Sunday, 5 January 2014

Un Chein Andalou

Un Chien Andalou is a short, silent surrealist film from 1929. It was the debut film of Luis Buñuel and was written by Buñuel and fellow surrealist Salvador Dalí. The film features no discernable narrative in the traditional sense but rather dream logic, seemingly popping from one scene to another, often with tenuous links. Lasting only around sixteen minutes, it nonetheless crams in many eye catching (and eye slitting) images, some of which have passed into the collective consciousness. Describing the plot is near impossible as it weaves in and out of normality and plausibility with no regard for sense or building upon what comes before. Perhaps best described as a series of vignettes or windows into the minds of the men behind the film, it’s sometimes a frustrating watch but is notable for its striking imagery and skilled production.

Buñuel and Dalí got the idea for the film after discussing recent dreams and with just two ideas they set about the film’s production. Shooting lasted for ten days on a budget that was funded by Buñuel’s own mother. The idea has been put forward that this production was the precursor for modern independent film making but there have been countless similar examples over the years. The two original ideas are those that stand out the most in the film. In Buñuel’s dream he was holding a razor and slit a woman’s eye in half. This disturbing image is recreated in gory detail with the help of a calf’s eye but is beautifully juxtaposed with an image of a wispy cloud cutting the moon in half. It’s quite something to see something so horrible next to something so quietly picturesque. Dalí’s original contribution to the ‘plot’ was an image he’d conjured of ants crawling all over his hand, pouring from a hole in the palm. This idea would reoccur in the artist’s work and is probably second only to melting clocks in the images that his name brings to one’s mind.

Aside from the two scenes mentioned, the film produces several other interesting, confusing but attractive images. One scene features a man pulling two grand pianos with ropes. Attached to the ropes are tablets with the Ten Commandments inscribed upon them while dead donkeys lay over the giant instruments along with two confused priests seemingly coming along for the ride. Books turn into guns, eyes roll into the back of heads while fondling breasts and doors lead to impossible places. I enjoyed the imagery that the film created but I have to admit that I also found it incredibly frustrating to watch. I’m a huge fan of surrealist art and of surrealism in films but I found Un Chien Andalou impregnable. I couldn’t get on board because there was nothing for me to grasp. I couldn’t pick up any real themes or latch onto any narrative and it annoyed me while I watched. I just wanted something to make sense for a few seconds but was denied this. Perhaps in this respect the film succeeded. Buñuel noted at the time that "No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted." This is certainly the case.

The framing and camera placement is exquisite and doesn’t look like the work of a first time director. Buñuel was obviously a talented film maker and it’s no wonder he had the long and successful career that he did. He moves the camera in a graceful way, occasionally breaking this for something more abrupt and forceful. He also gets very good performances from his actors with Simone Mareuil in particular shining. The film looks incredible from start to finish.

In a way I’m disappointed with myself for not enjoying the film more. I’m a fan of Dalí’s and wanted to like the film but I was unable to. For me it was too disjointed and scatty. It’s a whirlwind of fantastic imagery and impressive avant-garde ideas but it didn’t do anything for me. I’m glad I’ve watched the film and would recommend it to anyone who wanted something unusual but I won’t be seeking it out again. 


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  1. Hi, I'm sorry you didn't enjoy the film. I quite like it, but I think we see it differently. It's by no means an entertaining spectacle in the conventional sense, but I think that's the point Bunuel wanted to make. You mention he and Dali were inspired by dreams, and I've also been told he was upset with where film was going (classical film narratives, repetitive, formulaic, etc.) and wanted to make the point that movies didn't have to have a point and they didn't have to follow a formula. I think when you think of it this way, he excels quite nicely.

    Also, I like how you mention some of the more memorable imagery, many of which have become iconic over the years. The one that comes to mind is the eye in the palm, which Guillermo Del Toro pays a nice homage to in "Pans Labyrinth."

    Interesting read,

    1. Hi. Thanks for your comment. I think we agree on a lot of things. I can totally see that the film was not designed with that as a primary concern but I was still too flabbergasted by its unusualness that I wasn't able to enjoy its unusualness. I still can't get the razor scene out of my head too!