117. UN CHIEN ANDALOU (1929)

An Andalusian Dog

“No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted… We had to open all doors to the irrational and keep only those images that surprised us, without trying to explain why.”–Luis Buñuel on Un Chien Andalou

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DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel

FEATURING: Simone Mareuil, Pierre Batcheff

PLOT: A man slits open a woman’s eyeball with a straight razor. “Eight years later” another man visits the woman in her apartment and apparently tries to rape her, but finds himself tied to two grand pianos bearing dead donkeys and priests. After further absurd adventures the woman walks through her apartment door and finds her lover on the beach; the happy couple stroll along, though “in spring” they are seen buried in the sand up to their waists, apparently dead.

Still from Un Chien Andalou (1929)

BACKGROUND:

  • Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí co-wrote the scenario; each of them would reject an idea suggested by the other if they thought it made too much sense. The concept for the film arose when Buñuel described a dream he had about a cloud slicing the moon like a razor, and Dalí countered with a dream about a man with ants crawling from a hole in his hand.
  • Buñuel appears as the man who sharpens the razor in the opening scene. Dalí appears as one of the priests who finds himself surprised to be tied to a piano.
  • Un Chien Andalou debuted as part of an avant-garde double feature alongside Man Ray’s Les mystères du château de Dé. Buñuel and Dalí reportedly hid behind a curtain and carried rocks in his pocket to defend themselves in case the audience rioted, but were disappointed when the movie was well-received.
  • Un Chien Andalou is sometimes called the first “Surrealist” film. Germaine Dulac’s The Seashell and the Clergymen had debuted a year earlier, but the film’s Surrealist screenwriter Antonin Artaud denounced Dulac’s finished work as distorting his views, and even staged a riot at the film’s opening in protest. Still, Man Ray and Rene Clair had produced films that could easily be called “Surrealist” as early as 1924. There is no doubt that if it was not the first, Un Chien Andalou was at least the most memorable and influential of this small group of experimental films from the 1920s.
  • Un Chien Andalou is widely considered to be one of the most important movies ever made. Roger Ebert called it “the most famous short film ever made,” it is listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, and it tied for #28 in Sight and Sound’s influential poll of the greatest films ever made (1992 edition), among other honors.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We chose an indelible image for every movie that makes the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies, and the choice is not always obvious. Un Chien Andalou is a relief in that there’s no possible controversy over our selection of the eyeball slitting sequence as the film’s unforgettable moment. This is one of the most iconic moments in all of cinema; no one can watch it without wincing. It is also the film’s only obvious metaphor: the razor is Un Chien Andalou and the eye is the spectator, and this is what the one intends to do to the other.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The word “surreal” is thrown about a lot when talking about unusual


Short clip from Un Chien Andalou

films. Un Chien Andalou is the real deal, the original Surrealist sensation whose impact all the others have been trying to imitate to for almost a century. It is the undiluted essence of the pure unconscious spilled onto celluloid like vitreous humor. At a mere 17 minutes it’s the perfect length for a pure Surrealist movie; it hits hard and never overstays its welcome. It’s shocking, disturbing, full of marvels and uncomfortably hilarious; in other words, weird, weird, weird.

COMMENTS: A cloud hits the moon. Eyeball jelly oozes around a straight razor. A man rides a bicycle dressed as a nun. Ants pour from a hole in his hand. In the street below a woman pokes at a severed hand with a stick. Breasts turn into buttocks. A man pulls two pianos, two dead donkeys, and two priests. Later, he shoots his doppelgänger with  a pair of books that turn into six shooters. He wipes away his mouth and the woman’s armpit hair appears on his face. There are no Andalusians or dogs, but there is a striped box of unexplained significance. After watching it you feel like you’ve just woken up from a dream after eating an entire anchovy pizza for a midnight snack.

Buñuel insisted that there is no meaning to Un Chien Andalou. He and Dalí select and present ideas, images that move them in secret places, but the film does not propound an argument. It is a work of art that angrily resists analysis or interpretation. It rudely disorients us, as the intertitles throw us back and forth in time at random: a man begins to walk across a room, a title announces “sixteen years before,” and then he continues advancing to the other side. In the special feature accompanying the Transflux Films DVD, Luis’ son Juan-Luis Buñuel describes how contemporary critics in 1929 (and ever since), trained in traditional methods of interpretation, could not resist supplying symbolic meanings to every maddeningly obscure incident in the film. When the man chases the woman but can’t reach her because of the ropes that haul pianos, dead donkeys and priests, certain critics contended that this mise-en-scene represents the way the artist held back from achieving his desire by three things: religion (the seminarians), death (donkey corpses), and his own art (the piano). On no evidence, a contributor to the film’s IMDB and Wikipedia entries insists that the rotting donkeys are an intentionally insulting reference to a 1914 children’s novel that featured a donkey as a character; it seems to comfort him to have uncovered a rational explanation for the imagery, even though such a citation adds nothing to the film and in fact trivializes the image. We can’t help but picture Buñuel and Dalí sitting around reading such theories over glasses of gin, having a good laugh at the writers who came up with such nonsense. Perhaps at bottom the “meaningless” Un Chien Andalou was only an artistic prank, intended to draw scholars and their crazy rationalizations out into the open to expose them as know-nothing busybodies constructing castles in the air.

By being deliberately meaningless, however, Un Chien Andalou paradoxically becomes about something. It becomes about the idea of meaning itself: about whether “meaning” is essential to art, and about whether it necessarily exists even if we consciously deny it. Although most of us can agree that there is no conscientious system of symbolic meaning to Un Chien Andalou, there are many different ways to interpret the film’s lack of meaning. Perhaps the authors are simply want us to questioning the notion of meaning in film. Do we really require movies to “mean something”? Why? Alternatively, we could presume that the film is intended as an existential representation of the absurd universe we find ourselves in, a world where none of the random events that occur to us in our daily life have any fixed meaning other than what we chose to assign to them. In a similar vein, we might conclude the film is a psychological comment on our human need to create meaning out of meaninglessness; Buñuel and Dalí present us with senseless or semi-sensical scenarios, and our minds instinctively set to work attempting to construct a coherent narrative from them. Or, you could argue that the movie reveals the metaphysical truth that all objects and ideas in the world are interconnected. Buñuel and Dalí may randomly assign a book to turn into a gun, but that arbitrary choice immediately suggests a metaphor: books are like guns that shoot ideas rather than bullets. No matter what two items you juxtapose the human mind will discover the connection between them.

Un Chien Andalou is a dream on film—perhaps the best example of a dream on film—but although dreams are irrational, they are not meaningless. They represent the mind at play and reveal emotional realities rather than rational ones. While asserting that nothing in the film intentionally symbolizes anything, Buñuel nonetheless concedes that “the only method of investigation of the symbols would be, perhaps, psychoanalysis.” Surrealism does not officially denounce the concept of meaning. Rather, it seeks to free and expand it by inviting the entire mind—conscious and subconscious alike—to participate in defining it. In that sense, it’s possible the critics who contend that the man hauling the donkeys, pianos and priests represent the struggle of the artist are on to something. Perhaps those hidden connections are what unconsciously motivated Buñuel and Dalí when they described the scenario to each other in their creative ecstasy as they jotted down the ideas that would coalesce into Un Chien Andalou. Buñuel insisted he and Dalí had no artistic ambition with this film other than their hope to create a scandal; but is there any legitimate way for a Surrealist to create a poetic masterpiece, other than by accident?

At any rate, there is a peculiar and intense lyricism to the images the two eager young Surrealists dreamt up to shock the world. As generations of film students have discovered to their dismay, making an Un Chien Andalou is not as easy as it looks. You cannot simply throw random images at the screen and create a masterpiece; you must have a nose to ferret out the buried fascinations of things. Buñuel and Dalí have the instincts of poets, albeit sleeping poets. They created Un Chien Andalou out of a passion for the irrational. Take them for their word when they tell you that it means nothing. Do we go to cinemas to find meaning? If that’s what we want we’d be better off patronizing churches, schools or libraries. We go to the movies to experience shared dreams. And nobody has ever dreamt harder, weirder or better than Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí; if they did, they didn’t get it on film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…hallucinatory and incendiary… Some of the images have great poetic force, and at times they have an erotic humor that one has difficulty explaining, even to oneself.”–Pauline Kael, The New Yorker

“… this unnerving slice of surrealist psychedelia is the reason we all dream in black and white.”–Anton Bitel, Movie Gazette (DVD)

“Detractors write it off for it’s shock value, but shock value lasts a lot closer to 75 seconds than 75 years… this work maintains an eerie intensity, in good part because the absolute lack of connection between the atrocities never ceases to be surprising.”–Mike Lorefice, Raging Bull Reviews (DVD)

IMDB LINK: Un Chien Andalou (1929)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Un Chien Andalou :: rogerebert.com:: Great Movies – Roger Ebert’s essay on Un Chien Andalou for his “Great Movies” series

Critics Picks: Un Chien AndalouNew York Times film critic A.O. Scott’s three-minute video appreciation of Un Chien Anadalou

Un Chien Andalou | Senses of Cinema – Michael Koller’s essay for Senses of Cinema provides excellent background and context for the film

Un Chien Andalou – Film (Movie) Plot and Review – Publications – A short analysis of and an extensive bibliography of books and articles about the film, by M.B. White

How Surrealism Inspired Horror Films – Fun (and accurate) speculation from The Guardian’s Johnathan Jones about the relationship between this avant-garde classic and “trashy” horror movies

Reality and Paradox in Un Chien Andalou – This brief article by Toro Goto uses the precepts of Surrealism to analyze a single scene from the film

Un Chien Andalou (1928, Luis Bunuel) – This Films 101 page lists basic information about the movie and collects a good number of links including “best of” lists Un Chien Andalou appears on

Weird Species II: the Surreal – 366 Weird Movies’ Surrealism primer discusses Un Chien Andalou in the context of the Surrealist movement

What’s Wrong With Being Weird for Weirdness’ Sake? – Our essay about the empty criticism of something for being “weird for weirdness’ sake” uses Un Chien Andalou as it’s cornerstone example

DVD INFO: Un Chien Andalou is not in the public domain, as is sometimes supposed. The 2004 Transflux DVD (buy) is the only Region 1 disc available, and the print shows frequent defects that beg for restoration. Author Stephen Barber provides a good and knowledgeable commentary track, although as an expert on fellow Surrealist Antonin Artaud he is an odd choice to explain Buñuel and Dalí (he keeps bringing the conversation back around to Artaud). Since the film only runs 17 minutes, we get 20 minutes of intriguing interviews from Luis Buñuel’s son Juan-Luis to pad the running time. Juan-Luis tells anecdotes about his dad’s prankster past (including the one about how her wrecked Charlie Chaplin‘s Christmas party) and describes his father’s strained relationship with the increasingly eccentric Dalí, as well as analyzing the film. An excerpt from a speech by Buñuel and an appreciation from artist David McKean round out the special features. Those with Region 2 players have the more appealing option of purchasing the film as part of a British Film Institute double feature disc that include the Buñuel/Dalí feature-length collaboration L’Age D’Or (1930) (buy). No special features are listed, but reviewers describe the image on the BFI disc as a vast improvement over the Transflux release.

 (This movie was nominated for review by multiple readers, but zosia was the first.  Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

8 thoughts on “117. UN CHIEN ANDALOU (1929)”

  1. unfortunately, the dvd release you pictured here is a technically awful transfer that someone pulled from a bad quality (and damaged) tape source and converted poorly. you can easily see the dark, contrasty visuals (thus obscuring much of the visual detail) and at a couple of points, videotape damage is very obvious. whomever was responsible for that digital release was a technically inept crook. i’d recommend people avoid that disc, it’s a ripoff. superior copies of the film may be found on a 1980s-era vhs (or good conversions deriving from it) and new film prints of it were in circulation at about the same time, as well.

    1. jim, I wrote “the print shows frequent defects that beg for restoration” but it is helpful to stress the point. The Transflux DVD is made from a bad print. All things being equal I would prefer a pristine Chien Andalou, and if there were another choice on Region 1 DVD I would recommend it instead. VHS is an option for those who still have VCRs and the BFI DVD is better for those with Region 2 capabilities. That being said, I personally am not one who demands the utmost visual fidelity, and I have watched and enjoyed 80-year old movies with even worse prints (heck, some movies from the 60s and 70s have worse prints). Videophiles should definitely beware the Transflux release, but I think the Un Chien Andalou‘s images and ideas still come across in this presentation, which is what’s most important.

  2. “Do you believe she said that?”

    This film initially came to my attention when I “wrote” a poem by drawing words at random from a book about surrealism, and the film’s title wormed its way in.

    I also used to record bits of television on VHS tapes in somewhat random order in an emulation of Burrough’s cut-up technique. Watching these tapes seemed to me as an invitation to your mind. When there is no central narrative, the narrative your mind creates (and your mind WILL create a narrative), is an invitation to see how your brain actually works.

    I think I lost my point, but when you truly try to approach a nonsense narrative, some sort of meaning slips through, and there’s nobody left to blame but yourself. So, pay attention, I guess?

  3. This is the right 117. UN CHIEN ANDALOU (1929) « 366 Weird Movies diary for anyone who wants to act out out virtually this matter. You observation so often its almost wearing to contend with you (not that I rattling would want…HaHa). You definitely put a new protract on a topic thats been scrivened active for life. Prissy block, only majuscule!

  4. For those who live in the right part of the world or have suitable equipment, the Region 2 DVD is excellent. However, this is not a big-budget movie and it was made a long time ago, so any print will look crude by today’s standards. I haven’t seen the Region 1 version, but so long as the picture quality is good enough to let you see what’s going on, you aren’t really missing very much. I assume it’s uncensored because if you cut out anything that might upset anybody, the movie has no reason to exist.

    The Region 2 box-set gives you two alternative soundtracks for this silent movie; a recreation of the original, which was simply Luis Bunuel playing whatever records he had lying around – mostly Wagner and a random tango number; or if you prefer, a more recent score especially composed for this film. Interestingly, the totally random music works about ten times better.

    Try watching this back-to-back with Eraserhead. See that bit where Mary shakes the end of the bed in what seems to be a futile attempt to drag it across the floor, but after an unnecessarily long time turns out to be merely freeing her suitcase? That’s a very obvious homage to the scene where a man expresses the horrors of frustrated sexual desire by laboriously dragging a random selection of heavy objects in the general direction of the beloved. (By the way, since a near-fanatical adherence to Freud’s theories was part of the official dogma of Surrealism, I don’t think I’m being overly logical in attaching that meaning to that scene.) You’ll see a few other parallels as well.

  5. This is the reverse 117. UN CHIEN ANDALOU (1929) « 366 Weird Movies blog for anyone who wants to seek out out some this issue. You remark so some its nearly effortful to debate with you (not that I truly would want…HaHa). You definitely put a new rotate on a subject thats been printed some for age. Nice nonsensicality, simply enthusiastic!

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