Un Chien Andalou (1929)
Director: Luis Buñuel
Cast: Pierre Batcheff, Simone Mareuil
Runtime: 16 minutes
My Rating: ★★★★★
In Short: One of the most important movies in history
It is one of the most famous short films of all time. In my opinion, it is one of the greatest movies in existence. Some agree with me, some disagree vehemently. But one thing cannot be denied: it opens with one of the most famous images in cinema’s history, that of a calf’s eye being sliced by a razorblade. And from there, it only continues to dazzle, amaze, shock, frighten and intrigue viewers for sixteen precious minutes more.
You may be asking: what has prompted me to write an article about a film running only sixteen minutes? Well, recently I recommended the film to a coworker, who watched it and returned, bemused, to ask me: “What the hell was the point of that?” I smiled. Indeed. What is the point? Is there any point? I mulled it over for a while, watching it again and thinking about it. I soon realized what angered people about the movie was not so much its content, but that the director Luis Buñuel freely admitted that none of the images in the film meant anything at all. They all came straight out of the head of Buñuel and his friend Salvador Dalí from dreams they’d had or random thoughts their minds had drifted to. Unlike many other arthouse or avant-garde films that were to follow, there was no “symbolism,” no “hidden meaning,” no possible interpretation of any of it. Buñuel simply made it, as only he would dare at the time, because he didn’t give a fuck. So many films homage it today, but very few manage to succeed where it does: in crafting a compelling and interesting collage of randomness for no reason at all.
Buñuel famously said once that if he was given twenty years to live and asked how he would live them, he would reply: “Give me two hours a day in activity, and I’ll take the other twenty-two in dreams, so long as I can remember them.” This quote doesn’t surprise me at all, because so many of his films are crafted around dreaming. Some of his films consist of absolutely nothing but dream sequences (see The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, where scenes often end with the characters waking up from them), and many are so Surrealist in style that their content can only be attributed to dreaming. Later in his career, Buñuel began to use his films to provoke and anger people – particularly the middle and upper class, as well as the devoutly religious. In Simon of the Desert, he makes fun of religion by presenting a devoutly religious man who has devoted his entire life to God, only to give it all up in seconds for the temptation of modern life, for no reason other than the Devil has offered it to him. But the middle-upper class were a more common target: in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty, and The Exterminating Angel he put rich or pompous people in embarrassing situations they could not get out of, most famously in the latter of those three films, which sees a group of upper-class men and women finding themselves physically unable to leave a room despite the door being wide open. Sometimes his humour was subtle, but after presenting a series of subtly embarrassing situations in Discreet Charm, he grew tired of his creativity and hilariously concluded the movie with all his main characters being gunned down by a firing squad for no reason whatsoever.
You may ask what all this has to do with Un Chien Andalou. Well, I believe it’s important to establish Buñuel’s later career, his motifs and trademarks, to get closer to the man behind the earlier work. Un Chien Andalou, alongside its follow-up and “sequel” of sorts L’Age D’Or (which I’ll also be reviewing), showcase all of Buñuel’s most popular techniques just as they were beginning. In the early stages, we can sense the mayhem to come. Buñuel, as well as making his main characters feel uncomfortable as usual, also pokes fun at sexuality with a darkly comedic rape scene (Buñuel was perhaps the first person who could ever make rape funny), and the common romantic drama movie, by having his lead characters, just as they have begun a new life together, suddenly shown decomposing in the dirt.
The film opens with the image of none other than Buñuel himself, sharpening a razor (you can guess what’s coming up). After slicing the eyeball of the main character, we cut jarringly to a scene eight years later, where of course the woman whose eyeball was sliced is seen alive and well and with fully functional eyesight. What, you didn’t expect the film to make sense, did you? Admiring a transvestite nun on a bicycle, the Woman is shocked to see the cyclist collapse dead, and rushes to hug and kiss his corpse. Setting out his clothes on the bed, the Woman then stands next to the man as he examines his hand, from which ants are crawling. This is only the first four minutes of the movie, and I shall not reveal anything more. To describe the plot is to take away the pleasure of simply experiencing the movie. I still laugh when people tell me they don’t understand it, because many people today seem to be unable to comprehend that some movies just aren’t made to make sense, and to try and make sense of a Buñuel movie is an exercise in futility.
You simply have to be in it for the ride. Some people ask: “What makes this great? Anyone could do something like this.” True. But Buñuel was the first, and with this film he completely reinvented the independent cinema genre, providing inspiration for generations of filmmakers ahead of him. While perhaps the greatness of Buñuel’s second film L’Age D’Or is more appreciable (a film which ends with Jesus Christ exiting a brothel after raping prostitutes), Un Chien Andalou was where it all started, and where Buñuel’s skill is on full display. Consider this film was made by a young man in his 20s with no money, and that it changed the face of film forever. Consider that its images were unlike anything audiences had ever seen (how often in films from that era would filmmakers dare to show a man rubbing a woman’s bare breasts which inexplicably become her buttocks?). Consider that in sixteen minutes it managed to completely revolutionize non-studio based cinema. Not only did it reform a genre, it practically created one. Its influence is still seen in movies made today, despite the fact that at the time it was so unpopular Buñuel had to stand behind the screen with a bucket of stones to throw at cinemagoers in case they became agitated by it.
Luis Buñuel, is in my eyes, one of my cinematic idols, and one of the most daring, brilliant, important directors who has ever lived. With Un Chien Andalou, he brought his skill to the stage in full, uncensored form. Nothing was held back, everything was shown. Sure, Un Chien Andalou is relatively tame in comparison to his later films, but it is the all-important start, where all the ground work is laid and all the most important themes are introduced. From the eyeball slicing to the piano heaving to the haunting image of the death-head moth and everything else, Un Chien Andalou frightens, intimidates and challenges viewers with its raw power, skill and brilliance.
View Un Chien Andalou online here.