Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Building on the notoriety of their Un Chien Andalou, the surrealist short that ran
for a year in Parisian arthouses in 1928, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí came back for
more with L'Age d'Or. It's another scandal-seeker that has less visual poetry but
carries a political wallop, breaking all kinds of sexual and religious taboos. Its primary
purpose is to deliver an intellectual shock, and in 1930 it caused plenty of furor on the
Mastered from the original negative (which survived even though the French censors had all
the original prints destroyed), Kino's L'Age d'Or is complete, and in the best shape
Savant has ever seen it. Its crude original Tobis-Klangfilm soundtrack is truly audible for the
Scorpions are observed in a documentary segment. Partisans seek to expel Majorcan
invaders (four Bishops chanting on a beach) but one by one succumb to their wounds. A delegation
arrives by boat to find the Bishops turned to skeletons, and leaves a plaque celebrating the
founding of Rome. Two lovers (Gaston Modot and Lya Lys) are found writhing in the mud, and separated;
as he is led away the man becomes hostile and kicks a dog. Aerial shots of Rome alternate with
shots of modern (1930) Paris. At her stately mansion, the woman mourns her missing mud-spattered
suitor, and feels his presence through her magic mirror as he is still being escorted by
detectives. She chases a cow off of her bed. The man shouts curses at strangers and is roughed up
by the detectives until he shows them a fancy honorarium from a Goodwill Society - he is on some
kind of grand mission. The detectives let him go free; his first act is to knock a blind man
senseless. The man shows up at a formal party attended by aristocrats who ignore a deadly fire in
the kitchen, a huge oxcart with two drunken peasants passing through their ballroom and the
spectacle of the groundskeeper shooting his young son, and. The man is frustrated at
not being able to approach the already aroused woman, and is ejected after slapping the hostess
over a spilled drink. He reappears during a concert and begins a mad erotic encounter with the
woman in the garden, only to be interrupted by his Goodwill leader complaining that his dereliction
of duty has caused
wholesale destruction and the murder of countless women and children. The man returns to his beloved,
who has busied herself in his absence by sucking the toes of a statue; he envisions her as an aged
woman. As the concert reaches the heights of Tristan and Isolde she exclaims the joy she feels
from killing their children; he is in ecstasy even though one of his eyes has been gouged or shot
out. Separated again, the man flies into a fit of rage in his beloved's bedroom,
throwing various incongruous and symbolic objects out of the window. The final segment, introduced
by a solemn text card, shows the debauched villains of a 120-day orgy of sex and torture emerging
from a castle. We're prepared for the sight of the worst villain of all - who turns out to be Jesus
With a distance of three-quarters of a century, it's pretty easy to see where those two madcap
surrealists Buñuel and Dalí were coming from; L'Age d'Or
is three parts Buñuellian cinema genius and one part Dalí-esque showmanship. Smack in
the middle of the political confusion between the wars, the film was made in a climate where
intellectual provocateurs were taken seriously, particularly publicity-seeking
this pair of Spaniards. Un Chien Andalou was not the work of artists seeking quiet approval
and L'Age d'Or has to be seen as a deliberate provocation by bad boys who wanted to cause
a stir. Orson Welles would do much the same thing years later with his War of the Worlds
radio show, a bold statement created for the express purpose of making him a household name;
L'Age d'Or worked in that Buñuel and Dalí were instantly known world-wide.
The movie is a puzzle that juxtaposes obvious content with more subtle and disturbing ideas.
1930 was a time of such division in Europe that anyone making any kind of political statement could
expect trouble, and even though L'Age d'Or has no nudity or overt sex, there are images
alluding to sexual activity that are still shocking. Buñuel cuts to the two lovers expressing
their erotic impulses by sucking each other's hands, an activity followed by a disturbing reveal of
one of Gaston Modot's hands with its fingers bitten or sucked away. Lya Lys' toe-sucking is
instantly one of the more extreme images in movies, ever; a literal vision of the kind of minor
fetishistic perversion celebrated in one form or another in practically every Buñuel picture.
Let's see, there are also bugs squashed, as in Ensayo de un Crimen. There's a
dreamlike fancy dress
party attended by complacent swells who refuse to acknowledge chaotic events around them, preferring
to concentrate on specific offenses against their dignity (The Exterminating Angel,
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie).
But mostly it's a 'mad love' (L'Amour Fou) movie, one in which love exists even when rolling
around in filth, and passion is an essential imperative. It doesn't matter that thousands perish
because a Goodwill mission is abandoned - the hero must pursue his erotic quest.
L'Age d'Or will leave viewers without some background in the Surrealist movement scratching
their heads in confusion. Suffice it to say that these rogue artists subscribed to the notion that their
artistic movement would alert the world to an awareness of its hollow institutions
and beliefs. Out of the rancor and chaos of the shock of art would come a new world of truth and
beauty. Or at least that was the stated desire, which had more of an anarchist (the classic anarchism)
tilt than the Communist-Bolshevik accusations that were to follow. Anti-clerical, anti-Church rhetoric
was a big part of the Communist platform then, and real trouble started as soon as L'Age d'Or
began showing. One scene used sacred Catholic objects, at which point (according to commentator Short)
agitators tossed ink at the screen, disrupted the showing and destroyed an exhibit of surreal art
in the foyer. Denouncements equating Surrealist obscenity with Bolshevik blasphemy and (typical
for France of the time) anti-Semitic hatred incited more violence. Newspaper debates bolstered circulation
while cementing Buñuel and Dalí's fame, and the censors stepped in with the 'logical'
response: Seize the film and destroy all the prints.
Luckily for us, the original elements were safeguarded, insuring that Buñuel's movie can today
be seen for what it is instead of becoming a legendary lost film based on unseen pornographic content.
The key surrealists exponents responded to the ban by publishing a manifesto of intent in the papers, and
the movie's fame was set in stone.
But L'Age d'Or did not spark a flowering of anarchic art films aimed to bring down hypocritical
society. The surrealists instead concentrated on films that met their artistic standards for abstracted
delirium - Peter Ibbetson, King Kong. On the political plane, the Marx Brothers'
Duck Soup was heralded as key to the proper surreal spirit and exalted as art in Europe, even as
the American public was unimpressed with Groucho's skewering of the hypocrisy of War.
In 1935 Andre Breton tried to get L'Age d'Or screened in the Canary Islands, proclaiming it
"the only enterprise exalting love as I envisage it." The local governor wasn't interested. Luis
Buñuel eventually found himself
in Hollywood working on Spanish dubbing for commercial Hollywood fare, there to venture to the Mexican
film industry and restart his career making blatantly commercial pictures - but often with surreal
stingers in their tails.
Kino Video's DVD of L'Age d'Or is a good-looking copy, far better than the blurry prints I first
saw on the celebrated Z cable Channel in the early 1980s. The framing of the scorpion scenes looks too
tight, but perhaps that's probably because it was silent footage not reframed for the sound era (note that
the tightness is exaggerated on the left, where the soundtrack was added). Unlike many DVDs of vintage
there's no 'digital' grain to be seen anywhere, and grey values are always good. I don't remember seeing
any significant damage and the audio is especially clear.
A stills extra seems to be mostly frozen frames from the film itself, and the audio commentary by
Robert Short is erudite but very sparse - probably less than 25 minutes in three or four clumps throughout
the film. His information and ideas are impressive, but the film has so much more confusing content that
we wish he'd given us more detail. He helpfully points out many pertinent
facts: Buñuel and Dalí's funding (this is not a cheap movie) came from the same
aristocratic class they denounce; there's no explanation for Jesus' appearances with and without his
beard and moustache. Already his capricious self, Dalí abandoned the film almost before
shooting began; it's essentially Buñuel's solo work. The 'scorpion' episode describes the
arthropod as having five
separate tail segments, followed by a poison sac attached to a deadly stinger. The movie has the
came construction, with the stinger being the ultimate blasphemy of Jesus appearing as a murdering
sex maniac. With that conclusion the filmmakers might as well have hung out a sign reading "angry mob
forms here." I wouldn't have thought it possible, but with blind fundamentalism sweeping the
U.S.A., L'Age d'Or is still a timely gauntlet long after its creators have gone.
L'Age d'Or must have been a core inspiration for Pier Paolo Pasolini's
nigh-unwatchable Salo - The 120 Days of Sodom. The Italian poet expressed his political rage
through unbearable degradation, tortures and mutilation killings. But Luis Buñuel's pure use
of images to conjure ideas remains just as shocking.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
L'Age d'Or rates:
Supplements: commentary, stills (frame grabs)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 27, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
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