L'Age d'Or, Buñuel's notes on Un Chien Andalou and credits.

About the transfers
Considering their age and history, I don't think we're going to get anything better than this. The high definition transfers are made from, in the case of Un Chien Andalou a 16mm negative of the 1960 restoration and with L'Age d'Or from the restoration 35mm negative that received a clean-up, new grade and repair. Audio in both cases was re-sourced, with the former transfered from a 35mm print held at the BFI and the latter cleaned up from the restored elements.

Certainly both films still betray a lot of damage and wear and some stability issues but, again, considering how old they are and their survival, they are eminently watchable. L'Age d'Or certainly comes off best here and there is a surprising amount of depth in the high-definition image, resulting in some crisp, sharp imagery and solid contrast and detail. Un Chien Andalou is less defined in many sections, often quite fuzzy and suffering from more damage that its companion, but it can still surprise you with the clarity of some of its images. The contrast is not as consistent or as bold. Don't expect anything on the level of Eureka's Metropolis restoration here. However, this does represent a step up from the DVD editions and I'd be doubtful if better source prints for both films still exist after all this time.

Again, sound is of a reasonable quality but still subject to some minor distortion, crackle and hiss. The new score by Mordant Music for Un Chien Andalou is an interesting, moody and appropriately unnerving alternative to the original.

L'Age d'Or
France / Spain 1930
BFI Dual Blu-ray-DVD edition / BFIB1059 / Release date: 30 May 2011 / Cert 15 / black and white / French with optional English subtitles / 63 mins / original aspect ratio 1.19:1
Disc 1: BD25 /1080p / 24fps / PCM mono audio (48k/24-bit)
Disc 2: DVD9 / PAL / Dolby Digital 320kbps mono audio

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