Early Surrealist Films


This essay will examine the early films of Luis Buñuel as they relate to the Surrealist Movement active in Paris throughout the 1920s.  We will begin by giving a brief introduction to Surrealism as a literary and artistic movement.  Then we will look specifically at Surrealist attitudes toward popular culture in general, with specific attention given to the cinema (and cinema-going).  Then we will investigate the “generative mechanisms” behind Buñuel’s first two films.  According to Robert C. Allen and Douglas Gomery in Film History: Theory and Practice, these relate to “four…major avenues of film historical research”: 1) aesthetic, 2) technological, 3) economic and 4) social (37-38).  While these factors do not play an equal role in these films, each one will be addressed to some degree.


Like Expressionism in Germany, the Surrealist movement began as a reaction to the social, political and economic upheavals of the First World War.  Its founder, André Breton, served in a psychiatric hospital during the war, using Freud’s psychoanalytic techniques – in particular, free verbal association and dream analysis – to treat soldiers suffering from shell shock.  At the end of the war and upon his return to Paris, Breton found a literary magazine for the publication of his early experiments with automatic writing, a method thought to obtain uncensored material directly from the unconscious.  In this period, Breton was associated with Dadaism, an anti-art movement perhaps best epitomized by Marcel Duchamp’s famous “found object” Fountain, a urinal he inverted and “signed” before entering it into an art exhibition, where (perhaps not surprisingly) it eventually found a place in a back corner near the bathrooms.  Only slowly, over the course of contact with Dada artists and artists later associated with Surrealism, did Breton’s emphasis shift from the literary to the visual arts.

In 1924 Breton published the first Surrealist Manifesto, which defined Surrealism this way: “Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life” (Leslie 59).  Thus Surrealism is more than a technique, or even a narrow range of themes; it is a point of view and a way of life, linked to the synthesis of Marx and Freud so popular at that time among French intellectuals of every stripe.  The same year saw the publication of the first issue of The Surrealist Revolution, a magazine devoted to Surrealist writings, and the establishment of the Bureau of Surrealist Research, headed by playwright and actor Antonin Artaud, which soon began to delve into the realm of sexuality.  The Bureau sent out questionnaires inviting Surrealists to explore their wildest sexual fantasies and recount formative sexual experiences.  There was also a keen interest among many Surrealists in the case histories of Krafft-Ebing (as found in his book Psychopathia Sexualis), Freud and Havelock Ellis.  At around the same time, unexpurgated editions of the writings of the Marquis de Sade were being prepared, at the encouragement and by the hand of members of the Surrealist group.  Buñuel himself read an older, bowdlerized copy of Sade previously owned by Marcel Proust, loaned to him by a fellow Surrealist; Marie-Laure, the wife of the Vicomte Charles de Noailles, art patron and producer of L’Age d’Or, which concludes with an adaptation of the 120 Days of Sodom, was said to be a distant relation of the “Divine Marquis” (Hammond 56).

Surrealism on Cinema

Surrealist attitudes to popular culture were innovative for the time.  Whereas many “highbrow” intellectuals tended to denigrate popular forms of entertainment as vulgar and regressive, the Surrealists viewed certain forms – comic strips and early cinema, for instance (slapstick comedies and the serials of Louis Feuillade in particular were favored) – as “popular accomplices” to Surrealist values and as sites of resistance to “high” culture and other bourgeois values, especially the “Unholy Trinity” of nation, family and religion (Richardson 16).  The anarchy of slapstick comedies appealed particularly to Buñuel, who wrote several appreciative pieces on Buster Keaton (Battling Buster and College) and worked explicit references to Keaton’s films into his own early work – the scene in Andalou where a character starts to fall in one location and finishes his collapse in another is reminiscent of a scene in Sherlock Jr. (which dealt with the conditions of film construction in a deliberately self-reflexive manner).

Beyond an appreciation for the formal and thematic potential of early cinema, the Surrealists were attracted to the very conditions of cinema attendance.  They likened the experience to the state of the dream: the darkened room, the play of light in a series of flickering images.  Furthermore, they responded to its collective nature: it was a dream that could be shared, a vision of the collective unconscious, always hovering on the threshold between the self and the social, a synthesis of Marx and Freud, whether or not the filmmakers (or the majority of the audience, for that matter) intended or were aware of these ramifications.

One well-known Surrealist practice involved entering a movie theater at a random point in the program, staying only until the first hint of boredom was experienced and then rushing off to another venue to repeat the same procedure.  Such an approach tends to devalue the linear, narrative importance of film in favor of the odd coincidence, the fleeting moment of serendipitous rapture.  This aesthetic seems in keeping with the concept of the “cinema of attractions” put forward by Tom Gunning – patrons of the early cinema, as far back as the Kinetoscope and the peepshow, seem to have been taken with the sheer spectacle of the presentation, the ontological marvel of what they were seeing, whether it was a train arriving at a station or a gunslinger firing directly into the camera (and, by extension, at them).  In fact, as we will see, the structure of L’Age d’Or represents just such a nonlinear series of set pieces, whose juxtaposition serves to disorient and disturb the viewer.

Un Chien Andalou

When Buñuel arrived in Paris in 1925, he joined Jean Epstein’s Academy of Cinema, where he served as an assistant on Mauprat (1936) and Fall of the House of Usher (1928), a dreamlike evocation of Poe utilizing some of the methods of German Expressionism.  Upon a visit to his home in Spain, he received a large amount of money (reported to be around 135,000 francs) from his mother which, after spending nearly half the sum on bars and nightlife, he used to produce his first film, Un Chien Andalou (Kyrou 16-17).  The film was shown in June 1929 at the Ursulines Theater after a special screening of Man Ray’s Mysteries of the Chateau of Dice for a group of leading Surrealists.  Impressed by the film, it served as the Spaniards’ introduction to the movement.  Later that year, it ran for several months at the Studio 28 in Montmartre, the venue that would be assaulted the next year by the forces of right-wing nationalism (the so-called “League of Patriots”) for its exhibition of L’Age d’Or (Hammond 60).  Buñuel was mortified by the popular success of the film, which he had conceived of as “a despairing, passionate call for murder” (Cook 370).

Written in a mere three days in collaboration with fellow Spaniard and friend from their time at the University of Madrid, Salvador Dali, the 17 minute film consists of a series of dream images.  In his autobiography, Buñuel discussed the process of composition and noted that “no idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind was accepted” (Buñuel).  Therefore, unlike the dream sequence in Pabst’s Secrets of a Soul (which was commissioned by two of Freud’s colleagues) or the sequence Dali later designed for Hitchcock’s Spellbound, both of which contain a secret which will solve a murder mystery, and thus must be made conscious and analyzed over the course of the film, the dream imagery in Andalou resists interpretation and draws the viewer down to the level of the unconscious, where they must construct their own cohesive narrative.

Nevertheless, there is a formal structure to the film, depending as it does on ironic, incongruous intertitle cards (defamiliarizing the conventional means of narrative continuity) and the predominance of match cuts between improbable objects (i.e., a woman’s armpit and a sea urchin).  The importance of cutting is established in the prologue, where a man (Buñuel himself) gazes up at the night sky as a sliver of clouds cut across the face of the moon.  This action is followed by the man’s slicing open of a woman’s eyeball. (A calf’s head, lightly made up with mascara, served as stand-in.)  The sequence of shots allows the “clouds across the moon” to establish a metaphor, which is then literalized by the man’s actions.  The process of montage parallels a diegetic act of violence (against a woman, naturally, thus establishing Andalou as quite possibly the first slasher film).

It is interesting to note that both the film’s stars, Pierre Batcheff and Simone Mareuil, later committed suicide: Batcheff by overdose of Veronal in 1932 and Mareuil, in a rather more extravagant fashion, by soaking herself in gasoline and setting herself on fire in 1954.  Both had considerable experience in the silent French cinema.  Batcheff appeared in over 25 films, including several leading parts, often as a young student, including a role as General Hoche in Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927).  Mareuil appeared in about 20 films, often as a chambermaid.

L’Age d’Or

Buñuel’s next film achieved such notoriety and public outcry (particularly, as we have seen, from right-wing factions of society) that it was banned by the French government for nearly 50 years.  Produced by the Vicomte de Noailles as a sequel of sorts to Andalou – and originally to be title Un Bête andalouse (An Andalusian Beast) – with approximately the same running time, the film quickly grew into a feature-length sound film (Hammond 24).  Utilizing the sound technology of the Tobis-Klangfilm corporation (and filmed partially at their Epinay studio), the film is billed in the opening credits as “sonore et parlant” (sound and talking).  This represents a hybrid stage between the silent film and “all talkie” that would emerge victorious in the next few years.  Buñuel uses of sound throughout the film in a variety of interesting ways – many stretches of the film play out as entirely silent (though often with an accompanying musical score (which at one point becomes diegetic when the orchestra performs Wagner for the gathered party guests)), others use direct, synchronous sound to capture dialogue (though this dialogue, following Surrealist precepts, is often disjointed and free associative), and others use “contrapuntal” sound effects (clanging cowbells, barking dogs, a howling wind) to create a poetic dissonance between sound and image.

Many critics (among them Paul Hammond) have pointed out that the film can be said to comprise six parts – in parallel to the five prismatic joints and sixth poison sac of the scorpion’s tail, as described in the film’s first segment, which was “borrowed” from a prewar educational film, Le Scorpion languedocien (1912).  Its subsequent description of the scorpion’s pincers as “organs of battle and information” can equally be applied to Buñuel’s film.  The scorpion’s antisocial behavior also mirrors that of the film’s two main characters, a pair of (would-be) lovers.

The second segment – featuring a ragtag group of bandits, played by members of the Surrealist group, including Max Ernst as the bandit leader – continues the theme of antisocial, criminal behavior: though the bandit’s seem an enervated, listless lot, they are clearly a “band of outsiders”.  The third segment features the arrival of a procession of leading dignitaries, church authorities and members of the bourgeois citizenry.  The pompous little politico’s speech – garbled and nonsensical (a moment perhaps borrowed by Chaplin for City Lights) – is disrupted by cries of passion.  Cut to the two main characters writhing around in flagrante in a puddle of mud and muck.  Indignant cries as the citizens drag them apart.  A sequence bookended by the protagonist’s mud-spattered face – which can be taken as a visualization of his desire or fantasy – shows his beloved on a toilet, gazing longingly into the camera, followed by the unoccupied toilet with a roll of burning toilet paper beside it.  Cut to roiling molten lava.  Over this the sound effect of the toilet flashes.  Complex cutting and contrapuntal sound effects combine to produce the transgressive humor of this sequence.

As he’s lead off, the man breaks away to savagely kick a small dog.  Seconds later, he squashes a beetle.  Frustrated desire turns outwardly destructive.  Meanwhile, back at the ceremony, a plop of cement is laid upon a foundation stone.  The cement resembles a pile of shit.  A rhyming visual signifies that the order of society is founded upon the ordure of the body (individual as well as politic).  Waste is not only endemic, it is a prerequisite for proper social functioning.  The plaque beneath the foundation stone commemorates the founding of…

Imperial Rome.  The fourth segment begins with travelogue footage borrowed from Pathé and Éclair newsreels, providing the basis for a parody of the city symphony film from Ruttmann’s Berlin to Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (Hammond 25).  Next we see the man being led by his guards.  In several remarkable shots, advertising he passes (and designed especially for the film) come to life, providing him with sexual, fetishized reminders of his beloved.  Now back in her respectable, aristocratic home, the woman sports a bandaged finger, linking her “real” condition to the fantasy of her lover.  The bandaged finger links to masturbatory activity (in French, apparently, the word for bandage is a homophone of the word for “to be horny”).  It is also the woman’s ring finger.  The possible connotations are thus overdetermined (a psychoanalytic term for a polysemy of meaning not reducible to a single level of interpretation).

The fifth – and longest – segment depicts a dinner party given by the woman’s parents, now identified as the Marquises de X.  This sequence contains subtle reference to (or even parody of) the “Lubitsch touch”: Continental sophistication and oblique references to sexual desire.  Though, it must be said, in this film those references are hardly subtle.  In the park, when the lovers finally embrace, they literally devour each other, sticking their fingers in each other’s mouths, the man’s hand shown as fingerless.  This “mad love” or amour fou, as the Surrealists called it, puts the protagonists beyond the pale of their families and social duties (as when the man – a Goodwill Ambassador – is called away to explain his lapse and replies, “What do I care about a bunch of brats?”)  However, such a love also requires its always-impossible consummation.  Mad love is desire (founded on lack) and not possession.  When the man comes close to possession, he has a vision of the woman, old and gray, which causes him to rethink his actions.  As Hammond points out (46), the use of Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” theme, particularly the Liebestod or “Death of Love,” points to an archetype of love which can exist only by the surmounting of ever-increasing obstacles, death being the last and greatest of these.  The link between sex and death can also be found at the end of Andalou, whose final shot shows the two lovers buried up their chests in sand and (at least according to the script) covered in swarms of flies.

The couple are once again blocked by the arrival of the head-clutching conductor.  The woman moves to console and comfort him, which quickly segues into a make-out session.  Disgusted, the man storms off to the strident rhythms of the drums of Calanda (injuring his own head in the process, making him the conductor’s double or alter ego), going into the woman’s bedroom, her inner sanctum, to take out his sexual frustration in a series of escalating destructive acts: tossing from her window a burning tree, a plow, a bishop and his crosier and a toy giraffe.  The pile of pillow feathers on the windowsill provides a match cut to fields of snow.

Thus opening the sixth and final segment.  Elaborate title cards provide the context: the final scenes of Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom.  The gag here, though, is that the major figure and instigator of the orgies and atrocities catalogued by Sade resembles none other than Jesus Christ.  Looking confused and dyspeptic, he emerges from the castle to join his confreres, until a trembling, bloodied young woman also emerges.  Leading her back inside, we wait a few moments for the bloodcurdling scream.  Reemerging, now beardless, the disembarkation proceeds.  The drums give way to a jaunty Paso Doble over the final shot: a snow-covered cross festooned with women’s scalps.  The indictment of authority – here the Church portrayed as repressive, misogynistic and anti-sexual – is complete.


Hammond, Paul. L’Age d’Or. London: BFI Publishing, 1997.

Kyrou, Ado. Luis Buñuel: An Introduction. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963.

Leslie, Richard. Surrealism: The Dream of Revolution. Singapore: New Line Books, 2006.

Richardson, Michael. Surrealism and Cinema. London: Berg, 2007.

About Budd Wilkins

Budd Wilkins is a writer, film critic and instructor. He is a Staff Critic for Slant Magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Nordic Issue of Acidemic Journal of Film and Media. He is currently writing a chapter for an anthology on international horror directors to be published by Intellect Press and distributed by University of Chicago Press. Mr. Wilkins was born and raised in Hollywood, Florida. He attended Penn State for several years before moving to North Carolina in 1994, where he earned his Bachelor's in Religious Studies and a Master's in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Film Studies from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His primary focus is film history, film literacy and criticism, with the goal of bringing obscure, foreign and films that are labeled "difficult" to the attention of film aficionados of all kinds. Other interests and focus of critique include comparative religion, black humor, 19th century European literature, horror and graphic novels. Mr Wilkins lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with his wife, Tina. Follow @buddwilkins on Twitter.
This entry was posted in film, movie reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s