L’Age d’Or (1930, Luis Buñuel)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
Going in to your first viewing of Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel’s L’Age d’Or (“The Golden Age”) is a little intimidating: its reputation is made overwhelmingly by people who have found it offensive. This includes people in my own life who’ve seen it; the lone opinion offered directly to me came from a college student I worked with who informed me some years back that it was the “worst piece of shit” he’d had to sit through during film classes. Most people don’t talk much about the quality of the movie, just about its aggressive visual anti-religion tirades, its apparent implication of Jesus as a serial rapist, its still-surprising sexuality, its use of toilets as a major plot (?) point, and of course, its perceived senselessness.
L’Age d’Or is a pure surrealist film, an element that gives the project much of its feeling of protest; it’s disturbing and hard to shake because it cuts so much deeper thanks to its ambiguity than a direct attack on the bourgeois, on societal normalcy, on art, on pretension, on pretty much everything except raw sexuality, which is plugged more or less wholeheartedly. I don’t think it says anything about a person if they are incapable of appreciating something avant garde. I like surrealism and dadaism in every medium (they were 100% my “way in” to Fine Art, about which I’m still and will likely always be a neophyte), partially because they play to my sense of humor. Exploring online (non-scholarly) reactions to L’Age d’Or, I’m pleased to see I’m not the only one who finds it extremely funny. Probably what I feel is missed about abstract things is how inherently hilarious they are.
But in film, it’s different. I’m no subscriber to the “story is a promise” school, but I do feel that film is so thoroughly in control of the senses of its audience for such a long time that pure surrealism is something that works best in short films rather than features, because a feature requires an investment on the part of those watching that total avant garde cannot possibly return. Hence, the film that precedes L’Age d’Or, the classic short film (one of the greatest live action shorts ever made) Un Chien Andalou, is an undeniable masterwork, exciting and beautifully ugly and phantasmagoric. [2017 note: Un Chien is discussed at some length in my silent canon essay.] But it’s also sixteen minutes, including credits; the simultaneous brutality and novelty (and yeah, I know Dali and Buñuel would hate to hear someone calling it “novelty”, just as dadaists would hate me calling their work “fine art”) doesn’t have time to wear out its welcome.
L’Age d’Or is a feature length version of similar ideas that goes on for a full hour. Like Un Chien, it toys with scarcely connected images and stirs up emotional — irrational — reactions in the audience. What’s weird and wonderful about the feature and the way it works with its greater length is that it begins to take a kind of organic shape, to lead the audience — with many false starts and false endings — through a story that is hinted at, a fully formed tale told through vague, silent faces and symbols, a story that is forced by the film to work within its own dreamlike logic, to therefore endear itself to the spectator in the least expected — and most provocative and sublime — ways. The result is staggering: a movie that insists on defying convention but nevertheless manages to meet the crowd on its own unusual terms.
Amid all the attacks on conformity, aristocracy, and faith, there’s a sort-of-romantic story being told of a boy and girl who basically want really badly to fuck, and keep being distracted by every imaginable annoyance of the modern world. All this is merely implied — maybe I’m filling in more blanks than I should, even — but it results in some extraordinarily beautiful, comic and sensual moments in the most unlikely of places. A lot of L’Age d’Or is, to be fair, what you expect: amusingly far-out images, some with obvious sociopolitical commentary and some without, from the priceless image of a cow in the bed to the maid on fire to Jesus or, hell, the Duke of Blagis, reenacting “The 120 Days of Sodom” and scalping women.
But then there are these moments when Buñuel seems to be arriving at some kind of cinematic perfection outside of any given label that might be applied (including avant garde) except pure cinema. The silent moments of yearning between the young couple, the beauty of Lya Lys’ obvious passion, offsetting the relentless temper of her man (Gaston Modot)… this is what Hitchcock meant when he talked about shutting off all the bells and whistles and concentrating on how the moving picture can directly impact emotion. With barely any script or noise (aside from the “Tristan and Isolde” extract playing in the background), Buñuel does it here; a number of these moments are inescapably moving.
And a number of others are shockingly erotic. This screenshot of Lys sucking off a religious statue’s foot only tells a fraction of the story of the scene in which the lovers finally consummate (or come as close as they’re allowed to). He is called away for a moment, is none too happy about it, and leaves Lya alone in the garden. She turns immediately and starts to fellate the statue, and I do mean fellate; this is not the ice cream scene in Strangers on a Train, this is actual oral sex happening, maybe something dirtier still. You can’t really sense it up there but I mean, she is making all the moves on this thing, with tongue and lip and actual sucking. (Not surprisingly, Buñuel apparently had a foot fetish.) It’s almost sexually indistinct, halfway between fellatio and cunnilingus. Since even Buñuel wasn’t able to show the couple getting down to it, I suppose this was his way of representing it, or it may just be another razing of the spirit/flesh wall; whatever the case, it’s striking, and almost pornographic (which I mean as a compliment, and just for future reference you can pretty much assume the same whenever I say that), and hysterical to boot. Buñuel cuts upward for a reaction shot of the statue in probably the best joke in a picture with many good ones. (Runner-up is the cheerful music that plays underneath the closing moment of a cross adorned with scalps shown at an ominous angle before the “FIN” title card.)
1930, the year L’Age d’Or was released, was only the second year of truly widespread use of sound in film; this is usually obvious in watching the film, but that isn’t always a criticism. What little dialogue that exists is entirely unnecessary; all of the great scenes in the picture are silent, at least in the sense that nothing is being said. But the music — some of it reprised from Un Chien — is perfect, and more importantly, the use of sound itself is on a higher level than anything that was being done in the U.S. at the time, and really most of what’s being done now. In 1930, sound was primitive, but it was being used the way it should have been, as a complement to the story, not a replacement for visuals in method of storytelling. Blackmail is one of the few good examples of sound adding to cinema instead of simply breaking it down; there have been a few since the ’30s, with The Conversation coming immediately to mind, but in general cinema has never been quite the same kind of art as it was in the silent period, and only very rarely has anything on a level with the purity of the best moments of L’Age d’Or been seen anywhere in the world. In this film, sound becomes a part of the game, an element of the surreal bag of tricks, as noises are manipulated, reprised, made rhythmic, made nightmarish, used to mislead and disorient, made as much a function of the ideas of the movie as any of its visual touchstones.
Don’t let me or anybody convince you before seeing L’Age d’Or that it’s some crowd-pleasing plot-driven masterpiece. It’s still an extremely arbitrary movie by its very nature; it still includes, after all, a long sequence of a man kicking a violin down the street and stomping on it, several shots of skeletons in priest getup, as well as six or seven minutes of a nature documentary about scorpions (which opens the movie). But while it’s technically a feature, it’s short enough that I don’t think anybody who can appreciate avant garde film wouldn’t enjoy it on its own terms… and at those scattered moments when the buttons are pushed and the film manages to bring us to an unheard-of emotional level for people we know nothing about except as surrealist pawns, it could have an impact on most anyone; it’s in this way that it truly builds on a film vernacular, very different from Un Chien but equally fascinating in quite a few ways, and obviously a vitally important opening act for master-to-be Buñuel as a feature filmmaker. The best compliment I can pay to L’Age d’Or is that I wasn’t infuriated or pestered or frightened by it at all. In fact, I found it to be lots of fun. But it’s fair to say that Dali and Buñuel might not have taken that as a compliment.
[This review was originally written and posted when I first saw the film in 2007, reproduced here with only minute changes.]