It was 80 years ago tomorrow that Luis Bunuel’s L’Age d’Or received its scandal-plagued world premiere in Paris. During the first screenings, fistfights broke out in the aisles and protesters threw ink at the screen. Surrealist paintings that had been commissioned to adorn the lobby especially for the occasion were vandalized. Within weeks, the film was banned by the French government and would not be seen again for many years. When L’Age d’Or belatedly premiered in the United States in the 1970s, it was still sufficiently shocking for Pauline Kael to label it “pornographically blasphemous,” strong language even if she did mean that as a compliment. When I’ve shown the film to students in Intro to Film classes, I’ve witnessed firsthand the power it still has to provoke and offend. This isn’t so much because of the content; after all, there’s not much in the way of “sex and violence” that kids today haven’t seen. Rather, it’s the ideas behind L’Age d’Or that are still shocking (and I suspect they always will be).
L’Age d’Or represents both the full flowering of Surrealist filmmaking as well as the artistic peak of Bunuel’s very own first golden age as a director. As a budding Surrealist, Bunuel had already made a mark on the cinema with his debut, the notorious, Salvador Dali co-scripted short film, Un Chien Andalou, in 1929. The end of this first phase of Bunuel’s career came all too soon, only three years later with the hilarious made-in-Spain pseudo-documentary, Land Without Bread. Unfortunately, it would then be another 15 years before Bunuel would direct under his own name again, when he emerged as an unlikely master of subversive Mexican melodramas. But luckily for lovers of the avante-garde, for one brief moment in Paris of 1930, the stars aligned, Bunuel found patronage in a wealthy Count and seized a narrow window of opportunity to make a deathless masterpiece for which the world wasn’t quite ready.
I often define a Surrealist film for my students as “a film that subverts the conventions of narrative continuity filmmaking through bizarre, dreamlike imagery and the destruction of narrative causality.” (I invented this definition because I couldn’t find another one that I found as useful.) Although L’Age d’Or fits the definition well, it also comes very close at times to imitating the kind of Hollywood narrative continuity conventions it is ultimately mocking, much more so than the nonsensically accessible Un Chien Andalou. I believe it is precisely this sense of familiarity, a feeling of being simultaneously so close to — and yet paradoxically so far away from — comprehending L’Age d’Or, that many viewers find unnerving.
L’Age d’Or does have a plot, of sorts; it’s about a man and a woman who are trying to make love and, for one reason or another, are continually prevented from doing so. The use of “interruption” as a narrative device would recur throughout Bunuel’s career, perhaps utilized most spectacularly in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. (In that sublime comedy, a group of people are, for various reasons, repeatedly prevented from eating dinner together.) But the narrative proper of L’Age d’Or is preceded by a prologue that many viewers find confusing; it begins as a documentary about scorpions. The narration of this crude-looking but real documentary footage tells us that the scorpion’s tail has five prismatic joints culminating in a final, poisonous stinger. The function of this prologue, aside from the fact that it’s bat-shit crazy in the best Surrealist tradition, is that it serves as a commentary on the structure of L’Age d’Or: Bunuel’s film also has five parts — the prologue, three “narrative segments” and an unexpected epilogue that serves as the director’s own poisonous stinger.
L’Age d’Or‘s second “segment” is an absurd story about the founding of Rome, where the rest of the movie will take place. When the third segment introduces us to the protagonists, the unnamed Man and Woman played by Gaston Modot and Lya Lys, we see them attempting to make love outside in broad daylight, writhing passionately in the mud. After being forcibly pried apart by members of respectable society, the third segment sees the Man taken away in police custody and the Woman forced to return home to her bourgeois family. While being dragged away, the man kicks a dog, steps on an insect and violently assaults a blind man. The Man and the Woman are reunited at her home in the fourth segment when he shows up at a party hosted by her parents. They venture outside together and attempt to make love in the garden but are again interrupted by a servant who informs the Man he has received a phone call inside. After the Man leaves the Woman to take the call, we see her alone in the garden, sublimating her desire by fellating the toe of a statue. Later, the Man sees the Woman turning her amorous attentions to another man, a much older orchestra conductor, which causes our hero to fly into a fit of rage. The fifth segment culminates with the Man returning inside and throwing things out of a second story window, including a bishop, a burning tree and a giraffe.
The epilogue follows and, even for a film full of dream logic, is a complete non-sequitur. It begins with a title card summarizing the plot of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, in which the depraved acts of a 120 day murderous orgy are described. Bunuel then cuts to the survivors of the orgy emerging from a castle, led by a man who bears a strong resemblance to Jesus Christ. One of the victims of the orgy, a young woman in a great deal of pain, emerges just behind them. The Christ figure turns to console her and leads her back inside the castle. We then hear the young woman scream, presumably for the final time, and see the Christ figure re-emerge from the castle alone. Bunuel then abruptly cuts to the film’s final shocking image, a crucifix with long scalps dangling from it, accompanied by a blast of triumphant, religious-sounding music. We can only assume the scalps belong to the female victims of the 120 day orgy.
Bunuel’s message is plain; we have repeatedly seen the consequences of sexual repression throughout the movie and how the stifling of one’s natural impulses can lead to violent repercussions. With the final scene implying that Jesus Christ is a serial rapist and murderer, Bunuel suggests that the Catholic church is the single most repressive institution of western civilization. Of course, no description of L’Age d’Or can do justice to watching it and luxuriating firsthand in Bunuel’s awesome cinematic poetry. The film may be “about” repression but the written language is incapable of explaining the soul-stirring quality of some of the film’s best moments. One of my favorites: the Woman sits in front of her bedroom mirror, inexplicably sees the reflection of a cloudy sky behind her and feels a gust of wind seemingly blow through the mirror. On the soundtrack, we (logically) hear the sound of the wind as well as (illogically) a cowbell and a dog barking, aural traces of earlier scenes that weave together and unify various threads from Bunuel’s mad anti-narrative.
I’ll end this post with my own non-sequitur, albeit one that’s more delicious than poisonous. From his wonderful memoir My Last Sigh here is Bunuel’s personal martini recipe:
“The day before your guests arrive, put all the ingredients – glasses, gin, and shaker – in the refrigerator. Use a thermometer to make sure the ice is about twenty degrees below zero (centigrade). Don’t take anything out until your friends arrive; then pour a few drops of Noilly Prat and half a demitasse spoon of Angostura bitters over the ice. Shake it, then pour it out, keeping only the ice, which retains a faint sense of both. Then pour straight gin over the ice, shake it again and serve.”