By Ezra Stead
Un Chien Andalou, Spain, 1929
Directed by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali
One film that many of us have struggled for years to “get” (perhaps against the wishes of its makers) is Un Chien Andalou, the 1929 collaboration between Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali. The two notorious surrealists apparently couldn’t have been happier that their work confounded so many viewers at the time of its release, and it continues to do so today. According to Bunuel himself, “NOTHING, in the film, SYMBOLIZES ANYTHING”; if one breaks this sentence down: “NOTHING … SYMBOLIZES ANYTHING,” the truth of the film is revealed: the images, which consciously represent NOTHING coherent or rational, can SYMBOLIZE ANYTHING to any individual viewer.
Therefore, the following is one viewer’s interpretation, supplemented by the ideas of a few others, in an attempt to find a logical narrative thread in a film whose stated purpose is to have none. It is recommended that the reader see the film at least a few times for him or herself before continuing; this is much less a review of the film than a careful analysis of every image contained therein.
The film’s structure, even from the very opening title, is misleading and disorientating. Un Chien Andalou, which literally translates as An Andalusian Dog, takes place in Paris and contains no dog, nor even mentions one outside the title. This title and the opening scene quickly shatter any expectations the audience might have.
Upon repeat viewings, one begins to see that this entire film represents a dream in the mind of a real-life, modern-day Oedipus, as embodied by the film’s protagonist (Pierre Batcheff). After the inter-title: “Once upon a time,” we see a man, played by Bunuel, whetting his straight-razor. This man is the protagonist’s father. What follows is one of the most horrifying images in cinematic history. As the protagonist’s father holds the razor up to the eye of the protagonist’s mother (Simonne Mareuil), he looks to the moon to see a thin cloud slicing across its surface. Just as the audience is seemingly spared the gruesomeness of the actual event by this visual metaphor, the razor slices the eye (actually a donkey’s) in close-up, spilling its jelly-like contents. This symbolizes the father’s extraction from the mother of the truth about she and her son, which we see as the film progresses.
The following inter-title, “Eight years later,” shows the out-of-control nature of time within the protagonist’s dream. We are introduced to him as an overgrown child in a man’s body, riding his bicycle down the street with a striped box tied around his neck. The film slowly dissolves from a shot of the city streets to the protagonist riding and back again; this indicates a lapse in time, showing that he has traveled a long way, but also has a wonderfully disorienting effect. Time and space are not to be trusted in a dream.
When the protagonist falls off his bike, dropping his striped box, the innocence of his childhood is symbolically lost. His mother runs to his aid and brings him upstairs, where she lays out the contents of the box: his childhood school clothes. She sits looking at them, symbolically reminiscing about her son as an innocent child. Her reverie is destroyed when she sees her son in the corner, staring at his hand; a close-up reveals ants crawling out of the palm. A common visual metaphor in Dali’s paintings, this signifies that she has caught her son masturbating; the shock on her face upon seeing the ants echoes his shame at the discovery.
The mother’s armpit, as seen by the protagonist, is a metaphor for her pubis. The protagonist develops a sexual fixation on this; the subsequent dissolve to a sea urchin foreshadows the film’s ending, which takes place on a beach: the overriding emotion of this ending is a tragic sense of loss. By dissolving from a sexual image to one that evokes this, the film shows the protagonist’s underlying fear of sex, a theme that was very prevalent in the life and work of both Dali and Bunuel.
The hand lying in the street represents the protagonist’s hand, the source of his masturbatory shame, which in turn is a representation of his burgeoning sexuality; he is excited when it is explored by another, the androgynous person who pokes the hand with a stick. The androgyny of this character is the first hint we see of the protagonist’s possible latent bisexuality. When the gendarme gives this person the hand, inside the same striped box seen earlier in the film, it signifies the protagonist’s acceptance of this person as a lover and friend; he is giving both his innocence and his new-found sexuality to her/him. When the androgynous person is struck and killed by the car, we see the protagonist’s desire denied, sending him back to early Oedipal desires. However, the protagonist sees the cars coming and is greatly excited; he wants this person to be killed before his eyes. This signifies the protagonist’s – and, by extension, all humanity’s – love of and desire for violence. The inherent violence in the protagonist’s Oedipal manifestations is part of who he is.
When the protagonist begins to sexually assault his mother, she resists at first, then gradually gives in, showing the aggressive-submissive nature of human sexual relationships in general. When he does begin to caress her breasts, he visualizes buttocks, signifying the elements of fantasy and displacement in human sexuality, as well as possibly hinting again at homosexual desires within the protagonist (it is impossible to tell whether the buttocks are male or female). As he does this, his eyes roll back in his head, symbolizing both the blindness aspect of the Oedipal myth and the more modern myth that masturbation causes blindness. The opening eye-slicing sequence can be seen as foreshadowing of this, and the motif is repeated in the blindness of the dead donkeys seen at this point.
The additional symbolism of the donkeys is not immediately apparent, even to the filmmakers, for whom they represent a shared image dating back to their individual childhood discoveries of rotting donkey carcasses, according to French writer Georges Bataille in an essay found in his book Visions of Excess. But despite this mutual obsession and the supposed lack of symbolism in the film, the religious metaphor of this sequence is pretty obvious: the protagonist is dragging two tablets (the Ten Commandments) which are tied to two priests (the arbiters of religion), which are in turn tied to two Grand pianos with dead and blinded donkeys on them. As the protagonist struggles to reach his mother and satisfy his Oedipal desires, he is burdened by Christian morality, exemplified by the tablets and the priests, and even more so by traditional culture and classical civilization, exemplified by the pianos; the “decomposing ass-cadavers,” as Bataille dubbed them, show how the filmmakers feel about these kind of values.
At this point a male figure, representing the protagonist’s father, bursts in and begins berating the protagonist. He destroys the last vestiges of the protagonist’s innocence by throwing the contents of his striped box out the window. After the inter-title: “Sixteen years before,” the scene continues without a change, again showing the untrustworthy nature of time in the dream-world of the film, but also indicating the childlike nature of this part of the dream; the protagonist is being unwillingly forced into manhood. When the protagonist’s father turns to the camera after the inter-title, we see that he and the protagonist are actually one and the same person. By sleeping with his mother, the protagonist has symbolically become his father.
When the protagonist’s father hands him the book and pen, the protagonist shows a child’s aversion to the first day of school, but these objects also symbolize knowledge. When they turn into guns in the protagonist’s hands, it can be inferred that they represent knowledge of the Oedipal prophecy, which facilitates its fulfillment; this is an inversion of the original story, in which it is Oedipus’s ignorance that brings about the prophecy’s fulfillment.
When the protagonist shoots his father, the father falls out of the scene and into a field, collapsing against the back of a nude woman. This woman represents the wife he has lost to his own son, his dying realization. When the men in the field find his body, we are witness to perhaps the only literal scene in the film: this is the protagonist’s dreaming remembrance of the discovery of his crime. It is uncertain how or why this murder actually came about, but the relatively realistic nature of the scene, coupled with the fact that we never see the men in the field before or after this, leads one to believe that it is at least an interpretation of a real-life episode.
Immediately following this, the protagonist appears as a specter of murder and incest before his mother. As he materializes out of thin air, she is staring at a “death’s head” moth, symbolizing the transformation she is going through as a result of her sexual encounter with her son. The specter appears to know what she is contemplating, and he covers his mouth with his hand, as if to say, “Tell no one.” When he removes his hand, his mouth has disappeared as well, emphasizing the point. She defies him by putting on lipstick, as if to say, “I’ll tell who I please.” He then reminds her of the incestuous incident by growing her armpit hair where his mouth was, symbolic of cunnilingus. She is shocked and runs out of the house; the childish defiance of sticking her tongue out at him shows that this is still his dream, probably based on a real-life confrontation between himself and his mother.
When the protagonist’s mother seduces the young man on the beach, we see the transformation already hinted at by the moth: because of her sexual encounter with her son, she now seeks a surrogate for him in the form of this boyish youth. Like the protagonist, this youth seems both shy and aggressive, as seen by his reticent manner when she first approaches him, followed by a shot in which he shows her the time on his watch (another obsession of Dali’s) his fist close to her face as though he is striking her. She gently puts his hand down and finally manages to hook him with a kiss, then they walk along the beach together. They find the protagonist’s childhood clothes and the youth throws them into the sea; thus, the very last vestiges of the protagonist’s innocence are gone, destroyed by his own surrogate, a direct result of his own sin.
The inter-title, “In spring,” like all the inter-titles, defies audience expectations: instead of the traditionally lively images of spring we’ve come to expect, we see the protagonist’s mother and the youth standing together, buried in sand past their waists and apparently dead. After casting off childish things, the inevitable stagnation and death of romantic love sets in. The positioning of these two figures is strongly reminiscent of Jean-Francois Millet’s 1857-59 painting, The Angelus, a strong influence on Dali, who was obsessed with the painting for a number of years, referencing it in no less than seven of his paintings between the years 1932 and 1935. Dali believed the painting had undertones of sexual tension and paternal homicide, again pointing to the Oedipal myth.
It is rumored that the youth on the beach is played by Dali himself and, based on photographs of Dali from this period, this supposition is entirely likely, as well as appropriate, since much of the imagery in the film comes from Dali’s own subconscious obsessions. In fact, the assertion that Un Chien Andalou‘s intention is not to make any narrative sense seems to be Bunuel’s idea more than Dali’s, if not a hoax altogether. It is entirely possible that Dali, whether consciously or not, imposed a rather well-constructed Freudian storyline upon the clay of the film’s scenario. From the very beginning of his association with the Surrealists, Dali was always destined to go in his own direction. Whatever the case, Un Chien Andalou stands as a testament to Surrealist art at its finest, and remains today, over 80 years later, one of the most fascinating and controversial films ever made.
Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’tGet.com. Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.
For more information, please contact EzraStead@MoviesIDidntGet.com.
Posted 17 Jan 2011in Essay, Film Reviews, Most Confusing Films of All time, Movies I Got
|Un Chien Andalou|
(An Andalusian Dog)
|Directed by||Luis Buñuel|
|Produced by||Luis Buñuel|
|Written by||Luis Buñuel|
|Music by||Richard Wagner|
Jimmy Berliet (uncredited)
|Edited by||Luis Buñuel|
|Distributed by||Les Grands Films Classiques (France)|
|Budget||< 100,000 francs|
Un Chien Andalou (French pronunciation: [œ̃ ʃjɛ̃ ɑ̃dalu], An Andalusian Dog) is a 1929 silentsurrealistshort film by the Spanish directorLuis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dalí. It was Buñuel's first film and was initially released in 1929 with a limited showing at Studio des Ursulines in Paris, but became popular and ran for eight months.
Un Chien Andalou has no plot in the conventional sense of the word. The chronology of the film is disjointed, jumping from the initial "once upon a time" to "eight years later" without the events or characters changing very much. It uses dream logic in narrative flow that can be described in terms of then-popular Freudianfree association, presenting a series of tenuously related scenes.
The film opens with a title card reading "Once upon a time". A middle-aged man (Luis Buñuel) sharpens his razor at his balcony door and tests the razor on his thumb. He then opens the door, and idly fingers the razor while gazing at the moon, about to be engulfed by a thin cloud, from his balcony. There is a cut to a close-up of a young woman (Simone Mareuil) being held by the man. She calmly stares straight ahead as he brings the razor near her eye. Another cut occurs to the moon being overcome by the cloud, then a cut to a close up of a hand slitting the eye of an animal with the razor (which happens so quickly the viewer may believe it was the woman's eye), and the vitreous humour spills out from it.
The subsequent title card reads "eight years later". A slim young man (Pierre Batcheff) bicycles down a calm urban street wearing what appears to be a nun's habit and a striped box with a strap around his neck. A cut occurs to the young woman from the first scene, who has been reading in a sparingly furnished upstairs apartment. She hears the young man approaching on his bicycle and casts aside the book she was reading (revealing a reproduction of Vermeer's The Lacemaker). She goes to the window and sees the young man lying on the curb, his bicycle on the ground. She emerges from the building and attempts to revive the young man.
Later, the young woman assembles pieces of the young man's clothing on a bed in the upstairs room, and concentrates upon the clothing. The young man appears near the door. The young man and the young woman stare at his hand, which has a hole in the palm from which ants emerge. A slow transition occurs focusing on the armpit hair of the young woman as she lies on the beach and a sea urchin at a sandy location. There is a cut to an androgynous young woman, with bobbed hair and dressed in rather masculine attire, in the street below the apartment. She pokes at a severed human hand with her cane while surrounded by a large crowd and a policeman.
The crowd clears when the policeman places the hand in the box previously carried by the young man and gives it to the young woman. The androgynous young woman contemplates something happily while standing in the middle of the now busy street clutching the box. She is then run over by a car and a few bystanders gather around her. The young man and the young woman watch these events unfold from the apartment window. The young man seems to take sadistic pleasure in the androgynous young woman's danger and subsequent death, and as he gestures at the shocked young woman in the room with him, he leers at her and grasps her breasts.
The young woman resists him at first, but then allows him to touch her as he imagines her nude from the front and the rear. The young woman pushes him away as he drifts off and she attempts to escape by running to the other side of the room. The young man corners her as she reaches for a racquet in self-defense, but he suddenly picks up two ropes and drags two grand pianos containing dead and rotting donkeys, stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments, two pumpkins, and two rather bewildered priests (played by Jaime Miravilles and Salvador Dalí) who are attached by the ropes. As he is unable to pursue, the young woman escapes the room. The young man chases after her, but she traps his hand, which is infested with ants, in the door. She finds the young man in the next room, dressed in his nun's garb in the bed.
The subsequent title card reads "around three in the morning". The young man is roused from his rest by the sound of a door-buzzer ringing (represented visually by a Martini shaker being shaken by a set of arms through two holes in a wall). The young woman goes to answer the door and does not return. Another young man, whom we see only from behind, dressed in lighter clothing, arrives in the apartment, gesturing angrily at him. The second young man forces the first one to throw away his nun's clothing and then makes him stand with his face to the wall, as if in disgrace.
The subsequent title card reads "Sixteen years ago." We see the second young man's face for the first time (and discover that he is also played by Pierre Batcheff) as he admires the art supplies and books on the table near the wall and forces the first young man to hold two of the books as he stares at the wall. The first young man eventually shoots the second young man when the books abruptly turn into pistols. The second young man, now in a meadow, dies while swiping at the back of a nude female figure which suddenly disappears into thin air. A group of men come and carry his corpse away.
The young woman returns to the apartment and sees a death's-head moth. The first young man sneers at her as she retreats and wipes his mouth off his face with his hand. The young woman very nervously applies some lipstick in response. Subsequently, the first young man makes the young woman's armpit hair attach itself to where his mouth would be on his face through gestures. The young woman looks at the first young man with disgust, and leaves the apartment sticking her tongue out at him.
As she exits her apartment, the street is replaced by a coastal beach, where the young woman meets a third man with whom she walks arm in arm. He shows her the time on his watch and they walk near the rocks, where they find the remnants of the first young man's nun's clothing and the box. They seem to walk away clutching each other happily and make romantic gestures in a long tracking shot. However, the film abruptly cuts to the final shot with a title card reading "In Spring," showing the couple buried in beach sand up to their elbows, motionless and perhaps dead.
- Simone Mareuil as Young Girl (as Simonne Mareuil)
- Pierre Batcheff as Young Man and Second Young Man (as Pierre Batchef)
- Luis Buñuel as Man in Prologue (uncredited)
- Salvador Dalí as Seminarist and as Man on Beach (uncredited)
- Robert Hommet as Third Young Man (uncredited)
- Marval as Seminarist (uncredited)
- Fano Messan as Androgynous Young Woman (uncredited)
- Jaime Miravilles as Fat seminarist (uncredited)
The idea for the film began when Buñuel was working as an assistant director for Jean Epstein in France. Buñuel told Dalí at a restaurant one day about a dream in which a cloud sliced the moon in half "like a razor blade slicing through an eye". Dalí responded that he'd dreamed about a hand crawling with ants. Excitedly, Buñuel declared: "There's the film, let's go and make it.'" They were fascinated by what the psyche could create, and decided to write a script based on the concept of suppressed human emotions.
In deliberate contrast to the approach taken by Jean Epstein and his peers, which was to never leave anything in their work to chance, with every aesthetic decision having a rational explanation and fitting clearly into the whole, Buñuel made clear throughout his writings that, between Dalí and himself, the only rule for the writing of the script was: "No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted." He also stated: "Nothing, in the film, symbolizes anything. The only method of investigation of the symbols would be, perhaps, psychoanalysis."
In his 1939 autobiography Buñuel said: "In the film the aesthetics of Surrealism are combined to some of Freud's discoveries. The film was totally in keeping with the basic principle of the school, which defined Surrealism as "Psychic Automatism", unconscious, capable of returning to the mind its true functions, beyond any form of control by reason, morality or aesthetics."
The film was financed by Buñuel's mother, and shot in Le Havre and Paris at the Billancourt Studios over a period of 10 days in March 1928. It is a black and white, 35mm, silent film, with a running time of 17 minutes, although some sources state 24 minutes, and a physical length of 430 meters.
For many years (and still), published and unpublished reports have circulated that Buñuel had used a dead pig's eye, or that of a dead sheep, or of a dead donkey, or other animal, in the notorious eyeball-slicing scene. However, in an interview in 1975 or '76, Buñuel claimed that he had used a dead calf's eye. Through the use of intense lighting, and bleaching of the calf's skin, Buñuel attempted to make the furred face of the animal appear as human skin.
During the bicycle scene, the woman who is sitting on a chair, reading, throws the book aside when she notices the man who has fallen. The image it shows when it lies open is a reproduction of a painting by Vermeer, whom Dalí greatly admired and often referred to in his own paintings.
In Buñuel's original script, the final shot was to feature the corpses of the man and woman "consumed by swarms of flies". However, this special effect was modified due to budget limitations, with the film ending with a still shot of the man and woman, who had been walking in the previous beach scene, half-buried in the sand and apparently dead.
The movie contains several thematic references to Federico García Lorca and other writers of that time. For example, the rotting donkeys are a reference to the popular children's novel Platero y yo by Juan Ramón Jiménez, which Buñuel and Dalí hated.
Anthropologist Jean Rouch has reported that after filming was complete, Buñuel and Dalí had run out of money, forcing Buñuel to edit the film personally in his kitchen without the aid of a Moviola or any other technical equipment.
Initial reception and aftermath
The first screening of Un Chien Andalou took place at Studio des Ursulines, with an audience of le tout-Paris. Notable attendees of the première included Pablo Picasso, Le Corbusier, Jean Cocteau, Christian Bérard and George Auric, in addition to the entirety of André Breton's Surrealist group. The audience's positive reception of the film amazed Buñuel, who was relieved that no violence ensued. Dalí, on the contrary, was reportedly disappointed, feeling the audience's reaction made the evening "less exciting." Buñuel since claimed that prior to the show, he had put stones in his pockets "to throw at the audience in case of disaster", although others had no recollection of this.
It was Buñuel's intention to shock and insult the intellectual bourgeoisie of his youth, later saying: "Historically, this film represents a violent reaction against what at that time was called 'avantgarde cine,' which was directed exclusively to the artistic sensibility and to the reason of the spectator." Against his hopes and expectations, the film was a huge success amongst the French bourgeoisie, leading Buñuel to exclaim in exasperation, "What can I do about the people who adore all that is new, even when it goes against their deepest convictions, or about the insincere, corrupt press, and the inane herd that saw beauty or poetry in something which was basically no more than a desperate impassioned call for murder?"
Through their accomplishment with Un Chien Andalou, Dalí and Buñuel became the first filmmakers to be officially welcomed into the ranks of the Surrealists by the movement's leader André Breton, an event recalled by film historian Georges Sadoul: "Breton had convoked the creators to our usual venue [the Café Radio] ... one summer's evening. Dalí had the large eyes, grace, and timidity of a gazelle. To us, Buñuel, big and athletic, his black eyes protruding a little, seemed exactly like he always is in Un Chien Andalou, meticulously honing the razor that will slice the open eye in two."
Among the most enthusiastic viewers of the film were the wealthy couple Viscount Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles, who commissioned Dalí and Buñuel to create a sequel, of around the same length, with sound, to be called La Bête Andalouse, in order to affirm its connection with Un Chien. Dalí stated that the theme of the new film was to parallel that of the first: "to present the straight and pure 'conduct' of someone who continues to pursue love despite wretched humanitarian ideals, patriotism and the other poor mechanisms of reality." This new film ultimately was released in 1930 under the title L'Age d'Or but was quickly withdrawn by the Noailles family after being banned by the Prefecture of Police of Paris.
Both of the leading actors of the film eventually committed suicide: Batcheff overdosed on Veronal on April 13, 1932 in a hotel in Paris, and Mareuil committed self-immolation on October 24, 1954 by dousing herself in gasoline and burning herself to death in a public square in Périgueux, Dordogne.
Rock music fans around the world watched the film in its entirety during David Bowie's 1976 Isolar Tour. The film was shown before each show in lieu of an opening musical act.
During the original 1929 screening in Paris, Buñuel selected music which he played live on a gramophone. Modern prints of the film feature a soundtrack consisting of excerpts from Richard Wagner's "Liebestod" from his opera Tristan und Isolde and a recording of two Argentinian tangos, "Tango Argentino" and "Recuerdos" by the Vicente Alvarez & Carlos Otero et son orchestre. They were first added to a print of the film in 1960 under Buñuel's supervision.
Film scholar Ken Dancyger has argued that Un Chien Andalou might be the genesis of the filmmaking style present in the modern music video.Roger Ebert had called it the inspiration for low budget independent films.
Premiere ranked the opening scene as 10th out of "The 25 Most Shocking Moments in Movie History".
The lyrics of the Pixies song "Debaser" are based on Un Chien Andalou.
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