First published, a golden age ago, by Movie Gazette
A year after his striking cinematic debut with Un Chien Andalou, Luis Buñuel worked for the second (and last) time with Salvador Dali, and the result was L’Âge d’Or, their crowning collaborative achievement and a masterpiece of celluloid surrealism.
At four times the length of Un Chien Andalou, and with its own integrated musical soundtrack and dialogue, L’Âge d’Or is not only more ambitious than its predecessor, but also altogether more accessible and entertaining. For where Buñuel’s earlier film was merely a free association of strange happenings, disturbing images and subversions of form, defying all meaningful interpretation, L’Âge d’Or takes these same elements and nails them to an identifiable, albeit anarchic, narrative, so that they assume a kind of coherence, however tenuous, making the objects of Buñuel’s iconclastic attacks much clearer.
The film begins with a programmatic documentary on the scorpion – a creature which, much like the film itself, is a product of the underground, and carries a vicious sting in its tail. With the caption “Some hours afterwards..”, the action shifts to a rag-tag group of armed peasant bandits (included among them the surrealists Max Ernst, Pierre Prévert and Paul Éluard) rushing to defend their wild rocky shores against the arrival of the invading “Majorcans” – but one by one they collapse with exhaustion on the way. The Majorcan dignitaries arrive and begin the inauguration ceremony for the new city of Imperial Rome (in 1930!), only to be interrupted by the loud noises of Don X (Gaston Modot) and a girl (Lya Lys) cavorting on the ground. The mud-bespattered Don X is escorted away, cursing, kicking poodles and crushing beetles as he goes. After a brief, disjointed travelogue of Rome, we cut to the stately villa where the girl is distracted by her longing for Don X, while her parents are preparing a formal soirée for the Majorcans. Don X gets away from his captors and comes to the party, where, after slapping the girl’s mother, he sneaks off with the girl into the rear of the garden (while the guests listen to an orchestral performance at the front). The couple engage in a series of dreamlike exchanges overflowing with desire and eroticism, only to be interrupted first by a phone call informing Don X that he is to blame for violent civic unrest, and then by the arrival of the distressed conductor of the orchestra. In a fury, Don X rushes to the girl’s bedroom and throws objects from the window (a burning tree, a bishop, a giraffe). The film’s coda recreates the conclusion to The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade (a hero of the surrealist movement), blasphemously portraying the depraved ringleader of de Sade’s deviant torturers as a Christ figure, and ending with an image of beards (or is it pubic hair) nailed to a crucifix.
Buñuel’s target in all this is the absurd trappings of genteel bourgeois society, designed (in vain) to suppress the subversive forces of paganism, sexuality, violence and the irrational. The cow in the bed, the workers’ cart driven through the ballroom, the flies crawling over an elder dignitary’s face, the playful children, the fire in the kitchen, Don X’s enraged outbursts and the desire running riot at the far end of the garden of culture – no matter how much Buñuel’s Majorcan bourgeoisie try to ignore them or cover them over with a veneer of civilised manners, these destablising elements’ enduring presence cannot be denied, making a mockery of everything built to keep them down – and even the pieties of the church fail to disguise the most basic, and base, of human instincts.
A biting, often hilarious dream-piece depicting civilisation barely founded, sensuality barely concealed and characters barely awake – and a call to arms for those who would defend the topsy-turvy irrationality of the Golden Age.