L’Age d’Or (1930)
“In a world as badly made as ours there is only one road – rebellion” – Luis Bunuel
Following their collaboration on Un Chien Andalou, Bunuel and Dali wrote L’Age d’Or. A 63 minute feature that chastised both the morality of the Roman Catholic Church and the sexual codes of the bourgeoisie.
Bunuel was not pleased with the praise that his first film garnered from the upper classes and decided that his next film should go even farther at subverting bourgeois culture. And, he succeeded in this respect. Bunuel wrote:
“The extreme right attacked the movie theatre, tore up the paintings in the surrealist exhibit that had been set up in the foyer, threw bombs at the screen, and destroyed seats. It was the “scandal” of L’Age d’Or. A week later, Chiappe, civil governor, purely and simply banned the film in the name of public order.”
Condemned by right wing politicians (read: morons) upon its release for being filthy Bolshevik propaganda, L’Age d’Or was immediately banned. Several prints survived which is why we have this surrealist master piece with us today.
But, enough gossip about the film, let’s get into what makes it so great.
Bunuel begins with a documentary footage featuring scorpions. Dialogue is delivered through title cards used by silent cinema. We learn that the scorpions tale has five articulations ending in its stinger.
“Five articulations, in the last of which the venom is concealed.”
What is the point of this sequence? The documentary footage explains the form of the film. The film is a documentary (in the loosest sense of the term) and it is structured like a scorpion’s tale. There will be five segments or articulations and the final segment is where the venom is concealed.
The first sequence is set on a mountain top where a tired and downtrodden guerilla army make their last stand agains the Majorcans. The invaders are associated with a group of Catholic bishops conducting mass on a mountain top near by. Numerous ships arrive and find the bishops conducting mass, but time has passed and only their skeletons remain. We still hear their religious chants and hymns but the guerillas have been defeated and the bishops have one. The voice persists even though the body has been reduced to bones.
The people from the ships see the dead bishops and celebrate their victory. Men and women of all ages stand around the bishops, take their hats off and salut the clergymen. A mustache man clears his throat as he gets ready to deliver a speech. He is interrupted by a couple (played by Gaston Modot and Lya Lys) trying to make love in the mud nearby. Everybody stops what they’re doing to tear this couple apart. The woman is taken away. We then see her in her bathroom sitting on the toilet. Then Bunuel cuts to an image of lava flowing, showing us without us showing what the woman is doing.
Two men take the man away but not before he punts a little white dog that was barking at him.
The ceremony continues. The people gather around a stone and put what is supposed to be gold but looks like shit on it to commemorate the triumph of the clergymen.
“1930 AD. This stone on the site where the Majorcans died, marks the founding of the city of…”
Cut to aerial shots of Imperial Rome. Bunuel is back in documentary mode.
“Once mistress of the pagan world, now secular seat of the Church. Aspects of it stoutest pillar, the Vatican”
Cut to aerial shots of the Vatican, and then slowly transition to a piece of paper (anticipating the aerial transition sequence at the beginning of Psycho) taped to a window on a balcony of the Vatican.
“the landlord’s terms are very favourable. We can move in at once. Longing to see you, very soon now, Your loving cousin”
Then Bunuel cuts to urban Rome.
“But the hurly-burly of modern life has overtaken the Imperial city”
Bunuel shows us more of the urban life in Rome. We see a man covered in dust wipe himself off on a several cafe patrons.
“Sometimes on Sundays”
Explosions. Buildings falling down. More Explosions. Bunuel is showing us Rome. It’s a terrible city where everything is falling apart. The Golden Age. The Shit Age.
It should be obvious by that the title of the film is ironic. We are not in the Golden Age, far from it.
Another title card: “Various picturesque aspects of the great city”
Bunuel cuts to a montage of various landmarks of Rome, and then to a man kicking a violin on the street until he smashes it pieces.
The above sequence is fascinating. Bunuel effectively combined the conventions of silent, sound, documentary, realist, and surrealist cinema into a coherent sequence, establishing the ideological and aesthetic terrain of this film with as much efficiency as any other film maker working at this time. Whether you agree with Bunuel’s ideas or not, the way he can combine so many aesthetic is nothing short of amazing.
Back to the man and woman who were interrupted. Bunuel intercuts in between them. The man is still being escorted by the same two from before. They walk him around Rome. He makes them stop for a poster that has a woman’s hand next to hat. Bunuel then dissolves to a real hand with a tuft of hair pinned down. The hand proceeds to forcefully finger bang a hole that resembles…Cut back to man looking angry and frustrated at the escorts interrupting his day-masturbation-dream.
If the first idea Bunuel put worth was the gold equals shit, the second idea he wants to convey is the interruption of desire. Throughout the film desire, love, romance, or whatever is continuously interrupted by other people. Bunuel is demonstrating how modern society’s institutions, the family, the church, capitalism repress our desire. He’s regurgitating the Freudian argument from Civilization and its Discontents: individual desire is in conflict with the success of society.
The Modot eventually stops his escorts and shows them a letter from the International Goodwill society. Modot was hired to saved men, women, and children. He is an agent on a special mission to save the world.
The escorts him allow him to leave. The next sequence is a party, cut to the next title card: “At his magnificent Roman estate, the Marquis of X prepares for his guests.”
We are now brought the party. The mansion is filled with the upper-classes, standing around, chatting and drinking. While all this is going on a maidservant bursts out of the kitchen covered in flames. She slowly dies on the floor without disturbing anyone.
Modot arrives and tries to find his lover. They make eye-contact across the room but he is stopped by her mother. Modot and the mother chat for a bit until she spills wine on Modot’s hand. He slaps her across the face. The music, conversations, and the servants stop. Everyone looks in horror at what Modot just did to the mother. The party goers get angry and force Modot to leave.
Modot eventually sneaks back and signals to his lover to meet him in the garden. She slouches out and meets Modot outside while the party goers follow to watch an orchestra play in another part of the the garden.
Modot and his Lya Lys are reunited once again. They proceed to suck on each others fingers and hands before kissing each other. Bunuel inserts a shot of Modot’s hand but now it has become deformed, with weird stumps for fingers caressing Lya Lys’ face with love and care. Bunuel then intersects footage of clergymen walking on bridges, and then back to the strange appendage sucking session in the garden.
They are finally interrupted by a butler from the mansion. The minister of the interior is on the phone and wants to speak with Modot. The man angrily leaves Lya and goes inside to answer the telephone.
Modot speaks with his boss. The minister of Interior lectures him for failing to the save the women and children. Modot tells the minister to die and then proceeds to rip the phone from the wall. The minister listens and kills himself. His body tries to float to heaven but the ceiling restricts its flight to paradise. Bunuel the Atheist never fails to inject materialism into his jabs at religion.
What is Lya Lys doing while all this happening? Giving a blowjob to the garden statue’s toes of course.
Modot returns and the resume kissing in the dirt. They begin to speak about sleep and going to bed. Lya Lys says: “What joy! What joy in having killed our children.”
Modot responds with: “My love….my love.” His face is now covered in blood and scratches. Bunuel is again interrupting our own desire to their love consummated with violence and gore.
This orgasmic/gory is interrupted once again. This time by Lya Lys’ father. He walks into the scene clutching his head in pain. His daughter goes to help him. Modot is unable to take the daughter away from her father, thus demonstrating his lack of masculinity in Freudian terms.
Modot loses it and runs to the mansion. He goes upstairs to a well-decorated bedroom and begins to tear it apart. He rips open the pillows and covers his face with feathers. Cut to a shot from the exterior of the second-floor bedroom. Modot has set fire to the room and he is now throwing out trees, catholic priests, a phallic statue made out of wood, and everything else in the bedroom. The scene ends with Modot throwing a giraffe out of the window which lands into a body of water.
The transition title card reads: “Just as those feathers feel but a long way away….the survivors from the Chateau de Selliny emerged to return to Paris”
The next scene is set at castle in the desert.
“120 days earlier, four godless and unprincipled scoundrels had, driven by their depravity, shut themselves away to indulge in the most bestial orgies. To them the life of a woman mattered no more than of a fly. They took with them eight lovely adolescent girls to serve as victims for their criminal desires plus four women well versed in debauchery whose narrative skills would serve to stimulate their already jaded appetites whenever interest flagged”
We are now inside the castle, in the midst of this bizarre orgy.
“Here are the survivors of these orgies, leaving the Chateau de Selliny. First and foremost of the four instigators, the Duc de Blangis”
A man dressed like Jesus Christ exits the castle while three men follow him. I’m assuming this the point when the right-wing audience members soiled themselves with rage and started a riot.
A wounded woman follows them at a slower pace. She can barely walk and looks as if she’s about to die. Jesus walks her back inside the castle and closes the door behind him. A loud scream emerges from inside. Jesus comes out again but this time without his beard. He walks past the three other men from the orgy.
The final shot is a cross with women’s scalps nailed to it, blowing furiously in the wind.
Bunuel’s L’Age d’Or operates on the duality between gold and shit. And throughout the film, everything sacred and pure was eventually equated to what is base and foul. For Bunuel, it is the church, not our desires that destroy society. And with this film he was able to demonstrate his hatred for religion and the bourgeois. It would seem that the more conventional (more conventional compared to Un Chien Andalou) structure made Bunuel’s ideas more clear and precise. Like Modot, we must liberate ourselves from morality, the ideology of good vs evil, to escape repression.
Immediately after it’s release, bourgeois audiences didn’t praise L’Age d’Or like they did Bunuel’s first film. It’s hard to be happy with the person who is shoving your face in a pile of your own shit.
Editorial note: This film is available for streaming on youtube and google video. It is also available on DVD from Kino Video with a commentary by Robert Short. I wouldn’t recommend the commentary but I would recommend Raymond Durgnat’s excellent book on Luis Bunuel published in 1977.