Imagine, if you will, that you are a cultured and intellectual lady or gentleman attending one of the first screenings of Luis Buñuel’s The Golden Age that took place at the end of 1930 at Studio 28. You, the perhaps unsuspecting viewer, would be confronted with scenes of sadistic cruelty towards animals, bizarre erotic sequences (the most famous of which involves the female lead performing fellatio on the toes of a garden sculpture), stream of consciousness surrealist imagery, anti-bourgeois sentiment and an ending that pays homage to the Marquis de Sade’s horrifying The 120 Days of Sodom. Would you be shocked and appalled or sensuously liberated from the shackles of middle class conformity? Although The Golden Age is reasonably tame by today’s standards, in the 1930s it was as confronting to some viewers as recent audiences found Gaspard Noé’s Irréversible (2002).
Sometimes watching a movie is a bit like being raped.
– Luis Buñuel
Co-written by Buñuel and Salvador Dali, The Golden Age can arguably be considered a moving manifesto for the ideals of the surrealist movement. At the first screenings of the film, a written manifesto did, in fact, accompany the programme, espousing the importance of love, liberation and warning against censorship and the “bankruptcy” of emotion. The film itself is composed of a serious of dream-like vignettes that focus on the passionate and unconsummated love between a man (Gaston Modot) and a woman (Lys Lys).
The loose narrative is filled with bizarre hallucinatory sequences that align lust with the flushing of an excrement-filled toilet, that display sexual frustration through the act of throwing a burning tree out of a window and that consistently undercut moments of tenderness with unexpected violence. For a contemporary audience that is accustomed to certain ideas of visual eroticism, Buñuel opens up a space for uninhibited madness. Notably, the structure of the film, while reasonably linear, flows from disparate events and subjectivities and effectively utilises montage to create a dream vision. To this end, the imagery is replete with sexual symbolism and incongruity, capturing the vocabulary of Surrealist reverie and l’amour fou (mad love). However, this is clearly a perspective on the dreams of two very strange and, dare I say, disturbed men that has proved too much for some censorship boards.
Of course, just about everyone has either seen or heard of the fabulously grotesque eyeball scene in Un Chien Andalou (1929), but I actually prefer the eccentric charm of The Golden Age. For all its lofty ambitions to undermine convention and the Church, I love this film because it so ridiculous and perverse. I can almost see Buñuel and Dali cackling away as they were writing the outlandish plot, mischievously rubbing their hands together while concocting scenes involving murder, scorpions and odd fetishes.