242. L’AGE D’OR (1930)

“It is LOVE that brings about the transition from pessimism to action: Love, denounced in the bourgeois demonology as the root of all evil. For love demands the sacrifice of every other value: status, family, and honor.”–from the program to L’Age D’Or

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Gaston Madot, Lya Lys, Max Ernst

PLOT: It begins as a documentary on scorpions. “Some hours later,” reads an intertitle, and suddenly we are on a rocky beach where a peasant spies four chanting bishops perched on a rocky outcropping. Later, on the same beach, a man and a woman are discovered locked in an embrace; they spend the rest of the movie attempting to consummate their love, as the action shifts to “Imperial Rome” and a private concert at a wealthy bourgeois garden party.

Still from L'age D'or (1930)

BACKGROUND:

  • The bohemian aristocrat Vicomte Charles de Noailles commissioned this film as a birthday present for his wife (a poet and a descendant of the Marquis de Sade). Because of the scandalized reaction to the film’s blasphemous content, the Vicomte was threatened with excommunication by the Catholic Church, and quickly withdrew the film from circulation.
  • The film’s original title was to be Un Bête Andalou.
  • As with Un Chien Andalou, Buñuel originally planned to co-write and co-direct with, but the two had a falling out before the film was completed. Dalí is credited as co-writer, but disowned the film later, and what remains of his contributions is a matter of conjecture.
  • Painter Max Ernst had a large role in the film; other less-famous members of the Surrealist circle appear in smaller parts.
  • The opening is footage from a 1912 documentary. The ending is a reference to Marquis de Sade’s “120 Days of Sodom.”
  • Along with official members of the Surrealist movement, Pablo Picasso, , Vladimir Nabokov, and Gertrude Stein were among those in attendance at a private screening hosted by the Vicomte.
  • Buñuel had hoped that Un Chien Andalou would incite riots and was disappointed when it was a huge popular success. L’Age D’Or did inspire violence. Members of the Fascist-leaning “League of Patriots”  threw ink and the screen and destroyed paintings by Dalí and other Surrealists that were being exhibited in conjunction with one screening. The French authorities banned the film within a year of its release “to preserve public order.”
  • Because the de Noailles family removed L’Age D’Or from distribution, the film was not legally screened in the United States until 1979.
  • At the urging of the Spanish Communists, who considered Surrealism bourgeois, Buñuel later re-cut L’Age D’Or into a 20-minute short to make it less difficult and more accessible to proletariat viewers. This version of the film did not survive.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: For its poster image, distributor Kino Lorber takes the scene where Lya Lys, frustrated that her finger-sucking foreplay with Gaston Madot has been temporarily interrupted, satisfies her desires by fellating the toe of a nearby statue. But we find the moment where she walks into her boudoir to see a cow lounging on her bed to be funnier, and less expected. (Footnote one: one source reports that this scene is a pun, since the word for “cow” [“vache”] was then-current French slang for “cop.” If so, the fact that this meaning is lost on contemporary audiences makes the image even more surreal. Footnote two: a still that frequently accompanies reviews of the movie shows a man crouched down next to the cattle-infested bed; this shot does not appear in Kino’s cut of the film, and may be from a promotional still).

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Shoo cow; stone toe sucking; Jesus leaves the orgy

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Skeletal bishops on the beach, cows in the bedroom, and Jesus at a murder orgy: the scandalous L’Age D’Or was too hot and weird for 1930, and still carries the power to shock today. Watch it for its historical importance, but also as a profane prayer—an unapologetic hymn in praise of unfettered individual desire.


Short clip from L’Age D’or

COMMENTS: In the repurposed documentary footage that opens L’Age D’or, the title cards explain that the scorpion’s “tail comprises five prismatic joints… it’s tail ends in a sixth joint, a sac from which poison is injected by barbed sting.” Many critics accept that this is a description of the upcoming film: five segments, with venom in the tail (the sixth segment). The observation is both natural and clever. Perhaps it is such a small point that none of the critics accepting the theory bothered to spell it out, however, but—what are the six segments? The scorpion prologue and the blasphemous epilogue, naturally, form two clear sections. It’s also natural to divide the scenes set on the rocky beach (where the peasants discover the invading Bishops) from the ones set in “Imperial Rome” (which revolve around the frustrated desires of the Man and the Woman). But that only accounts for four segments, not six. To reach six articulations, we likely need to accept that the brief documentary section on Imperial Rome (where it is revealed that “sometimes, on Sundays” the city’s walls spontaneously collapse) dividing the scenes on the beach from those in the city comprises an entire segment. We then must cut the Imperial Rome scenes into two sections by pinching off the events that occur prior to Marquis X’s party from those that occur during the soiree. The lengths and relative importance of our chosen sections vary wildly, but the process does point to a certain degree of indeterminacy in the movie. There is a tension here between what appears to be Buñuel’s overall rational schema for L’Age D’Or, and the constant interruptions of the foggy and irrational. It would be quintessential Buñuel to suggest that the upcoming film would have a certain structure, and then subvert that expectation.

A more poetic and Buñuelian motto for the film comes from the intertitle’s description of the carnivorous arachnid: “a lover of darkness, it burrows under stones[1]…” Buñuel lives to dig deep into the dark unconscious. What he finds there, inevitably, is sex—Freudian images of sex that are displaced into dream simulacra. Frustrated libido is the engine that drives L’Age D’or‘s pseudo-Surrealist plot. We first meet our two protagonists (remarkably, fifteen minutes of the hour’s worth of film have elapsed before our introduction!) as they are locked in a passionate embrace on the rocky beach. The assembled society, who have come to found Rome, immediately pull them apart—public displays of love are unseemly at a civilized gathering. But one thing remains on their minds. In one of the most striking and explicit examples of his preoccupation, as the Man is led through the streets of Rome by a pair of plainclothes gendarmes he sees an advertisement pasted on a wall: a woman’s hand on a black background, extended towards an inkwell. As he gazes at it, the hand comes alive and two fingers plunge repeatedly into a hole in the background, while the inkwell turns into a patch of hair. Other scenes show a similarly amusing displaced eroticism: when the two finally meet, they rapturously suck on each others’ fingers with abandoned expressions, and when the man presumably climaxes, his face is covered in blood as he repeatedly moans “mon amour!”

Sex and violence are connected in this world, but they aren’t linked by their psychological proximity. Rather, it is sexual repression that breeds L’Age D’Or‘s comical violence. If society had not rudely ripped the two lovers apart, presumably they would have found ecstasy copulating on the beach before the ossified bishops. As the authorities lead the Man away, however, he pauses to stomp on a bug in frustration, then kick a dog. The Man puts W.C. Fields’ philosophy about children and dogs into practice; his constant annoyance, and his dedication to getting out his aggression on the harmless and the helpless, becomes a source of simmering amusement. He hails a cab, but makes it wait while he takes time out to kick a nearby blind man. When the Woman’s mother spills a small drop of wine on his hand, he slaps her face; an act which inspires great ardor in her pining daughter. The punchline to all of this mayhem occurs when the man clears everything up by giving his papers to his police escort; he’s a Special Ambassador from the International Goodwill Society! A title cannot change what a man is inside. After his final frustration, he goes on an orgy of vandalism, throwing various items out of the woman’s window: a burning tree, a bishop, a phallic spear, and a giraffe (which plunges into a river at the bottom of a deep ravine).

In case we had somehow missed Buñuel’s ultimate target in this profane satire, there is that notorious closer: the sting in the scorpion’s tail, the final blasphemy that ensured the film could not be distributed in 1930. The film suddenly transitions to the “Chateau de Selliny,” where “four godless and unprincipled scoundrels” are leaving “the most bestial of orgies.” (The implication is these are the revelers from the Marquis de Sade’s “120 Days of Sodom”). The first exhausted debaucher to emerge from the castle doors wears a white robe, beard, long hair, and a beatific expression. In the unlikely case we might miss the reference, the program notes distributed at screenings bluntly announced, “The Duc de Blangis is clearly Jesus Christ.” While casting the Christian messiah as the protagonist of one of de Sade’s pornographic outrages may seem like a juvenile prank and mere censor-baiting, it is a climax to a line of thinking. Throughout the entire film Buñuel is making a serious point about the relationship between the Church, society, sex, and violence. This  isn’t a transvestite eating dog crap to sell tickets, but part of an extended argument L’Age D’or has been making about the dangers of sexual repression in a society where taboos[2] were much more stringent oppressive than those of today. The bizarre, blasphemous metaphor was intended as a slap in the face to good, God-fearing bourgeois Christians. A slap is not always an insult; sometimes, it can awaken one from a trance, which was surely Buñuel’s aim. Whatever you might think of this particular blow, it was certainly brave—Buñuel risked not only his career, but possibly his life with this stunt, which provoked Fascist gangs to violence. Although the film was banned, its artistic success and notoriety nevertheless helped make way for today’s normalization of blasphemy, which in turn has eroded the enormous dictatorial power the Church once held over sex and society. If you’ve ever told a tasteless off-color joke about a nun and not been sent to prison, you need to thank Luis Buñuel for helping to make it possible.

Buñuel consciously mocks Church, State, etiquette, and civilization in general in L’Age D’or. I use the word “consciously” deliberately, because the Surrealists were supposed to be the champions of the unconscious, of art produced through automatic, unedited creation and randomness. Un Chien Andalou was completely nonsensical and carefully unplanned; the aim was to demonstrate how the human mind operates, depicting a flow of dreamlike ideas and images that the conscious mind then associates and organizes into some sort of meaning. Here, Buñuel is already moving away from the pure play of the unconscious mind in Andalou to something didactic, an art that is carefully directed by a rational intelligence. Although it might surprise the layman, the truth is that after Un Chien Andalou Buñuel never made another Surrealist film at all; he was already pioneering neo-Surrealism, free-form experimental films utilizing extensive Surrealist sequences that nevertheless exhibited the traditional conscious planning that artists everywhere had always used. He was more interested in fomenting social and political revolution that in furthering the Surrealist’s short-lived aesthetic revolution. Although his official reason for leaving the Surrealist movement in 1932 was to appease the Communists, it seems Buñuel’s muse was already too fiercely independent to allow him to play by a dogmatic set of rules. Rather than playing in a purely unconscious sandbox, or crafting his art according to the limits of the possible, he merged dreams with reality and blazed a middle path, the wild trail that weird filmmakers still follow today.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Let us say straight off that the production is boring… This pretentious and dreary pensum has nothing to do with avant-garde art or with just plain art. The technical execution is so poor that it would elicit catcalls in the poorest film houses in our most provincial towns.”–“G.M.”, Echo de Paris (contemporaneous) (cited and translated in Ado Kyrou, Bunuel)

“Nonsensical, erotic, scandalous, revolutionary: Luis Buñuel’s surrealist masterpiece L’Âge D’Or is not for those of a nervous disposition… an exhilarating, irrational masterpiece of censor-baiting chutzpah.”–Jamie Russell, BBC

“The bliss of full-frontal subversion, cinema’s most exultant cattle prod, the best Marx Bothers comedy the Marx Brothers never made.”–Fernando F. Croce, Cinepassion

IMDB LINK: L’Age D’Or (1930)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

L’Age D’Or – There is a lot of fascinating background information in this well-researched article from the Movie Diva (Laura Boyes)

L’Age D’Or – Film (Movie) – Short commentary (by Douglas Gomery) with an extensive scholarly bibliography from the Film Reference website

L’Age D’Or, Luis Bunuel – film analysis – Darragh O’Donoghue essay on the film for Senses of Cinema (originally published in Issue 70, March 2014)

L’Age D’Or | BFI – Some basic information at the British Film Institute’s L‘Age D’Or page, including a link to see which directors and critics voted for the film in the famous “Sight and Sound” poll (would you be surprised to see Guy Maddin‘s name there?)

LIST CANDIDATE: L’AGE D’OR – Otto Black’s original review of the movie for this site

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

L’Age d’or (BFI Film Classics) – Paul Hammond’s monograph on the film for the British Film Institute’s “Classics” series

Luis Buñuel – Ado Kyrou’s analytical biography contains only a short segment on L’Age D’or, but it helps to fix the film in the context of Buñuel’s life work

DVD INFO: While Un Chien Andalou is only available on DVD in the US in a poor transfer (admittedly with very good special features), the situation is somewhat better in regards to L’Age D’Or thanks to Kino Lorber, who snapped up the rights and put out a good-looking restored version on disc (buy). The extras are an (incomplete) Buñuel filmography and a (short) stills gallery. The commentary by author-filmmaker Robert Short receives generally poor reviews; it’s pompous, the narration drops out for long sections, and Short fails to provide some appropriate background information (such as failing to mention Max Ernst’s appearance).

The film is also available digitally on-demand (buy or rent digital copy).

  1. Later in the film, we actually see a man walking through a park with a large stone on his head, walking past a statue with an identical rock perched on its dome. This stone hat is probably one of the few Dali ideas that made it into the film, as we see similar visuals crop up in his later paintings, and also in Destino. []
  2. Buñuel leaves one taboo in place: he shies away from hinting at the homosexual depravities of de Sade’s story, omitting mention of the boy victims. This is likely due to the auteur’s well-documented homophobia rather than to a desire to spare French sensibilities. []

2 thoughts on “242. L’AGE D’OR (1930)”

  1. It’s funny but for a film as provocative as L’ Age Dor the one thing I took away from the experience was the strength of Max Ernst’s performance. I was surprised by how natural and intense he was, given the fact he was an untrained actor. A pleasant surprise given how much I love his paintings, particularly Europe after the Rain 2. http://www.max-ernst.com/europe-after-rain.jsp

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