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If you've seen Un Chien andalou (1929), it's unlikely you've ever forgotten the experience. If you haven't seen it, prepare yourself for one of strangest, craziest, most darkly fascinating movies of all time.
To begin with the basics, Un Chien andalou is not the sort of film you'd expect to become an acclaimed masterpiece. It's a silent movie, about sixteen minutes long, and carefully constructed so that nothing in it makes sense. That includes the title, which means "an Andalusian dog," even though the film has nothing to do with Andalusia and there isn't a dog in sight. In all, it sounds like a scenario for disaster. Yet this unique work, first shown in 1929 to a mix of enthusiastic cheers and outraged boos, stands as a towering classic of world cinema, still explored and enjoyed by movie buffs far and wide. Roger Ebert called it "the most famous short film ever made," adding that "anyone halfway interested in the cinema sees it sooner or later, usually several times."
For newcomers and experts alike, Un Chien andalou is best approached by way of its director, Luis Buuel, who wrote the film with painter Salvador Dal, another Spaniard with an inimitable style. Buuel and Dal are the most famous advocates of surrealism, the enormously important artistic movement that commenced in the 1920s and influences filmmakers (David Lynch, Harmony Korine) and artists (Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons) to this day. Surrealists want to bypass logical, everyday thinking in order to express the vast realms of experience - passions, obsessions, extremes of love, hate, hope, fear - that reason and rationality can't fully account for, much less tame or control. Dal did this by painting hallucinatory visions (melted watches, a sphinx with Shirley Temple's head) and sporting a mustache that looks like a lethal weapon. Buuel did it by directing dozens of films that attack commonsensical values and conventions with ferocious glee.
Like other surrealist works, Un Chien andalou was inspired by the world of dreams. Asked how the film originated, Buuel recalled a conversation with Dal in 1928, when they decided to make a film together. Dal said, "Last night I dreamed about ants swarming in my hand." Buuel replied, "Well, I dreamed that I sliced someone's eye open." With those key images settled, they wrote the entire script in six days, according to Buuel, "systematically rejecting anything that emerged from our culture or education." Buuel recruited Pierre Batcheff and Simone Mareuil to play the Man and Woman in the film, and he played the Man with the Razor himself. He financed the production by asking his mother for money.
Buuel shot the opening scene first because he considered it the easiest, and probably because he knew it would be instantly notorious. The Man with the Razor is sharpening his blade on a balcony. Approaching the Woman from behind, he places the razor in front of her face, holding her eye open with his other hand. In a shot of the nighttime sky, we see a sliver of cloud moving across the moon, symbolizing the ghastly event we were afraid we'd actually see. But then we do see it, with nightmare clarity, in a tight close-up: the razor slashes the eye exactly as in Buuel's dream, demolishing our old, established ways of seeing with one of cinema's most audacious acts of creative destruction.
Later we see Dal's dream image of a man staring at ants swarming in and out of a hole in his hand, and another iconic moment comes soon afterward. Sexually aroused by seeing a fatal accident through a window, the Man starts molesting the Woman - in startlingly explicit images - and the Woman gets away, grabbing a tennis racket to fend him off. With a confident smirk, the Man reaches to the floor, grasps the ends of two ropes, and hauls something in the Woman's direction - a pair of grand pianos with dead donkeys stuffed inside and two bewildered-looking seminarians tied below. This is ultra-surrealistic by any standard, and if you're as bewildered as the tied-up divinity students, you have lots of company; but it's incredibly powerful nonetheless. As critic Ado Kyrou wrote, Buuel successfully captures "a glimpse of that incandescent world in which dream and reality mingle in a magnificent gesture of liberation" from the limitations and imitations of ordinary life.
All of Buuel's films are spiced with humor, as he enjoyed pointing out. Un Chien andalou is no exception; watch the Man do a pratfall when he tries to pull those grand pianos, for instance. Even the opening scene is something of a joke: watch closely and you'll see that an animal's cadaver is used for the eye-slicing shot, with no attempt by Buuel to hide the substitution. As for the music, at an early showing Buuel played amusingly random pieces on a phonograph - oscillating between an Argentine tango and the "Liebestod" from Richard Wagner's opera Tristan and Isolde - that are now considered the official soundtrack. Notice also how the film's seemingly nonsensical structure contains a witty satire of conventional movies, with arbitrary intertitles ("Once upon a time," "Sixteen years ago") and a scene where an incongruous action - the Woman throwing someone's possessions out a window, one by one - is shown in a shot-countershot sequence right out of the commercial-film playbook. And don't miss the doorbell button that activates disembodied hands jiggling a cocktail shaker!
Buuel followed Un Chien andalou with the feature-length L'ge d'or (The Age of Gold, 1930), a slightly more linear mlange of odd characters and bizarre incidents. He then spent decades making extraordinary films in France, Spain, and Mexico, earning Academy Award nominations with two of them - The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), which won the Oscar® for Best Foreign-Language picture, and his last film, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). He never wavered from his loyalty to surrealism, even though the French Surrealists put him on trial for allowing the script of Un Chien andalou to be published in a movie magazine!
Un Chien andalou thus launched one of the most fertile and uncompromising careers in all of cinema. If you insist on giving it a coherent meaning, you can't do better than French critic Freddy Buache, who called it a movie about the magic of passion, which "sweeps away all the constraints normally imposed by time and space, eternalizes the moment, brings places closer or takes them farther away, reduces the universe and the passage of years to the unique delights of pleasure granted." That beautifully sums up a film that has as much power to shock, awe, astonish, and amuse on the fiftieth viewing as on the first.
Director: Luis Buuel
Producer: Luis Buuel
Screenplay: Salvador Dal, Luis Buuel
Film Editing: Luis Buuel
With: Simone Mareuil (Woman), Pierre Batcheff (Man), Fano Messan (Woman in Street), Robert Hommet (Man on Bicycle), Marval (Seminarian), Salvador Dal (Seminarian), Luis Buuel (Man with the Razor)
by David Sterritt