Friday, 22 March 2013

Monthly Film Challenge Part 2: Un Chien Andalou (1929)

Un Chien Andalou, Luis Buñuel

So, from an innovative science-fiction/ documentary/ philosophical treatise to one of the best known of the Surrealists’ films, The Monthly Film Challenge turns to 1929’s Un Chien Andalou, a remarkably compact sixteen-minute experimental work from Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. Unlike La Jetée, Un Chien Andalou is a surprisingly simple work in terms of what it is trying to say. Basically it is the story of a couple’s strained sexual relations and their eventual break-up. Underneath this is a study of how bourgeoisie culture, traditions and education block the way towards true love. What is challenging about the film, however, is the way that the message is conveyed as opposed to the message itself. The aesthetics of Un Chien Andalou are essentially like those of a dream, where the traditional means of telling a story are avoided in order to create a work that may seem practically incomprehensible; and yet is surprisingly clear.

The protagonists of Un Chien Andalou are presented simply as Man (Pierre Batcheff) and Young Girl (Simone Mareuil), just as they are in Buñuel and Dalí’s other great early Surrealist work, L’Age d’or. The film is less interested in them as characters, instead studying them as symbols. Man and Young Girl are meant to stand for all young men and women. The film is essentially divided into four parts, the first three separated by an intertitle that may or may not have anything to do with the events onscreen. There is little point in moving through the film and providing an exact interpretation on what happens in each section, since anyone’s ideas are equally valid as long as they’ve seen the film, but it might instead be interesting to look at some of the ideas thrown up by each part and how they relate to one another.

The first part is entitled “Once Upon A Time” and is only about forty seconds in length and yet it is one of the most notorious scenes in cinema history. It features a graphic close-up of a woman’s eye being slit by a straight razor. The scene was intended to shock a complacent audience, warning them that they will have to do more than simply watch the film – they will have to engage with it. Buñuel, who played the barber in this scene, is not so much attacking the woman’s eye as attacking his audience’s traditional ways of seeing. Similarly, the scene’s title and the imagery of the cloud and the moon suggests a fairy tale feel and brings about certain expectations in its audience. These are subverted by the famous match-cut in which the image of a cloud passing over the moon is followed by an image of a razor passing over an eye. The mix of beauty and brutality knocks the viewer out of their comfort zone and the film’s willingness to trick forcibly reactivates their brain. The viewer must think about the film critically in order to work out what it is that the film is saying. As the opening of the film, this section attempts to put the viewer in the right frame of mind to watch what will then follow.

“Eight Years Later” marks the film’s shift into its second part. As is typical of the Surrealists, this intertitle makes no real narrative sense, suggesting that there is a narrative connection between the homicidal barber and the Man and Young Girl to whom we are about to be introduced. Although there is a symbolic, or possibly even a thematic, link between these people, the intertitle is essentially meaningless. This section is by far the longest in the film and it is full of incident. We are introduced to Man as he cycles shakily down a road, wearing a ridiculous frilly costume and a box tied around his neck. We are made to take notice of the frills and the box by some very deliberate close-ups, showing that Un Chien Andalou does indeed have a reasoning behind it and that the filmmakers are willing to use traditional film language to communicate it. The overall suggestion is that the Man is sexually immature and effeminate. The Young Girl is the opposite. She is sitting at home, clearly ill at ease, her sexual desire for the Man, indicated by intercutting shots of her with shots of the Man approaching, all the stronger because it has obviously never been fully consummated. Her frustration is obvious – she throws down a book she is reading which shows a sexless image of a woman in a bonnet working at a sewing machine. When she sees the Man fall off his bike, she is disappointed again – the Man lies prostrate on the ground, useless. The film is essentially about sexual immaturity and sexual frustration.

The Young Girl’s frustration is suggested further by the highly suggestive sequence in which another woman tries to prod a severed hand back to life. A crowd forms, horrified at this open display of sexuality and yet they cannot turn away. Eventually, a policeman breaks it up and places the severed hand back in its box. This is Buñuel’s critique of the repressive nature of a bourgeoisie society, which is equally horrified and fascinated by sexuality and which needs a police force to keep them a check. This woman is subsequently run over whilst in despair at her suppression, the crowd caring a lot less about her violent death than they did about her sexual openness. This idea of a bourgeoisie society that keeps sexuality chained down recurs later when the Man, in a fit of an animalistic sexual passion, attempts to devour the Young Girl, only to be first fended off by a tennis racket (a symbol of bourgeoisie leisure/distraction) and then held back by the weight of two bishops and two pianos with dead horses inside them. It is clear what Buñuel and Dalí think about what the bourgeois culture does to man’s natural sexuality. Similarly, though the Young Girl openly wishes that the Man would gain sexual competence and even an animal passion, when he finally does she is terrified by him, suggesting that her attempted rejection of her bourgeoisie upbringing has failed. The film is full of suggestive and surreal imagery, which I won’t go through since the joy of this film is that it is entirely up to you.

The second part of the film is revealed to be largely the Young Girl’s dream – one that begins with her mourning the death of her sexual desire in the image of the second woman being run over by a car but which turns into a bourgeoisie nightmare of uncontrolled sexual passion. Though it can be understood in narrative terms as a dream, it charts the inner landscape of the Young Girl, laying bare her thoughts and feelings in terms to her sexuality and her thwarted relationship with the Man.

The third part of the film, beginning with the intertitle “Toward Three in the Morning”, charts the man’s inner landscape as he lies in bed and reflects on his own upbringing. A second man arrives and berates the Man for his frilly clothes and his sexual incompetence. He punishes the Man by making him face the wall – a typical school punishment, which, like a stream of consciousness, reminds the Man of his schooldays, the site of his education and the beginning of the repression of his sexual drive. This second man is revealed to be his younger, more sexually free self – as indicated by an image of his hands gleefully shaking a cocktail shaker, revealing his lack of concern over masturbation where before an image of masturbation was horrible and eerie, suggestive of self-mutilation such as the image of a hand infested with insects. In the end, the Man kills his younger self when two schoolbooks he is holding turn into guns. A comical funeral is held for the Man’s younger self.

The Young Girl’s own sexual death is considered next, when she sees a Death’s Head moth, familiar from The Silence of the Lambs. That the repressive nature of the Man might be the death of her is suggested when the Man removes his own mouth in order to resemble the Death’s Head moth. Reacting against this, the Young Girl uses her mouth to assert her own sexuality with a series of sexually suggestive gestures, from putting on lipstick to sticking her tongue out. Ultimately, she rejects the Man and leaves the apartment.

The fourth part of the film is not marked by an intertitle but instead by a surprising shift in space. The Young Girl leaves the apartment and is somehow now on a beach. Here, she meets a version of the Man that she prefers. Stripes have stood for a sexual maturity throughout the film, especially when the Young Girl trades the Man’s plain tie for a striped one just before his passionate outburst. Here, the Man is wearing stripes but he is also wearing typically bourgeoisie clothes as well, suggesting a compromise between sexual passion and social strictures that she can accept. He is initially troubled, holding up his watch as if he is aware that their days are numbered. She is not bothered and they embrace. However, their journey across the beach seems rocky and with his final intertitle, “In Spring”, which does the same to the viewer’s expectations as “Once Upon A Time” did earlier, Buñuel reveals that this marriage of convenience can only lead to death.

Though not thematically complex, the joy of watching Un Chien Andalou comes from the ability to decide what to take from it yourself. Technically, the film is brimming with invention and it is an exciting film to watch for the amount of ideas that it throws around. It has a conventional message – true love is thwarted by our repressive society – but it is far from conventional in how it presents this message. Just like La Jetée, it packs a lot into its short running time and it is one of the most innovative and important films ever made.

So give the film a go and tell us what you think. 

Next month: The Seventh Continent

Or see Part 1 of the Monthly Film Challenge: La Jetée

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