The BFI’s new Blu-ray release of Luis Buñuel’s L’âge d’or (1930) provides a comprehensive introduction to surrealist cinema. In addition to the 50-minute movie, the DVD includes Luis Buñuel’s shorter début film, Un chien andalou (1929), another collaboration with Salvador Dalí. These two titles are the most famous surrealist films ever made, but L’âge d’or was the only one that completely satisfied surrealist leader André Breton.
The DVD contains three other special features: a Spanish-produced documentary on Buñuel, a voice-over commentary on selected clips from L’âge d’or by Robert Short, and an introduction to surrealist cinema, also by Short, in the form of a talking-head lecture. The Spanish documentary gives a chronological survey of Buñuel’s life and career, and is enlivened by the variety of its contributors: it is composed entirely of anecdotes from the director’s friends, family and collaborators, with a few clips and quotations from the great man himself. While entertaining, the stories are also useful, as they shed light on the themes that dominate Buñuel’s entire oeuvre. Although many of the interviewees are recognisable from Buñuel’s films (Michel Piccoli and Angela Molina, for example), the documentary strangely fails to identify the contributors with the usual on-screen titles. The material from Robert Short suffers by comparison with this engaging documentary. Short’s contribution is informative, certainly: he assumes zero knowledge about surrealist cinema on the part of the audience, and provides all of the necessary material for a basic understanding of its history. He also offers relevant background details to the two films as well as some helpful interpretations. Still, Short’s style of expression is ill-suited to reading aloud and would have been far more enjoyable as liner notes.
L’âge d’or still holds an astonishing capacity to shock. The film’s male lead, Gaston Modot, kicks a puppy, slaps his prospective mother-in-law and knocks over a blind man. Co-star Lya Lys is introduced rolling in the mud with Modot, screeching with erotic pleasure; subsequently, she appears sitting on the toilet, sucking suggestively on the toe of a statue and reclining on a couch in post-masturbatory bliss. The film implies that society’s repressive attitude towards sex results in productive drives being sublimated into cruel and violent acts. The film also criticises the bourgeois for their selfishness: they are outraged by relatively minor affronts to people of their own class, but indifferent to true tragedies that befall their servants. While Un chien andalou, with its infamous eyeball-slicing sequence, is arguably the better-known of the two films, L’âge d’or succeeds where the surrealists felt that Un chien andalou failed. While the first movie was received with enthusiasm by the public, who didn’t bother trying to understand its dream-like images and missed its intended ‘call to murder’, L’âge d’or was banned for provoking far-right riots. The film’s attack on Dieu, famille, patrie had not been missed, and the surrealists basked in the ensuing scandal.