(Ancient) review first published in Movie Gazette
“Once upon a time…” reads the caption in French, as though we are about to watch a fairy tale. A man smokes a cigarette and carefully whets a razor, testing its keenness against his thumb. Stepping onto a balcony, he looks up at a thin cloud passing over the full moon above – and purposefully passes his blade over the pupil of the open-eyed woman seated calmly in front of him. This notoriously shocking sequence, with its strange internal logic and its enduring power to make viewers flinch in horror, forms the prologue not only to Luis Buñuel’s black-and-white curio Un Chien Andalou, but also to his lengthy career of surrealist filmmaking that included such classics as The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, That Obscure Object of Desire, Viridiana, The Exterminating Angel, The Phantom of Liberty and Belle de Jour – so it is only fitting that the man with the razor is played by Buñuel himself, grand master of surreal cuts and eye-popping imagery.
Despite its brevity, Un Chien Andalou is a roller-coaster ride through the shadowy corridors of the psyche, defying all generic categorisation. Moving from horror to melodrama to thriller to romance, it presents a string of dream-like images and events, with little concern for continuity of time or space. A hermaphrodite stands in the middle of a road poking at a severed hand. Ants pour out of the hole in a man’s hand. The man is physically restrained from raping a woman by the weight of two priests, two pianos and two dead donkeys which are all attached to ropes which he drags behind him. A man is shot in the woman’s apartment, but falls dead in a park. The mouth on a man’s face disappears entirely, only to be replaced by a woman’s armpit. The door of a metropolitan apartment opens onto the seaside. Scenes are arbitrarily punctuated by captions (‘8 years later’, ‘Around three in the morning’, ’16 years earlier’, ‘In spring’) which serve more to confuse time than to keep it. And the film’s conclusion, in which guy and girl walk off arm in arm, is a trite filmic convention marooned from any kind of meaningful context.
Not only was Un Chien Andalou Buñuel’s first film, but also his first collaboration with Salvador Dali (with whom he worked again a year later on L’Âge d’Or). His stated intention was “to admit no idea, no image for which there might be rational, psychological or cultural explanation” – and even if some of the film’s bourgeoisie-baiting and psycho-sexual imagery is far from opaque, Buñuel has created an enigmatic and uncanny stream of (sub)consciousness which continues even today to exert its influence on the dark imaginings of both cinemagoers and cinema itself. For, apart from showing filmmakers just how dreams can be realised on celluloid, Un Chien Andalou is arguably the reason that we all dream in black and white.