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L'Age d'Or

L'Age d'Or
Kino Video
1930 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 60 min. / Street Date November 23 2004 / 24.95
Starring Gaston Modot, Lya Lys, Caridad de Laberdesque, Max Ernst, Josep Llorens Artigas, Lionel Salem, Germaine Noizet, Duchange, Bonaventura Ibáñez
Cinematography Albert Duverger
Production Designer Alexandre Trauner (?)
Art Direction Schildknecht
Film Editor Luis Buñuel
Original Music Luis Buñuel, Georges Van Parys
Written by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí from the novel by Marquis de Sade
Produced by Le Vicomte de Noailles
Directed by Luis Buñuel

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 continent.

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 first time.


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 Christ.

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 prankster-troublemakers like 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 erotic 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 movies, 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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: commentary, stills (frame grabs)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 27, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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