PCMR Rating: 7/10
When you slash an eyeball in the opening scene of your debut short film, there has to be a moment when you ask yourself: "where do I go from here?" Well, after 'Un Chien Andalou', Bunuel collaborated once more with fellow provocateur Salvador Dali to produce a full length feature named 'L'Age d'Or' that was so controversial upon its release, it was banned for more than 50 years. Not bad, eh? In any case, this was the last movie that Bunuel made before returning to Spain, and after sufficiently aggravating the fascist authorities there in a similar manner, he wisely decided on a move to Hollywood.
No stranger to controversy, Bunuel's eyeball-slash is followed here with a scene where the female lead fellates the toes of a statue of Venus... surreal and controversial all at the same time.
Dali and Bunuel fell out before this movie started shooting, and although Dali still has a writer's credit here, his influence would no doubt have been anarchic, reducing concern with such trivialities as story, narrative structure and rational explanation. Due to his absence from shooting, it's probably fair to describe l'Age d'Or as more of a representation of Bunuel's work than Dali's (although the toe-sucking scene certainly has a whiff of the painter's influence).
The movie is divided up into a series of vignettes, tied together with themes of class warfare, the madness of high society, the effects of sexual repression, and of course, attacks on organised religion. Surrealism is also liberally sprinkled throughout proceedings, so in Bunuel's world, we should not be surprised when we find a cow in the bedroom. Seriously. However, the surrealism is used more as a device to enhance the satire, so in other words, it's more 'Spitting Image' than 'Monty Python'.
The attacks on high society are more coherent and sustained. At a black-tie gathering a maid screams and falls through the kitchen doors as flames pour out behind her. The party continues uninterrupted. Outside in the courtyard, a child is unjustly shot dead. The party is momentarily interrupted, but carries on. Then, there is a sudden breach of decorum by one of the tuxedoed revellers, as he slaps a female guest across the cheek. Well, at this, the wealthy revellers, ever inward-looking, stop to express disgust, eject the miscreant, and console the dejected victim.
While the party continues, a consistently interrupted, star-crossed couple illicitly meet in the garden, where the infamous statue-toe-sucking scene takes place. More disturbing for me though, is where the pair suck on each other's fingers, and his fingers disappear. In a subsequent scene, the girl's face is clearly being stroked by a fingerless hand, and it is not a special effect. Is this Bunuel warning of the results of sexual repression? Earlier in the movie, after the couple were found kissing and forcibly separated for the first time, the guy begins expressing violence towards random passers-by, in one instance knocking down a blind man. This appears to a clearer warning of the effects of sexual repression on men, and it's clear why a message of this kind would be seen as controversial and corrupting by the religious authorities.
However, the religious authorities themselves make a couple of cameos too, but their presence is more satire than surreal: a bishop plays fiddle in the band at the party attended by the high society. In the beginning of the movie, we see four bishops - possibly cardinals? - mumbling in prayer until they rot into skeletons. Another bishop is thrown from a second floor window, although we see him walking away. Bunuel's message to the church is not a positive one.
I have to say, although it certainly has it's moments of unusual imagery, the movie is not as visually arresting as 'Un Chien Andalou'. Perhaps credit is due to the brilliant madness of Dali for some of that. That aside though, I love the irreverance of Bunuel, and his open challenges to high society and the religious establishment are compelling. In this, his satire and surrealism is not simply unfocussed and defying explanation: quite the contrary, it is rational and targeted.
Our own generation could probably confess to thinking that artistic scandal and controversy are somehow unique to us, but when you see this movie, made more than 80 years ago, that conception is instantly exploded.
L'age d'Or is available to watch on youtube here