January 31, 2011

L'Âge d'Or (1930)

In the mid 20s, a young and enthusiast Luis Buñuel was decided to get involved in the French film industry after having been fascinated by the works by Fritz Lang. This determination took him to get a job as a production assistant in Jean Epstein's 1926 film, "Mauprat". Buñuel's dedication soon made him assistant director in later works by Epstein and Mario Naplas, where he would learn the basics of the craft. Finally, Buñuel would debut as a director in 1929 with a 16-minute short film titled "Un chien andalou" (literally, "An Andalusian Dog"). Written by painter Salvador Dalí and Buñuel himself, "Un chien andalou" was an experimental film that followed a surreal storyline composed of a series of allegoric (and often nightmarish) scenes based on dreams that Dalí and Buñuel had written. The innovative short film was a success amongst the French artistic community, and increased interest in the Spaniard filmmaker. French nobleman Vicomte Charles de Noailles and his wife, Marie-Laure de Noailles, decided to produce Buñuel's first feature-length film: "L'Âge d'Or".

Known in English as "The Golden Age", "L'Âge d'Or" opens with images that seem like a fragment from a documentary about scorpions, detailing their nature and habits, making emphasis in their lack of tolerance to others and their poisonous sting. Then the "main storyline" begins properly, which presents the efforts of a man and a woman to love each other despite the forces that conspire against them, namely society, authority and religious organizations. This story unfolds through a series of vignettes tied together without any apparent structure; however, these vignettes in fact represent Buñuel and Dalí's own subversive ideas about society, put together in accordance to the surrealist principles they were familiar, pretty much in a similar way to their previous effort, "Un chien andalou". Nevertheless, while "Un chien andalou" works as a nightmare (or better said, a vision) come to life; "L'Âge d'Or", works more like a graphic representation of the train of thought that these two artists had at the time. Is it a revolution or a joke? Perhaps, "L'Âge d'Or" tried to be a bit of both.

Written by director Luis Buñuel and painter Salvador Dalí (though Buñuel argues that Dalí's collaboration was minimal), the vignettes of "L'Âge d'Or" contain a darkly perverse brand of humor, employing an apparently light-hearted comedy to deliver its sharp, merciless attacks. Nothing escapes from Buñuel's sting, from the Catholic Church to the militia, the happily ignorants and the arrogant intellectuals, the civil authority, the government and of course, at the top of all, the bourgeoisie society. The message being, apparently, that love can't reach its full potential because it suffers under the oppressive moral of society, which represses sexuality while at the same time breeds and propagates vices of worse nature. Violence and its absurdity is also tackled by Buñuel, as violence seem to be the only available escape for the otherwise repressed passions. Violence that goes from the abuse of a little dog to the cold blooded murder of a child. Of course, all this is handled with the same light-hearted tone that Buñuel uses through the film, accentuating its absurdity.

In this his first feature length film, Buñuel certainly showcases his domain of cinema as an artistic expression. "L'Âge d'Or" is a film that oozes symbolism, and practically every vignette was carefully planned to convey a certain, very specific message. Still, while even at this early stage Buñuel's mastery of cinema as a language is out of the question, at the time when "L'Âge d'Or" was made Buñuel was still learning the technique, and it shows in several parts. The disjointed, surreal narrative, while powerful and effective in "Un chien andalou", feels broken and incomplete in "L'Âge d'Or". Buñuel's editing is still abrupt and forced, and some vignettes would benefit of an easier transition (granted, "L'Âge d'Or" was not meant to be a film easy to digest). Albert Duverger's work of cinematography is truly exquisite in certain scenes (the famous scene of the religious statue for example), but there are points in which it feels surprisingly amateurish. Certainly, Buñuel's eye was still developing his very own style, but as a whole, it feels a work a tad amateurish at first glance.

Acting through "L'Âge d'Or" is for the most part effective, considering the goals of the film, as it should be noted that given the nature of the film, the performances tend to be hammy, overacting every emotion and expression. It's after all, a parody of self-righteousness, and a film done in the style of silent cinema. As one of the two protagonists, Lya Lys plays the young girl (the characters lack names), and she basically portrays an archetype of femininity (feminity as understood by Buñuel of course). The young girl is fragile and elegant, yet at the same time full of passion. Gaston Modot, delivering a truly remarkable performance, plays her counterpart, the equally unnamed man (as if was to represent all men). Modot's character is also filled with passion, but as the authorities oppress him, his passion finds an outlet in violence, and begins his struggle to satisfy his love (or is it lust? Both are equally important in "L'Âge d'Or" as purer expressions of humanity). The rest of the cast is effective, for the most part, though nothing particularly surprising.

Certainly, "L'Âge d'Or" is quite an ambitious film, with its cruel yet humorous attacks to social order and its complex symbolism; nevertheless, I personally found it a bit too full of itself for its own good. Some of Buñuel's targets are pretty obvious and, since the attacks are anything but subtle, the film can feel less witty and more childish than what was expected. Of course, the disjointed narrative also becomes a bit of a problem as the movie, being of a higher complexity and longer runtime than "Un chien andalou", tends to lose its point at several parts, and some vignettes do feel forced within the narrative. It's clear that Buñuel had in mind something big with the making of this project but, it seems that it was a project still too big for his creative mind at that moment. Granted, "L'Âge d'Or" was designed to be more symbolic than explicit, more an experience than an entertainment, and definitely more emotional than rational; but the overall experience is one of an unfulfilled mission.

Of course, Luis Buñuel would tackle surrealism later in his career, with the crowing pieces of his surrealist oeuvre being his 70s films, "Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie" ("The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie") and "Le Fantôme de la liberté" ("The Phantom of Liberty"), which would earn him the title of master of surrealism. While probably not entirely satisfying, "L'Âge d'Or" was a clear signal of the interests of the young Buñuel and, despite its many flaws, shows that even at this early stage of his career the vision of Buñuel was already developed (His technique would improve and blossom later, during his exile in Mexico). "L'Âge d'Or" or "The Golden Age", is a difficult film to watch (personally, it wouldn't be my first choice for an afternoon), but truly a key one that has to be experienced to discover the origins of Luis Buñuel and the core of surrealist cinema.

Watch "L'Âge d'Or" (1930)

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