Un Chien Andalou (1929). 21 minutes. Directed by Luis Buñuel. Starring Simone Mareuil (as young girl), Pierre Batcheft (as young man and second young man), Luis Buñuel (as man in prologue), Salvador Dalí (as seminarian and man on beach), Robert Hommet (as third young man), Fano Messan (as androgynous young woman), and Jaime Miraveilles (as seminarian). Written by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí.
Un Chien Andalou is a silent short written by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí that has developed a reputation among cineastes as required viewing. This surealist experiment, called “the most famous short film ever made” by Roger Ebert, was intended to shock audiences; Buñuel famously later said that he kept stones in his pocket at the premiere in case he needed to defend himself against enraged viewers. I would hesitate to say that it horrified the public, but it was a sensation and unnerved many of those who saw it. When viewing it recently, I had to admit that it still contains disturbing images.
The movie cannot be summarized in any typical way because it is not particularly narrative. We see a man and a woman, mostly in an apartment. Bizarre things happen to them. They live or they die, or both. The important thing about the movie is not so much what happens from scene to scene as the images that we see. We begin the movie by watching a man slice open a woman’s eyeball (although it is not, needless to say, really hers). We move on to a man in nun’s clothing riding a bicycle and perhaps dying. We then see the man in an apartment, where from the window he witnesses an androgynous woman on the street being hit by a car. The man shows a woman in the apartment his hand, which has ants crawling out of it. He gropes the woman, chases her around, and when thwarted pulls two pianos carrying dead donkeys and seminarians across the room. Another man enters and leaves. The first man appears to shoot himself and is transported to a field. The woman leaves the apartment and heads to the beach where she and another man finds the nun’s clothes on the shore. The movie ends with an image of her and her companion buried up to their necks in sand, perhaps dead.
Today Un Chien Andalou seems recognizably, almost familiarly, surreal. I suppose this is evidence of how comfortable we now are with movements like surrealism. There remains one image that still seems genuinely shocking: the eye slicing. If we know how to read the construction of movies, however, we know that when the camera cuts from a woman’s whole, undisturbed eye to a clouded moon and back to an eye being sliced, there has been a switch, and the second eye is not the same eye as the woman’s—it is a stunt eye (in this case, according to Buñuel, a dead calf’s eye, still in a calf’s head, which had been bleached to appear like human skin). Other parts of the movie are rather gross: the rotting donkeys piled on grand pianos, the ants pouring out of a human hand, the characters buried up to their necks and possibly decomposing in the movie’s final shots on the beach. There is also the repulsive male character who attacks the female character sexually. It is fair to say that the entire short has an unsettling aura, in part because of the imagery, and in part because it refuses to conform to a more outwardly logical presentation style.
Critics like Roger Ebert have stressed that the film does not make sense. Dalí and Buñuel reported that when they assembled the scenes, their only rule was that there be no rational connection between anything. Buñuel was adamant: “Nothing, in the film, symbolizes anything. The only method of investigation of the symbols would be, perhaps, psychoanalysis.” Of course, in this statement, by denying that there is meaning in the film’s dreaminess, Buñuel also affirms that Un Chien Andalou does make use of a kind of symbolism. Moreover, we know from interviews with the filmmakers that they were attempting to capture the surreal qualities of dreams—both the ant hand sequence and the razor cutting the eye originated in the dreams of Dalí and Buñuel, respectively—and dreams in their irrationality exert their own form of convoluted logic. Both artists also acknowledged the importance of psychoanalytic thought on their work, and psychoanalysis is often about assembling seemingly meaningless data about ourselves into larger, meaningful patterns.
One scene, the longest in the movie and to me the most remarkable, pairs images in what I would argue is a significant way. The man in the apartment has revealed that ants are crawling out of a hole in his hand. Then, having apparently been aroused by the accident he witnesses on the street, he approaches the woman in the apartment and gropes her. After being rebuffed he reaches down and pulls two pieces of rope from the carpet, and we see that they are attached to pianos loaded with dead, decaying donkeys. Soon we see more: at the front of the pianos, lying on the floor attached to the ropes, are two living seminarians (one of whom is Dalí).
Although I cannot perform a sustained reading of everything that happens to the man with the ant-laden hand, I do see a consistent theme emerging in this scene. The man begins by revealing that he has a decrepit interior literally infected with insect life, and this fantastic physical interior symbolically relates to his murky moral interior. I am thinking here of his unchivalrous pursuit of the woman, which is cut short when he begins to bear the heavy weight of pianos mounted with dead animals and topped with clerics. One image grows out of another, perhaps more so here than anywhere else in the picture: the order of events suggests that when a corrupt, diseased inner nature rises to the surface and results in unethical sexual advances, feelings of religious consciousness and heavy guilt are not far away. Whether the scene makes a more general statement that all of our sexual impulses are corrupt in this way is harder to say.
The presence of dream logic in the donkey scene underscores that even in the language of wild surrealist absurdity, there is a kind of native reasoning, a sort of implicit convention, and the imprint of universal recognition that surrealism struggles to escape but always more or less succumbs to in protest. Thus, as a movie that cannot be summarized in any typical way, Un Chien Andalou asserts the ability of isolated images to evoke responses of familiarity even in an audience that might feel bewildered and estranged, even when the creators of those images are trying their best to shock us. It is a testament to surrealism’s inability to detach itself completely from rationality that at times even some of the movie’s weirdest images seem to make a kind of sense.
Un Chien Andalou, despite its attempts to horrify the public, was a terrific hit, running for eight months during its initial release and prompting the regal Viscount Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles to fund the feature-length sequel L’Age d’Or (1930; originally titled La Bête Andalouse to show continuity). The initial screening of Un Chien Andalou at Studio des Ursulines in Paris found Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and André Breton’s surrealist circle in attendance. The movie’s effects on its artistic audience over the years have been considerable: there is a good deal of Fellini in the clerical elements, Hitchcock in some of the movie’s nightmarishness (he went on to work with Dalí in Spellbound in 1945), and David Lynch in the hand crawling with ants. Of course, this movie also provides the foundation for much of Buñuel’s own work, including Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), Belle du Jour (1967), and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). Like so many of the most famous shorts of the silent era, Un Chien Andalou’s brief 21-minute running time is nevertheless overflowing with influential images that it can barely contain. If you care about film, you will see it sooner or later.
Incidentally, I recently visited the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, which houses the largest collection of Dalí’s art outside of Europe. It is spectacular. I highly recommend it to anyone who wishes to learn more about the artist and the history of surrealism.