Fans of classic cinema, but especially of the surrealists (Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí, et al.) often make it their business to see the blackly satirical L’Âge d’Or, considered one of the best films ever made by critics with only the highest of brows (and how could it not be, look at all those apostrophes!). Banned for 50 years, a film which was once brazenly ahead of its time, is now something of a relic. Buñuel at the time was not a masterful filmmaker, shots are flat and matter-of-fact, and all the chaotic energy that propels his previous collaboration with Dalí (the masterpiece Un Chien Andalou) is missing, even the editing itself is slower. The eccentricities and moral provocation that made the film a revelation in its time, date it today.
Following a mini-documentary from 1912 on scorpions, the film is made up of mostly unconnected vignettes, but the primary plot follows a couple who are unable to have premarital sex because people keep butting in; the church, family, bourgeois society, etc. The opening scenes, including miners seemingly chattering about nothing in particular before going for a walk, are confusing and unrewarding in all the ways that people who dismiss surreal films suggest. Rather than fascinate, the lack of coherence pushes you to ask where this is going or what any of it means; all the wrong questions for this kind of film.
Things do kick up a few notches once we arrive at a high society party. Hints of Buñuel’s playful bourgeois-pointed satirical awkwardness invade the attempts at shock, as when an inconvenient carriage driving through the party causes only minor pause. A waitress collapses outside of an adjoining room which spews flames, and the staff carefully avoid her as they cart away a tray of appetizers. Amidst all this, one moment still retains its visceral bite: a man shoots a small boy dead, then takes aim and blasts his head a second time, in close up.
Buñuel would probably have been jailed if he had filmed what he would have liked to, so though the couple would like nothing more than to have sex whenever wherever, they never lose any clothes, but they do suck on each other’s fingers and toes, as well as those of statues in the vicinity. This is not the demonstration of raw impulse I imagine it once was, though the actress nibbling a Grecian statue’s digits does give it her all, and there is a big laugh when the film cuts to a reaction shot of the highly indifferent sculpture’s face.
As director, Buñuel was only able to scrounge together the million-franc budget with the patronage of the Vicomte Charles de Noailles, who commissioned yearly birthday gifts in the form of films to his patron-of-the-arts wife Marie-Laure. If comparisons to Un Chien Andalou seem unfair, it’s worth noting that L’Âge d’Or was conceived of as a feature-length sequel to the short, to meet the demands of the Vicomte.
Following a falling out just as production began on L’Âge d’Or, co-author of the first film Salvador Dalí was chased off set with a hammer on day one, and his mystique seems to be missing from the final product. This may be giving Dalí too much credit, but although the film is bizarre, it is sometimes almost too focused to do the work of surrealism and reach to the unconscious. The free associative thinking that helped Un Chien Andalou play out in thrilling illogical-logic, and made intellectually arresting edits from image to image (the indelible cloud slicing across the full moon, and its double, the razorblade slicing open a human eye), strains somewhat here. Buñuel will cut from hands wringing on a worried woman to hands polishing a glass, or from a dress sprawled out over a seat to a woman sitting in a dress in her own chair. Cuts which are more subtle, maybe, but less invigorating. There are more inspired stretches. There is a delightful lizard-brain-logic in someone trashing a room, opening a window to throw things out of, and a procession of things not found in the room emerging on the other side. A burning tree, a cardinal, a plow, a giraffe. The holy man is apparently credited as “Defenestrated Cardinal”, which begs the question as to whether this description is so matter-of-fact because the filmmakers’ extended their sense of humor to the credits, or because its silliness never crossed their minds.
On the fourth day of release in Paris, the Ligue des Patriotes burst into a showing and assaulted the audience, throwing ink at the screen and then moving into the lobby to destroy artworks by Dalí, Joan Miró, Man Ray, Yves Tanguy, and more. The prefect of the Police of Paris responded to the incident not by looking into the Ligue des Patriotes, but by banning the film from exhibition, bowing to the right-wing sects and religious zealots. It had been out for 11 days and would not be shown outside of private screenings for another 40 years. There had been more brazenly sexual works by 1930, films more critical of the upper- and middle-classes, but it was probably the sight of a cross adorned with women’s scalps that sent the conservative clique over the edge. Regardless of any complaints, L’Âge d’Or is a great deal more watchable than some silent classics (likely because of its distinctiveness), adding up to a good bit of fun, and making for a fascinating time capsule of artists on the bleeding edge.
Though I don’t appreciate when the fellow aggressively punts a live dog.