UN CHIEN ANDALOU
Surrealism, for all its inherent weirdness, can come close to poetry. Surrealist films are full of strange mixtures of images, situations, words and expressions that may not tell a cohesive story but, in the end, don't have to in order to achieve an emotional goal. UN CHIEN ANDALOU, the infamous 1929 short film from Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, attests to this. Bunuel once called this film a "desperate... passionate appeal to murder". That's about right. For all the analysis and critical dissection this film has endured through the years, no truer words have ever been spoken about the film than those of it's director. Every frame of UN CHIEN ANDALOU is seeped in insanity, obsession, aggression and fear. It's a potent film, a soup of subconscious longing, sexual anxiety and hatred. It is murder turned into poetry by the sheer will of it's creators.
No mere rundown of images will suffice here. This is a film that you must watch. A quick Google search will turn up dozens, if not hundreds, of pages where you can view it.
The film begins with a simple title card: "Once upon a time...". I think we all have some deep connection to that phrase. It is what begins every children's fable and every bedtime story. We instinctively think of the following phrase "... and they lived happily ever after" when we hear it. It is a comforting phrase but Bunuel's use of the it here is both ironic and, in hindsight, profoundly disquieting. From this beginning, we are launched into one of the most celebrated and discussed scenes in all of cinema. A man is seen sharpening a razor - importantly, in diagonal strokes - and then testing the blade on his own thumb. The actor playing the man is none other than Bunuel himself. He steps out on the balcony, a cigarette in his mouth, and looks at the moon. We are shown the face of a woman, her eyes fixed on us, the audience. A cloud bisects the moon and Bunuel cuts to a close-up of the woman's eye, the razor blade slicing through it. With this single shot, Bunuel has placed UN CHIEN ANDALOU in it's proper context. What we are going to see is an assault not only on our "good taste" but on our vision and the way we watch film. This still-shocking scene is a perfect summary of UN CHIEN ANDALOU and a perfectly fitting introduction to a director who would consistently challenge his audience's movie going expectations for decades.
A psychoanalytical reading of UN CHIEN ANDALOU will produce the best possible interpretation of the film but you don't need to be a psychologist to understand the majority of the symbolism on display in the film. It is a film obviously preoccupied with sexual anxiety and, more importantly, the male fear of impotency and castration. This is a film designed from a male perspective. It contains only two characters of any real importance, one Man and one Woman. The film is essentially a serious of confrontations between the two. The first time we see the Man, he is dressed in a frilly outfit riding a bicycle down the street. For no discernable reason, he collapses and the Woman takes from him his outfit and a strange box - decorated with diagonal lines, a motif that represents aggression in the film. She lays the outfit on the bed and watches, as if waiting for the Man to materialize. When he finally appears, it isn't on the bed. The Man is seen standing in the room, staring at his hand. There is a hole in his palm, ants swarming out of the wound. From a close-up of the Man's mutilated hand, we spring into a series of dissolves - a close-up of the hand dissolves into a close-up of a woman's hairy armpit which dissolves to a shot of a sea urchin which dissolves to an iris-out from a close-up of the top of a woman's head. Transitions like this belie Bunuel's use of montage in the film. There is no indication of where we are going or if what we're seeing directly relates to the previous scene at all - Bunuel's random interjection of title cards stating "Eight years later..." and "Three in the morning..." confuses us further, our entire grasp on setting and time frame collapsing around us.
From this scene we move to an androgynous woman standing in the middle of the street. She is prodding a severed hand with a stick. A policeman picks up the hand and places it into the Man's box, now held by the androgynous woman. She holds it against her chest. A moment later, while the Man and Woman watch from a window - or at least appear to watch; the montage in this film is not to be trusted - as the androgynous woman is run over by a car. The Man has been watching in a kind of savage anticipation. Once the accident occurs, the Man turns to the Woman and begins to assault her. He fondles her breasts, eyes rolled up, mouth dribbling blood, caught in extreme ecstacy. She eventually forces him away and threatens him with a tennis racket. The Man advances but backs away when he sees she means business. Defeated, he grabs two lengths of rope and pulls. Tied to the center of the ropes are two priests. Further down the line, two dead mules are draped over a pair of pianos. The Woman finally runs off into another room and the Man tries to stop her. He screams as she catches his hand in the door.
These are only the first two scenes of UN CHIEN ANDALOU and already we have a film that makes little to no sense in the way most films do, even though UN CHIEN ANDALOU uses the same techniques - montage, composition, mise en scene - as virtually every other film ever made. If we can't quite tell who is who and what their motivations and relationships are, it is because we are not given the whole story. Our expectations are, like those of the Man in the film, constantly frustrated.
Sexual symbolism is everywhere in the film. From the image of the cloud bisecting the moon - a classic symbol of virginity - to the tie taken from inside the dead man's box, Bunuel loads each scene in UN CHIEN ANDALOU with phallic references. Books, guns and severed hands all fill in for the Man's preoccupation with sexual domination. That isn't to say that all of the symbolism in the film is sexual in nature. What of the pianos, priests and dead mules that the Man is seen dragging across the floor? I suppose the two dead mules, each missing an eye, can stand in for breasts but I find that rather reaching. That load he is dragging seems to be more representative of his possible past - study, religion and work - than another sexual symbol. Regardless, the cumulative effect of the scene, a mixture of passion, revulsion, eroticism and terror, outweighs the importance of the symbolism or the audience's ability to grasp it. For all it's inherent psychological depth, UN CHIEN ANDALOU is a total film experience and no strenuous effort need be made to experience it's perfection.
I must admit that while I have seen UN CHIEN ANDALOU dozens of times - perhaps even a hundred or more - since my teenage years, I am far from close to decoding the film, if such a thing is even possible. It remains to me as much of a mystery now as it did when I first saw it but my reaction remains virtually the same. When I first saw the film, I was disgusted and disturbed. Today, my disgust is lessened - though the sliced eyeball still makes me wince every time - and the disturbing attributes of the film have been weakened by my exposure to some of the most cruel, inhumane and disheartening films ever made. But the film still makes me want to lock myself in my room and hide under the sheets in despair. It is one of the most remarkably powerful films ever made, a total enigma created by two artists at the height of the powers.