The Greatest films of all time: 17.Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog) (1929)

Introduction:

“Un Chien Andalou” of 1929 by the Spanish filmmaker, Luis Bunuel will be perhaps the only short film (16-21 min., based on the copy) on this list, for its significance, heroism, invention and influence in the history of cinema. This great film which still to this day, viewers discretion is advised and would not be appropriate for young audience, was Buñuel’s first film. The unusual avant-gard film for the time and even now, was a product of collaboration between the famous Spanish painter, Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel. When Buñuel was working as an assistant director for Jean Epstein in France, one day at a restaurant, he told Dali about a dream in which a cloud sliced the moon in half “like a razor blade slicing through an eye”. Dalí responded that he had also dreamed about a hand crawling with ants. Then both excitedly decided to write a script based on the concept of suppressed human emotions, dreams or nightmares. Bunuel deliberately intended in this film and many of his later films, like the paintings of Dali, moving beyond reality, logic and approach the depth of humans’ darkest imaginations, so to be only interpreted and understood perhaps by Freudian psychoanalysis. So Bunuel brought “surrealism” of earlier work of other artists such as Dali and Breton in painting and other art forms onto the screen. 

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The film, initially released in 1929 with a limited showing in Paris, soon became popular that ran for 8 months. The film with no plot or story, unconventional and chronologically disjointed, is the frontier of so many similar surrealistic and avant-gard films from Hitchcock to David Cronenberg, that deserves its creator introduction. Bunuel is perhaps second to Charlie Chaplin, his contemporary who also met and partly collaborated, with five decades of filmmaking and many other activities including politics and fighting for freedom and democracy of his homeland Spain. 

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A man for all seasons:

Luis Buñuel (1900-1983), who when died at age 83, was called by the New York Times, “an iconoclast, moralist, and revolutionary who was a leader of avant-garde surrealism in his youth and a dominant international movie director half a century later”, was born in Calanda in the Aragon region of Spain. Bunuel’s film career is long and significant, from his first film, “Un chien Andalou” in 1929 in the silent era, that has been called “the most famous short film ever made” by the critic Roger Ebert, to his last film,“That Obscure Object of Desire”, made 48 years later, won him Best Director awards from the National Board of Review and the National Society of Film Critics. 

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Bunuel’s films spanned not only across time and in 5 decades, but across two continents, three languages, and nearly every film genre, including experimental, documentary, melodrama, satire, erotica, comedy, romance, fantasy, crime, adventure and even western. Despite this variety, the great American filmmaker John Huston, believed that, regardless of genre, a Buñuel film is so distinctive as to be instantly recognizable, or as the Swedish film master, Ingmar Bergman, has put it, “Buñuel nearly always made Buñuel films”. Six of Buñuel’s films are included in Sight & Sound’s 2012 critics’ poll of the top 250 films of all time, and he ranks number 14 on the list of the top 250 directors.

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Bunuel first studied agronomy, then etymology, then switched to industrial engineering and finally philosophy in the University Madrid. He was close with Salvador Dali and the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, “through him I began to discover a wholly new world”, despite some differences in the beginning. During his student years, Buñuel became an accomplished hypnotist, and believed that watching movies was a form of hypnosis. Buñuel’s interest in films was intensified by viewing Fritz Lang’s films, that prompted him to devote himself to the cinema, started going to the movies as often as three times a day. After working briefly as an assistant director for Epstein, he started writing on films with Dali as a critic. He married the gymnast, Jeanne Rucar Lefebvre, in 1934, who had won an Olympic bronze medal and remained married throughout his life. 

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Buneul’s first film, “Un chien Andalou” in 1929, was financed by his mother, intended by him from the start to shock and insult the intellectual bourgeoisie of his youth, later saying: “Historically the film represents a violent reaction against what in those days was called ‘avant-garde,’ which was aimed exclusively at artistic sensibility and the audience’s reason.” 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?”

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In his filmmaking career, Bunuel made such great pieces as “L’Age d’Or”, “Las Hurdes”, “Espana”, “Gran Casino”, “El Gran Calavera”, and masterpieces such as “Los Olvidados”, “Virdiana”, “Belle de Jour”, “Tristana”, “The discreet charm of the Bourgeoisie”, “The Phantom of Liberty”, and finally “That obscure object of desire” as his last film. He also made more than 2,000 great documentaries, collaborated in many film projects of others, and left many scripts not able to portray on the screen. Despite his greatness, he considered himself a student of cinema and when in Hollywood, learnt some techniques from Sergei Eisenstein, Joseph von Sternberg, Jacques Feyder, and Charles Chaplin. Out of film career, he could not be indifferent to what was happening to his country in 1930’s, the struggle for freedom and democracy against fascism and dictatorship, so sided with the republicans in the Civil War of Spain. Later on due to his patriotic commitment, he joined the communist party of Spain, and made several films to promote the first republican and leftist government in Europe. 

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The first blow to his political dream of freedom and democracy for Spain, was when in August 1936, his close friend, the poet “Federico Garcia Lorca” was shot and killed by the nationalist militia. He mourned the poet’s untimely death throughout his life. Then when he was sent for the second time in 1938 to Hollywood by the Spain republican government to supervise films being made there about the Spanish Civil War, and soon the Fascists under General Franco seized the power in Spain, Buñuel decided to stay in the U.S. indefinitely. But in America, soon he became under the attack of the anti-communist movement and the catholic church for being a leftist and atheist, he had to move to Mexico, where he loved it and found out surrealism and his works are loved too, so he stayed for the rest of his life and even gave up his Spanish citizenship! Meanwhile he moved back and forth to Europe and made several masterpieces, but each time returned to Mexico, his second home, where he finally died. 

 After the release of his last film, “That obscure object of desire” in 1977, at the age of 77, Buñuel retired from filmmaking. In his 70’s, Buñuel once told his friend, the novelist Carols Fuentes: “I’m not afraid of death. I’m afraid of dying alone in a hotel room, with my bags open and a shooting script on the night table. I must know whose fingers will close my eyes.” Buñuel died in Mexico City in 1983, with a very private funeral, with only 50 people attending, including Octavio Paz, Jose Luis Cuevas and Miguel Littin, his wife and their two sons.

 A unique short film with long lasting impact:

“Un chien Andalou” was a beginning for Bunuel himself in developing a unique film career in surrealism, but also an expansion in the surrealism movement, going far beyond their own closed European circle to across the globe and to the lay audience. The film opens with a title card reading “Once upon a time”, then shows Luis Buñuel himself sharpening a razor at his balcony door and tests it on his thumb. He then opens the door, while gazing at the moon, that is cut through by a sharp thin cloud. Then the man imagines the scene with cutting an eye ball with his razor, that soon after we see this most disturbing image, never seen before on the screen, that to this day its viewer discretion is advised. 

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The subsequent title card reads “eight years later”, when a young man 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. Then the young woman from the first scene, while reading in her upstairs apartment, hearing him, approaching the window, seeing him lying on the curb with his bicycle on the ground. She rushes out attempting to revive the man, and soon later she assembles pieces of the man’s clothing on a bed in the upstairs bedroom. Then man is shown near the door, while showing another disturbing image of the film, ants crawling from a hole in his hand. 

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Then the film slowly transitions to the young woman lying on the beach, with zoom on her hairy armpit and a sea urchin on the sand. Later there is a scene of another young woman, with the armpit hair on the face, looking and dressed masculine, in the street below the apartment, poking 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 woman soon is run over by a car, that while disturbing, this time seeming cartoonish, while a few bystanders gather around her. The young man and the young woman from the first scene watch these events unfold from the apartment window. The man seems to take sadistic pleasure in the other woman’s sudden death on the street below, then grabs the shocked young woman’s breasts, that he sees in his imagination naked. 

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The young woman resists him at first, but then allows him to touch her, then pushes him away and as he drifts off, 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, but the man chases after her, but she traps his hand, which is infested with ants, in the door. In the next scene, she finds the young man in the next room, dressed in his nun’s garb in the bed.

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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 pushes his face to the wall in disgrace. The next title card reads “Sixteen years ago.”, when we see the second young man’s face for the first time 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.

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The young woman returns to the apartment and sees a death’s head moth, while 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 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.

The film contains several thematic references to the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, a close friend to Bunuel, who after his murder by the Franco regime, he never revived from his grief. There are also some other references to other writers and novelists of the time in the film. The first screening of “Un Chien Andalou” took place at Studio des Ursulines, in Paris, with notable attendees of the première included Pablo Picaso, Le Corbusier, Jean Cocteau, Christian Berard and George Auric, in addition to the entirety of Andre 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.” 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 “avant-garde 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 Andre Breton. During the original 1929 screening in Paris, Buñuel selected soundtrack music which he played live on a gramophone, 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. These soundtracks were first added to a print of the film in 1960 under Buñuel’s supervision.

 Conclusion:

In closing remarks “Un Chien Andalou”, at the end of silent era, along with “Man with a movie camera” prove that a film does not necessarily need to have a narrative or story to be great. “Un Chien Andalou” also proved that a great influential film also does not need to be long feature, or even fit in time and place. This short and disjointed film makes the audience while disturbed, probe into the hidden meaning of the images, like interpretation of dreams or nightmares. “Un Chien Andalou” is an early example of a critical film, that even was liked by the subjects of critics and ridicules. This great film that has made history, like “Man with a movie camera” uses the filmmaking as at tool for experimentation. Now almost 90 years later, this great work one more time, will be redefined based on the following criteria:   

  1. Originality: “Un Chien Andalou” is the first original film to depict disturbing images such as cutting the eyeball with a razor, ants crawling out of a hand, chopped hand on the street, hit and run by a car, etc. The film is also the original surrealist film, a nightmarish, disjointed amalgamation of images on the screen, like a bad dream or nightmares. “Un Chien Andalou” like any dream or nightmare demands interpretation and this one a good psychoanalytic or sociopolitical ones. Lastly the film is perhaps original and unique for being very short with no story or narrative, even not being a documentary, but with long-lasting influence on many other films for years to come. 
  2. Technicality: The technicality of “Un Chien Andalou”, is in its surrealistic context without much of camera movements and cinematography. In fact the film is a unique example of achieving high and long with not much of technicality in conventional film methods. In other words the surrealistic context dictated the techniques of the film, so to look to the audience, even other filmmakers very technical. Bunuel in this film and his later films did not limit himself with the surrealism, but went beyond to convey sociopolitical messages and his ideas through the screen to audience. So the film is also anti-bourgeoisie, and also anti-religion, a mockery of priesthood. The film is also psychological and shows the darkest inner feelings and thoughts and intentions. 
  3. Impact Factor: “Un Chien Andalou” started off Bunuel himself to continue on the path of surrealism in cinema, also using the screen for experimentation and expressing his ideas and as a philosophical and political spring board. This short film also gave the courage to others like Bunuel to use the film media to express ideas, feelings and inner psychology of humans, not in a narrative or realistic manner but differently. Although the film could be disturbing for certain scenes, it heralded any other disturbing and violent scenes in any other films in the future. In other words all the violent and disturbing films with or without ideological content, directly or indirectly owe to “Un Chien Andalou”. But the scenes in “Un Chien Andalou”, while could be perceived as violent and disturbing, they are satiric and look unreal and surrealistic, opposed to other films of violence that seem to be real and the filmmakers make them real for creating terror. In other words while other disturbing and violent films’ purpose is creating imagery of terror and fright with no ideological and philosophical messages, “Un Chien Andalou” contains such messages in need of interpretation and understanding.
  4. Survival: “Un Chien Andalou” has obviously not only survived the test of time, but has influenced many films since its release and for years still to come. The film still could be watched and if not enjoyed to be disturbed and puzzled by its meaning and messages. 

 

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