Art has a way of turning us all into code-breakers. Presented with even the most fantastic, imaginative material, our instinct is to search for clues which allude, however obliquely, to some larger truth or message. The tendency is not to experience or absorb, but to decipher, as if an image were nothing more than a conglomeration of symbols which, if we are lucky enough to be familiar with the alphabet, we can translate into something concrete and comprehensible. Of course, this approach to understanding a piece of art is so prevalent, in many respects, because for centuries it was effective. A cave painting of a herd of buffalo spoke directly to the beasts’ importance in the lives of early man; as hard as they may have been for archeologists to understand, hieroglyphics laid out the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians quite clearly; and for all of their inventiveness in perspective and technique, the artists of the renaissance still trafficked in a Christian symbolism their audience would have understood immediately. That we occasionally find new wrinkles of meaning concealed in these works, of the sort that inspired the best-selling, and wholly fictional, The Da Vinci Code, only reinforces the idea that we can “read” any work of art, given the proper tools.
But as classicism gradually gave way to modernism, creators began to challenge, distort or even completely side-step these long accepted symbols and their comfortable meanings, drawing not on the bible for their imagery, but on their own dreams and the collective fantasies of popular culture. In keeping with the Surrealists’ desire to explore the fissures in our mundane reality, Luis Buñuel’s L’Age d’Or (1930) presents a variety of strange scenarios and happenings, not with the aim of simply employing icons and symbols, but to invent new ones out of whole cloth. As such, it’s rather hard to understand in the old-fashioned sense, as a message being transmitted from sender to receiver. If you instead surrender and suspend your logical mind -- that voice which relentlessly, horribly tries to make sense out of every damn thing -- you have a better chance of divining what Buñuel imagined the film to be. As Henry Miller put it, “L’Age d’Or is composed of a succession of images without sequence, the significance of which must be sought below the threshold of consciousness.”
After the success of his first film, Un Chien Andalou, a collaboration with Salvador Dali, whom Buñuel befriended as a student at the University of Madrid, the legendary director received an offer to make another feature by a wealthy patron, the Vicomte Charles de Noailles. In 1928, de Noailles had begun the tradition of commissioning a film each year as a birthday present to his wife. Excited by the opportunity, Buñuel quickly made contact once again with his old partner Dali, and the two set about working on a new script through the same process of dream-sharing and free association that made their previous work so memorable. Before filming could begin however, the two had some sort of falling out and Buñuel completed the script and the actual production on his own. The extent of Dali’s contribution to the film is the subject of some debate, though Dali himself later went on record as saying that Buñuel had minimized his involvement. Whatever the details of the film’s conception however, the result is anarchic, outrageous and at times very funny condemnation of the status quo and the institutions, particularly the Catholic Church, which uphold it.
The plot of the film, as perfunctory as it is, begins with the founding of Rome (well, actually it begins with some information about scorpions and a gang of bandits led by Surrealist painter Max Ernst, but anyway…), an occasion rudely interrupted by two lovers whose physical display of passion so offends the priests and other gathered authority figures that the man his hauled away in handcuffs. The young lady is free to return to her high-class family, and, after being let loose because of some vague diplomatic immunity, her beau crashes an important party hosted at the palatial estate of the Marquis de X. The continued intrusions upon his amorous intentions by the bourgeois world drive the man into fits of rage, during which he lashes out at anything and everything that represents it.
Though the broad strokes of this story should be evident to anyone who is paying attention, much of the imagery in the film defies easy interpretation, including an ox that inexplicably occupies the young lady’s bed, her salaciously licking the feet of a statue and a giraffe forced out of a window. Even when the intended message is relatively clear, such as when a shabby, peasant cart clamors through the fancy party, seemingly invisible to the aristocrats in attendance, Buñuel never lapses into logic or lets the sense of unreality falter, juxtaposing already potent symbols like crosses and military regalia with the jumbled randomness of a fever dream. The twisted use of religious iconography, including a coda that links Jesus with the brutal debauchery of the Marquis De Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom, led to protests by an anti-Semitic and anti-communist organization, called “The Patriotic Youth Group”, who rioted during the film’s initial commercial run, convincing the French censors, who originally had few objections to the film, to ban it entirely less than two weeks later.
That it was controversial is unsurprising, even without the religious commentary, the film’s attack on the establishment, on everything but love, is shockingly unforgiving. Though he gains our sympathy by being placed in contrast to the forces of repression, the male lead’s actions aren’t exactly admirable, but while it’s hard to identify with a guy who seems to be constantly kicking dogs, harassing blind people or slapping old ladies, we’re really not supposed to take these events literally, just as we’re not supposed to take much of what transpires to be part of any actual chain of causality or even to be taking place in the real world. What is so revolutionary about surrealism as a whole, and this film specifically is that it is political without being literal; it asks you to engage big questions with your imagination, not your intellect. Paradoxically, the key to understanding L’Age d’Or is to cease trying to understand it, there is no key, no cipher that will make everything clear. The film doesn’t need to be decoded, it needs to be dreamt.