Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Cinema Strange #14. Un Chien Andalou (Luis Buñuel, 1929)

Buñuel's fascinating surrealist short remains one of silent cinema's greatest achievements...

Un Chien Andalou is a film born out of dreams, which is why 'reading' it (academically speaking, this means to dissect and understand) is such a fruitless and infuriating task. Buñuel - a visionary if ever the cinema saw one - met Salvador Dalí at the Residencia de Estudiantes University in 1917, and they soon became firm friends. One day they told each other of the peculiar dreams they had each experienced; Buñuel had envisioned a cloud slicing the moon in half, "like a razor blade slicing through an eye", and Dalí had imagined a hand crawling with ants (insects were actually a passion of Buñuel's, and they reappear throughout his work). Together they boldly decided to commit these dreams to celluloid, and from this idea Un Chien Andalou was born. For the past eighty years critics and cineastes have been examining and attempting to interpret the film, but I can't possibly comprehend why. Do we really live in a time where every question must be met with an answer, and every image a meaning? Can it not just be that Un Chien Andalou is an illusion - the fractured visualization of fevered reverie, by two of the greatest artists of the 20th Century? Is it not so much more enticing to be baffled by a work of art, and come back to it time and time again? I don't think I'll ever understand Un Chien Andalou, nor do I especially want to. I want to think about it, debate and question it, and marvel at its complexities...

One of the most known facts about the film is that, upon its premiere in Paris, Buñuel hid behind the screen with stones in his pockets, in preparation for being attacked; he actually expected the film to provoke violence in the viewer, as he worried that they would not understand it. Of course, how could they? Even now the film shocks in its bluntly visceral nature. It opens immediately, without warning, to the infamous eye slicing scene which serves as a prologue to the main 'narrative'. The film is introduced, in a fashion typical for fairytales and bedtime fables, with the words 'Once Upon A Time...' and then we bear witness to the sharpening of a razor (by Buñuel himself). Without warning or reason the attack ensues; I'm honestly surprised that there wasn't revolt. It is true that Un Chien Andalou is not exclusively comprised of Buñuel and Dalí's dream material, but this does not mean that their additionally scripted scenes hold any extra meaning, although many would tell you different - including Robert Short, who provides a commentary for the film on the BFI's latest release of L'age d'Or (Buñuel, 1930), on which this is an extra.

As I said in my review of that later film (which is also extraordinary, but suffers from its extension to feature-length), all I can really give is my opinion, and here it is: Un Chien Andalou is a masterpiece, and one of the greatest films of all time. My favoured version is Buñuel's 1960 restoration, with extracts from Wagner's 'Tristan und Isolde' score, as that music perfectly complements the choreography, and its over-dramatic (and formal) nature lends the surrealism an even greater sense of peculiarity. The camerawork and editing is impeccable in the piece, especially the use of tracking shots and close-ups, which intensify the feeling of each segment. It's a wildly unpredictable farce, and an endlessly entertaining one, which really does reveal new ideas with each viewing. I've seen the film around ten times now. I still don't know what it's about, and I never want to...

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