Luis Bunuel’s first film was a radical departure from narrative film making at that time. His inspiration came during a conversation with Dali where Bunuel was discussing some of his dreams. Dali responded with some of his. They enjoyed sharing their dreams so much that they decided they should make a short film with the material from their conversation.
Bunuel, later to become inducted into the surrealist camp along with Dali, had no interest in working within the narrative registers available in what he and other radical artists would refer to as bourgeois culture. What this meant in practical terms was that surrealist film makers decided to throw the concept of a narrative, telling a story with characters and a plot, in the trash can. They decided to work instead in a different register, inspired by the free-play and irrational nature of the unconscious. Both artists were heavily influenced by the ideas of Freud, Marx, and several other radicals and this influence spilled over into their film.
Marx discovered the uncharted continent of history with historical materialism. Freud discovered the unconscious. Both philosophies, in part because of the writings of the Frankfurt school, were anti-humanist. For both Marxists and Freudian, the category of the human as the source of truth and knowledge was a problem. “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness” wrote Marx. “The unconscious is the larger circle which includes within itself the smaller circle of the conscious; everything conscious has its preliminary step in the unconscious, whereas the unconscious may stop with this step and still claim full value as a psychic activity” wrote Freud.
Humans therefore are not the all-knowing all-powerful beings that we like to think we are. We tend to forget how much we are determined by what allows us to become registered as subjects in the first place (Marx) and what really determines our actions are our unconscious desires (Freud).
It is this philosophy, generally, that informs Bunuel and Dali’s outlook. To create a film for them means to engage in an exercise of free association, a form of automatic writing. To break free of the artistic prejudice of bourgeois culture (read: ideology) and tap into the deeper truth behind consciousness and culture. Now whether they–Bunuel and the surrealists–were successful is another matter unto itself. Freud criticized the Surrealists because what they called automatic writing was still a product of the conscious Ego not the unconscious; for Freud the only way into the unconscious was through dreams and jokes.
But in keeping with the Freudian themes we could say that their first film defies any attempt at interpretation. That is, there is no meaning to uncover. We are meant only to watch, not interpret, and enjoy, if that’s possible. Bunuel stated that all interpretive methods at our disposal are unfit to translate his film, except for maybe psychoanalysis.
What Bunuel was saying here, I believe, is that Un Chien Andalou is a dream-text. By that I mean an incoherent succession of images that cannot be summarized in terms of the traditional forms of criticism that have up until the surrealist movement tried to interpret narratives in terms of plot, setting, characterization, or whatever. To interpret dreams, which are the product of the unconscious, we require the methods of psychoanalysis, developed primarily from two books by Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams and Jokes and the Unconscious.
That said, Bunuel is not as radical he may appear. He admits that the main function of criticism or interpretation is still available which is explaining the meaning of a text. Whether it being a narrative or non-narrative, linear or not, texts and films mean something, and it is the function of criticism to figure it out.
The interpretation of dream text is the main problem that Freud tried to solve in the former book. What that entailed was determined how dreams function and Freud concluded that dreams either condense or displace meaning, objects, values, etc. (Jacques Lacan would extend this discussion to the nature of the unconscious and claim that the unconscious is structured like a language, working through metonymy and metaphor).
For the remainder of this article we will follow Bunuel’s admission that the methods developed by Freud are the best way to understand Un Chien Andalou.
Upon first watch Bunuel and Dali’s experimental short appears to be a combination of strange and weird scenes strung together with uninformative chapter titles. And, this is how I felt after my first watch. Unlike other silent films, there are no dialogue cards to tell the audience what the characters are saying to each other. We are left entirely with the images, cinema in its purest form.
The film is not however as radical as it appears. Including chapter titles appeared to be a way for Bunuel to partition the various sequences. We begin with “once upon a time” proceed to “eight years later,” “about three in the morning,” “sixteen years earlier,” and then finally “in spring.” But, these chapter title cards have no connection to the scenes that they bracket. For example, after “sixteen years earlier” we remain in the same time so to speak that we were before. They characters are not younger, the setting hasn’t changed, etc. So, the inclusion of the chapter titles is most likely an overt attempt to either criticize or parody narrative film making that used these techniques. The titles explain nothing but only exist to frame a serious of disconnected episodes.
Everyone is familiar with the eye-slitting scene. To create this scene, Bunuel used an extreme close-up a cow’s face and shadows to make it appear like it was the same face as the woman’s sitting down in the chair.
If you look closely at the second image you might be able to see little hairs on the face. The cut to the extreme close-up is quick so the eye-slice looks real. It’s disgusting. I cringe every time I see it.
After the audience has vomited Bunuel cuts to “eight years later” title card. We fade-in to a man riding a bicycle wearing a nun costume. Why? No reason. The man-nun on the bike has a boxing hanging from his neck which Bunuel ends the scene on an extreme close-up.
Cut to the next scene. A woman is reading a book inside an apartment. She is startled and runs to the window to see the man-nun pulling up on the sidewalk outside; he falls down. She runs out, kisses the man on the head, and unlocks the box inside her apartment. She opens the box and takes out a tie, lays the tie on top of a set of men’s clothing laid out on the bed. These two characters make up the rest of the film through a series of strange disconnected episodes filled with ants coming out of hands and breast fondling.
I won’t describe the entire in this manner because that would be pointless and boring. However, what I wanted to demonstrate by describing the first five minutes was the absurdity of the film (and I haven’t even got to the man with an armpit for a mouth yet). The complete neglect for logic, narrative, dramatic forms and conventions is a direct assault on commercial film making. Bunuel rejects pre-established storytelling conventions and instead films a dream, or a series of dreams.
Now, Un Chien Andalou is not a film about dreams in the same way that Inception is. Bunuel is much more interested in the following the structure of dreams. The interplay of displacement and condensation that Freud thought described the nature of the dream scape.
There are several scenes that demonstrate the displacement function of dreams in Un Chien Andalou. Witness the scene later in the film when the couple is staring at each other. The man wipes his mouth with his hand and he manages to wipe off his lips. Then a patch of hair appears where his mouth was. The woman is shocked. She lifts up her arm and looks at her armpit. Her armpit hair is gone and has become displaced onto his face.
Again, there is really nothing to interpret here. Bunuel is more interested in creating associations between body parts, objects, animals, and people than telling a story. However, he uses the same “characters” so to speak in this film, creating the semblance of unity, creating the illusion of a story that has a beginning and an end. The final confrontation though between the man and the woman is nothing but a frustration of continuity and unity. The absurdity in this mentioned above scene is a mockery of romantic scenes between a man and a woman in commercial films. Un Chien Andalou, rather than showing a romance, depicts human relations as a perverse nightmare.
Un Chien Andalou made quite the stir upon its release. It was presented first at an invitation only-session at the Studio des Ursulines art house on June 6, 1929. It had its public release at Montmartre’s Studio 28 on October 1st. While not officially part of the Surrealist movement until after the film had shown, Dali and Bunuel’s film was quickly adopted by the group as part of their aesthetic repertoire.
When Bunuel was asked about the first screening, he’s told interviewers that he was too nervous to sit with the audience. Instead he stood behind the screen with a bag of stones, ready to hurl them at the spectators if they decided to revolt. This story has not been corroborated by others at the screening but I could see the wild Spaniard doing something crazy like this on the opening night.
Editorial note: this film is available on Mubi.com and Youtube.