Director Luis Buñuel and famed artist Salvador Dalí had a surprise success when they collaborated to produce the silent surrealist short Un Chien Andalou in 1929. That film utilized the logic and imagery of dreams to create a 16 minute string of fractured, meaningless moments punctuated by confrontational bursts of violence, lust, and absurdity. Using the short as a springboard, Buñuel and Dalí attempted to pull together a more ambitious film for their second and final collaboration: L’Age d’Or (The Golden Age, 1930). Not only is L’Age d’Or a full length feature film, but it is also an early sound movie — in fact, it is the oldest sound movie in the Sight and Sound Top 250. Unlike Un Chien Andalou, L’Age d’Or has a plot of sorts, or at least something reasonably resembling an overall story, but it is ultimately a fool’s errand to try to make sense of the film’s internal logic (or for us to bother writing up a summary), as it is also loaded with dream imagery, strange manipulations of time, and scenes meant to do nothing but shock and confuse. (62 min.)
J. – Oh dear… This one is a toughie. Un Chien Andalou isn’t among my favorites when considering the Sight & Sound films we have seen so far, but I did enjoy it a great deal. I thought it was wonderfully daring, silly, and visually clever. However, I mentioned in our yammer about Un Chien Andalou that I was dubious of the prospect of maintaining that kind of disjointed weirdness over the length of a feature film, and I feel my fear was at least partly justified when watching L’Age d’Or. An hour apparently is too long to be hit with non sequiturs, but I think my review of L’Age d’Or has to be more damning that that. There really wasn’t anything in the film that lived up to the inventiveness and daring of Un Chien Andalou, so it was ultimately, dare I say it, dull.
You really didn’t care for Un Chien Andalou, S. So this film must have been particularly painful.
S. – I went in with quite low expectations and still came out disappointed. The highlights of the previous collaboration for me were some really well executed effects, unfortunately the mind-bending visuals were thin on the ground in this film. There were a few moments when there was a glimpse of something shocking or bizarre that gave you a little jolt but such bursts of energy were diluted out by many rather pointless and boring scenes. As you acknowledged in the intro there are scraps of a narrative woven into L’Age d’Or but it failed to make the film any more engaging. Curiously it appeared that Buñuel and Dalí had a larger budget to work with but this didn’t translate into a more interesting movie. One of the major themes was the clumsily lustful and socially inappropriate behaviour of the two main characters. At the time it was filmed perhaps these scenes added greater shock value to the piece but now they just seem slightly odd.
J. – I think it is fair to say they were more than slightly odd. Certainly having the leading man (Gaston Modot, who would later appear in Jean Renoir’s 1930s films) suddenly have severe facial lacerations as he droned out “Mi amour” was genuinely disturbing and Lya Lys sucking on the toe of a statue (fellatitoe?) was extremely sexually charged — and creepy. In general the movie was far more sexually forward than any other movie I’ve seen from the day, and that undoubtedly was shocking for the time. There was nothing chaste or heroic about the two lovers, it was all animal longing and some seriously bumbling foreplay. I can’t say I was shocked, but I would go with surprised. However, I also wasn’t engaged. This may be because while the movie was über-amped with sexual desire, by expressing it in so bizarre a fashion it ultimately was ducking those urges even more than the coy innuendo or asexual blandness of Production Code-era Hollywood.
I totally agree with you, S., that the increased budget didn’t seem to do much for boosting the creativity. The effects and odd juxtapositions the pair came up with for Un Chien Andalou were leagues better even if they all took place in a crappy apartment rather than the grand villa that housed much of this film. Is it more expensive to put a cow in the bed of a massive mansion? Yeah sure. But (to stick with livestock) is it as compelling as a man dragging dead donkey pianos? Nope.
But before we badmouth it too much, S., were there any aspects of the film that you enjoyed?
S. – I did find some humour in the determination of the lead character to behave in a socially inappropriate manner whenever the opportunity arose. His breaking free of two burly men to go and kick a little white dog and later not being content to just steal a taxi from a blind man but finding it necessary to assault him first both had a Monty Python element to them which was amusing. The effect of a mirror transforming into a window of sky complete with a breeze that ruffled Lya Lys’ hair was very well executed. Many other bizarre scenarios were constructed but I can only think of a few examples where the impact was lasting. This leaves me struggling with how the film made it onto the Sight & Sound list. What am I missing here?
J. – Monty Python really is an excellent comparison to this movie. There was a whole lot of stuff in here that felt very much like it was out of a Monty Python sketch, only not as funny — the bit with the blind man was particularly Pythonesque (but again, not as funny). The Python comparison might also explain why so many elements of the film didn’t feel as shocking or absurd as perhaps they did in 1930; we’ve internalized some pretty silly on screen behavior since that time. Although I think the real problem with this film was that it was predictable. I knew he was going to kick the blind man; I knew the man would gun down the child. You might not be able to predict what the next scene was going to be about, but each scene as it unfolded was simple to see through. I didn’t feel this way about Un Chien Andalou where it was always impossible to know what was going to happen next, and consequently was genuinely surprising and shocking.
But enough knocking the film for the moment. I did enjoy Gaston Modot’s uncontrollable violence; I got a great laugh out of the scene with the dog. The scene with the mirror that you mentioned was genuinely beautiful and moving. And I really loved the short sequence where the man shot himself so that his body ended up on the ceiling — a great series of visuals. I also found it fascinating what they did with sound. Given that this is one of the first sound films made in France, it was remarkable to see how Buñuel took this new technology and immediately “misapplied” it: having characters give speeches that very obviously don’t match their mouth movements, having a cow go off screen but then have the sound of its bell become increasingly loud and almost like a windchime. I rather appreciated those bits of inventiveness.
S. – I agree the way sound was used was innovative, for me it just didn’t add anything interesting or worthwhile. So do you get a place on the list just for being first to demonstrate a new idea or technique? I would hope the execution of the innovation was a necessary part of being honoured for your contribution. For instance Nosferatu the film was only mediocre but the character of the vampire, not only in concept but in the style portrayed, has had a lasting influence on cinema. Perhaps it is the creation of a subversive type of physical comedy, a form which has become so familiar and evolved through so many iterations, that is the lasting contribution of L’Age d’Or. I found this movie tolerable at best, however the antics of the Monty Python ensemble and other purveyors of absurd sketch comedy clearly have L’Age d’Or overtones, and these I enjoy immensely. Nevertheless I had to dig deep to find the value of this 62 minutes and I’m still not convinced that I’m just grasping at straws. We will run into Buñuel’s work again during our Sight & Sound quest but it will be after a long hiatus (two decades!) and without Dali in tow, I am curious to see what he has for us.
J. – I think I am more inclined than you to give props for a film being the first to do something — maybe it’s my fascination with ancient history or a childhood hunting down rookie cards in packs of Topps baseball cards. Even so, we have already witnessed moments where I believe undue weight has been given on the Sight & Sound list to the “being first” element. Nosferatu is a perfect example. We both agree (and I would imagine most people would concur) that The Last Laugh is a far better Murnau movie — no contest better. Yet it falls below Nosferatu on the Sight & Sound list, and it is hard to imagine this is for any reason other than Nosferatu being older and featuring an iconic first for the horror genre.
This raises some interesting questions of what it means to be great. Is it enough to be great or innovative for your time, or does that greatness need to remain readily apparent in the distant future (aka, our present)? And can one powerfully lasting element elevate an artwork to greatness despite the vast majority of the piece being downright mediocre? I’m inclined to say that greatness ideally involves immediate and lasting impact, but that the focus ultimately needs to be on the latter. But whatever my thoughts on this divide, L’Age d’Or isn’t going to end up anywhere near my list of favorites. But conversely, I’m glad I saw it… purple monkey dishwasher.