“Men of my generation, particularly if they’re Spanish, suffer from a hereditary timidity where sex and women are concerned. Our sexual desire has to be seen as the product of centuries of repressive and emasculating Catholicism, whose many taboos… have turned normal desire into something exceptionally violent.
[M]ost surrealists came from good families; as in my case, they were bourgeois revolting against the bourgeoisie.”
– Luis Buñuel, My Last Breath (1)
Luis Buñuel was educated by Jesuits, had a priest for an uncle, and grew up opposite the town church (2). His unforgettable black comedy L’Âge d’Or (1930) is soaked in religion, from the chanting bishops affixed to the rocks near the start to the crucifix of scalps that closes it. This emphasis – a feature of Buñuel’s entire oeuvre – makes some admirers uncomfortable, but L’Âge d’Or is difficult to appreciate if its debt to the savagery and intensity of popular religion is ignored. Anyone who grew up in a Catholic country will recognise countless scenes in L’Âge d’Or: the mindless crowds tramping over barren land to worship at relics; the visionary intensity that can wilfully transform the mundane into an illumination of desire; the displaced erotics that results in the ecstatic fellating of statues. The violent blasphemy raging through L’Âge d’Or is peculiar to Catholic countries as well; in his memoir, My Last Breath, Buñuel tells of a “gang of ruffians” who snatched a statue of the Virgin Mary from a religious procession and threw it into the river when prayers for rain during a drought weren’t answered (3).
The Catholic Church and other institutions of power in the film work to oppress individual desire: “in a rigidly hierarchical society, sex – which respects no barriers and obeys no laws – can at any moment become an agent of chaos” (4). Those who benefit from the oppression are immaculately-suited mannequins, insensitive to imagination and the inner life. For those who desire in such a society, and find themselves kicking against it, the world is turned inside out: internal and external are switched, passionate private love-making takes place in the mud at public ceremonies, cows and peasants’ carts invade bed and drawing-room; super-refined classical music soundtracks the snuff movie killing of a rat by a scorpion, or is drowned out by a flushing toilet; space and time are abruptly contracted and exploded. The impossibility of sexual consummation results in violence and displacement, and is the source of the film’s many hilarious metonyms, such as the poster that becomes a throbbing finger tantalised by a mass of pubic hair, or the bandaged finger stroked instead of the absent and longed-for male member. In a world where desire is curtailed, masturbation is rampant (5).
Scenes of actor Gaston Modot kicking pet dogs and blind men, or a gamekeeper indignantly shooting his mischievous son like a rabbit, are among the funniest and most (still) startling scenes in the cinema, but in their vision of violence on the weak and vulnerable echoes the rising vigilante-style right-wing activity in Spain and France at the time. It is part of the film’s legend that fascist groups Les Camelots du Roi and Les Jeunesses Patriotiques attacked L’Âge d’Or during its run at the legendary Paris cinema Studio 28, wrecking the theatre and vandalising paintings by Buñuel’s fellow Surrealists, leading to the film’s suppression by rightist police chief Jean Chiappe (6). For Buñuel, the unconscious was not necessarily a Utopia of unfettered mental and physical freedom; desire was a “tyrannical burden”, and as the caption of Goya’s most famous print warns, the sleep of reason produces monsters (7).
Some of the paintings destroyed at Studio 28 were by Max Ernst, former member of the Dadaists, a movement of “militant cynicism”, “provocation”, and “nihilist humour”; its “detonation of anger” displayed in “insults and buffoonery” seems closer to Buñuel and L’Âge d’Or than the mystic noodling of André Breton and those Surrealists whose cinematic experiments seem like fey dilettantism next to Buñuel’s (8). Indeed, Ernst plays the growling leader of a “gang of ruffians” in the second sequence of L’Âge d’Or. This group of grunting, inbred morons looks forward to Buñuel’s next film, the documentary Las Hurdes (1933), about an impoverished and diseased region of Western Spain. But, as they limp in degenerate stupefaction after what seems like an orgy of onanism, they also read as a parody of the Surrealist Group, and Breton’s famously dictatorial soirées where members gave themselves up to automatic experiments in an attempt to access the unconscious, producing “a kind of almost intoxicated exhilaration and nervous exhaustion” (9).
Buñuel famously claimed that the scenario of his previous film, Un chien andalou (1929), co-written with college friend and painter Salvador Dalí, was “an encounter between two dreams”, its script an act of “automatic writing” with rationally explicable ideas and images removed (10). Like most of Buñuel’s statements, this must be treated with caution, as L’Âge d’Or is as tightly structured as the Lubitsch films he draws on for the central salon sequence. L’Âge d’Or is an intricate web of correspondences where characters, situations and motifs metamorphose across the screen. Like the displacement of desire onto psychosomatic tics, this probably derives from Buñuel’s reading of Freud, in this case the idea of condensation, where disparate phenomena morph in the mind of the dreamer. In L’Âge d’Or, for example, the cabin of dissipated bandits in a parched landscape near the beginning becomes a castle of debauched aristocrats in the snow at the end; Lya Lys’ father, the Marquis of X, owner of a large chateau, links to Christ (as de Sade’s notorious libertine the duc de Blangis) emerging from the Chateau de Silling; “X” is Greek shorthand for Christ (“chi”), referring to the crucifix, which will conclude the film not with the suffering Jesus but gruesome trophies of the women he and his cronies have defiled, their hair replacing the beard he loses when he goes back to murder one of his victims. As if this heady montage of associations wasn’t enough, it is set to the overpowering drums of Good Friday from Calanda, Buñuel’s home town (11).
For all Modot’s heroic misanthropy in the lead role, L’Âge d’Or is not really a celebration of unbridled instinct or all-consuming amour fou. In fact, amidst all the narrative disruption and black comedy is a very moving recognition of love’s precariousness and transience. When the lovers finally overcome the physical obstacles to their union, consummation is still put off by psychic curbs. First is the suspicion that the ecstasy of imaginative yearning was more thrilling than their physical clumsiness, as they bang their heads together to the crescendo of Wagner’s High Romantic Tristan and Isolde. Then the recognition that the beloved will grow old, a sense that brings out an unexpected compassion in Modot after his reign of petulance. Finally comes betrayal and desertion, as Lys leaves Modot for the conductor whose lurch into the arbour with clenched fists to his temples replicates Modot’s recent journey to his beloved. At first the film seems to propose a narrative of evolution, from the primeval squalor of the insects through the glories of imperial Rome to the technological advances of “la vie moderne” (12). The scorpions and rodents of the prologue exist in a determinist world of violence, instinct, repetition, power struggle and death. But, despite the accretions over millennia of civilisation – religion, culture, society – and the self-importance they bestow, L’Âge d’Or demonstrates that human beings are no different, as governed by instinct as the so-called lowest forms of life. This is a finding that for Buñuel is at once no laughing matter and desperately funny.
- Luis Buñuel, My Last Breath, trans. Abigail Israel, Fontana, London, 1985, pp. 48, 107 (first published in France in 1982 as Mon dernier soupir).
- Buñuel, pp. 10, 12, 34.
- Buñuel, p. 8.
- Buñuel, p. 14.
- Salvador Dalí, Buñuel’s collaborator on Un chien andalou (1929), and credited with co-writing the scenario of L’Âge d’Or, despite parting with Buñuel earlier in the process, had painted The Great Masturbator in 1929. Buñuel, pp. 115-116.
- The film wasn’t shown publicly in France again until 1981. Buñuel, p. 118.
- The work of Goya, an earlier Spanish exile in France, was a frequent reference point for Buñuel, whose first script was a centenary life of the artist commissioned by the Goya Society of Saragossa, but never produced. Buñuel, p. 103.
- Sarane Alexandrian, Surrealist Art, Thames and Hudson, London, 2012, pp. 28, 29 (first published as L’art surréaliste in 1969). Ernst also shared Buñuel’s gleeful irreligion, painting in 1928 The Virgin Spanking the Infant Jesus Before Three Witnesses: André Breton, Paul Elouard and the Artist.
- Alexandrian, p. 47. Another Surrealist, Pierre Prévert plays one of the other bandits. If this is a satire, it may have been revenge for a traumatic experience when Buñuel was subjected to a Surrealist trial for publishing the script of Un chien andalou with prestigious press Gallimard. Like heretics in the Catholic Church, Surrealist insubordinates were “excommunicated”. Buñuel, pp. 108-110, 111, 116.
- Buñuel, pp. 103-105.
- Buñuel, pp. 19-21.
- Buñuel cites Darwin’s On the Origin of Species as the “dazzling” epiphany of his teenage years. Buñuel, p. 30.
L’Âge d’Or (1930 France 60 mins)
Prod: Vicount Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles Dir, Ed: Luis Buñuel Scr: Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí Phot: Albert Duverger Art Dir: Pierre Schildtnecht
Cast: Gaston Modot, Lya Lys, Max Ernst, Pierre Prévert, Francisco G. Cossio, Joaquín Roa