The strange, intoxicating madness of Un Chien Andalou

Sliced eyeballs and dead donkeys – welcome to Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s surrealist nightmare.

Words

Felix Bazalgette

“Nothing other than a desperate, impassioned call for murder”, is how director Luis Buñuel once described Le Chien Andalou. Salvador Dalí, who devised the scenario and designed the set, wanted it to, “plunge like a dagger into the heart of Paris.” The playwright Lorca, a friend of Buñuel and Dalí, was less strident: he called it, “a little shit of a film.”

Released in 1929, the 17-minute short launched the young Buñuel and Dalí’s careers and scandalised bourgeois society, as they had hoped. It opens, famously, with a woman’s eyeball being sliced open with a razor. From there a parade of images and related vignettes pass across the screen: a hand crawling with ants attacking the female lead, Simone Mareuil; rotting donkeys on grand pianos (attached by ropes to confused clergymen); a crowd gathering in the street and an aimless cross-dressing young man on a bicycle, who then falls off the bicycle. Anyone expecting a quaint old silent film will be left sorely disappointed.

The young man on the bicycle was Pierre Batcheff, an early star of the silent era who developed a drug problem during filming and, according to Dalí, wandered around, “continually smelling of ether”. To be fair to Batcheff, the atmosphere on set must have been a little strange – Dalí spent most of his time pouring glue over the dead donkeys to enhance their “putrefaction”, also carefully hacking at their eye sockets and mouths “to make the white rows of their teeth show to better advantage.”

Lorca’s testy reaction to the film had nothing to do with these gruesome details – he was annoyed because he thought that Batcheff’s character, who combines ridiculous slapstick behaviour with sinister sexual violence, was modelled on him. Buñuel was adamant that when they were planning the film, “no idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted,” yet like Lorca many have been inevitably tempted to apply explanations to Le Chien Andalou and find meaning in it. One theory goes that the rotting donkeys are there because Buñuel and Dalí both had to read the same hated children’s book featuring donkeys, while another posits that they are there because Dalí’s father used to keep a graphic medical textbook about the effects venereal disease on the family piano.

But all these attempts at explanation miss the point of the film. Dalí and Buñuel wanted it to be as mysterious and illogical as a dream – indeed the script emerged during a conversation each had about the other’s dreams, and the scenario developed as they spent a week at Dalí’s house in Spain suggesting more and more incongruous images to each other. “We had to open all doors to the irrational,” wrote Buñuel later, “and keep only those images that surprised us, without trying to explain why.” This approach was firmly in keeping with the gathering momentum of the surrealist movement at the time, which Buñuel described as “people everywhere… practicing instinctual forms of irrational expression” in order to destabilise bourgeois society and give vent to repressed desires.

The most famous surrealist artists and writers of the time attended the film premiere, and it was judged a success, though Buñuel had nervously readied himself beforehand with a pocketful of rocks to throw at the audience in case they reacted violently. On the back of its success Dalí and Buñuel were able to secure funding for their next film, 1930’s L’Age d’or, though they fell out during filming and subsequently stopped working together, a sign of their gradual personal and political alienation from each other as the twentieth century wore on. Under the Franco regime during World War Two, Dalí even denounced the fiercely left-wing Buñuel, and many other artists, to the Spanish Gestapo.

Today it is hard to disentangle the film’s influence from the wider influence of surrealism in general, though critics have found echoes of Un Chien Andalou in everything from advertising to music videos, horror movies to punk, David Lynch to Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski (the nightmarishly grabby hands in Repulsion are a direct allusion). The film has become, as one writer put it at the time, “a date in cinema history,” yet almost 90 years later it still retains a biting strangeness: at a recent BFI screening, as the eyeball was sliced and the jelly flowed out, the collective wince from the audience was audible.

Published 14 Jan 2017

Tags: Luis Buñuel Salvador Dalí

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