Released by: BFI Released on: 5/30/2011 Director: Luis Bunuel Cast: Gaston Modot, Lya Lys, Year: 1930 Purchase From Amazon
Bunuel’s 1930 classic surrealist film L’Age D’Or begins with some footage shot in 1912 which shows the habits of scorpions out in the wild. This segues perfectly into a very loose narrative in which a man (Gaston Modot) and a woman (Lya Lys), very much in love with each other, wish to bring things to the next level physically. Once they decide it is time to consummate their efforts are disrupted and they don’t get the chance. The film builds to a blasphemous conclusion and bombards us with strange imagery along the way – from a man kicking a violin to a scene in which the woman sucks the toes of a statue to the now infamous finale where a man looking not unlike Jesus Christ and three of his friends leave a building appearing to have raped a young woman.
Taking some pretty obvious pot shots at the Roman Catholic Church throughout the movie, Bunuel’s film notoriously caused a riot at which point Bunuel’s patrons pulled the film as disgruntled offended types were going about destroying surrealist art in retaliation. As a work of narrative fiction, the film doesn’t have very much going for it as there really isn’t much of a story here to pull you in. This leaves the visuals with that job, and it’s here that Bunuel’s film (which he co-wrote with Salvador Dali) really raises the bar. There are some scenes here that are so absurd that you can’t help but laugh at them, which was surely the point (neither Bunuel nor Dali were without a sense of humor after all) but there are a few moments too that also get under the viewer’s skin. When judged by the far more conservative standards of the early 1930s where it played, it’s not hard to see how this film would upset an audience.
The film’s mix of naïve technique and ambitious design gives it an odd feel, while the mix of innocence and innocence lost in the script leaves us a film ripe with metaphor and, if not always easily discernable, interesting to try and interpret. It’s quite obviously a jab at conservative values and religious doctrine and a celebration of sexuality and a free spirit. This is made obvious with shots of men decked out in Papal regalia at the beginning of the film who, by the close, are no more than skeletons and by the implication that Christ was involved in a gang rape. This is handled with far more creativity and artistic merit than it probably sounds, but let there be no doubt that all the hallmarks of surrealist cinema, some of which seem to offend those of a more sensitive nature, are absolutely here even if later surrealists would take things to a much darker extreme.
There’s a sense of humor behind all of this, however, that those who automatically dismiss the work as simple blasphemy will obviously miss. Bunuel’s left leaning politics are in full swing here, and it’s not only the church being poked at but bourgeoisie society as a whole. The film was obviously intended to provoke and obviously intended to offend but also intertwined with all of this madness is actually a very simple and effective love story in which two parties will do anything and everything to be with one another no matter the cost.
L’Age D’Or isn’t in perfect shape here, but the BFI’s efforts are appreciated nevertheless. Expect some print damage and debris in spots but overall the image is as clean as it’s probably going to get. Detail varies from shot to shot but is decent overall. Some minor noise reduction can be spotted without too much effort. The film was made in 1930 so the AVC encoded 1080p fullframe transfer is only going to ever look so good, but most fans should be pleased.
Audio chores are handled nicely by a Linear PCM Mono track and what little dialogue there is in the movie sounds fine when you take into account the fact that it’s an older film made when sound recording techniques weren’t what they are now. Optional English subtitles are provided and prove easy to read and free of typos.
The best of the extras on the disc is a restored high definition version of the infamous short film, Un Chien Andalou, which is simply a series of bizarre and at times rather extreme images conjured up by the collective imaginations of Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel. Worth discussing on its own for a bit, the most infamous moment the film contains is a rather disturbing scene in which a straight razor is used to slit open a woman’s eye (an extremely well done effect) but there’s more – ants crawling out of a hole in a man’s hand that may or may not be stigmata, a man pulling a pair of piano’s that have two dead donkeys on top while carrying two stone tablets (the Ten Commandments?) and a pair of priests behind him, a strange moment or two of female nudity and male groping thereof, and a crowd gathered around a severed hand while a man pokes at it with his walking cane – all the while the clouds in the night sky move to and fro in front of the moon.
Some of this imagery does allow for interpretation. For instance, apparently the scene with the ants coming out of the man’s hand is taken from a French term ‘ants in the hand’ which means that a man or woman is dealing with the urge to kill another human being. The man pulling the pianos can be interpreted as a man who is being held back from what he wants by his art, and by his religious beliefs. Even with that in mind, the images appear and end at random and the film, meant to be as open to interpretation as the dreams that inspired it in the first place.
The storyline isn’t important in this movie, neither are the characters. The point was to make a movie that defied categorization and that tried something new, something non linear and something unusual. The result is an almost rhythmic film that is as mind boggling frustrating as it is strangely fascinating – and that’s the beauty of this odd little film. The imagery is dark and even a little bit frightening at times, but the film itself doesn’t need to be explained – it can mean anything to anyone which almost makes each viewing a unique experience depending on where one’s mind is at when one sits down to watch it.
Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali actually have very brief, uncredited appearances in the film, but if you blink, you’ll miss them. This transfer is also in HD and it is on par with the quality of the feature in that it looks good for what it is.
Film Scholar Robert Short provides commentary for select scenes of L’Age D’Or and for the entirety of Un Chien Andalou. The tracks complement each other well and while Short doesn’t really explain what is exactly is going on in each of the two movies he does lend insight into what Bunuel might have been going for. He points out interesting details, such as the ramifications of Bunuel literally disappearing in his own movie and many of the pictures’ sexual quirks, and gives some welcome background and critical analysis into each work. There’s also an alternate Mordant score for Un Chien Andalou included.
This release also includes a DVD with a few interesting extras that didn’t make it onto the Blu-ray release as they were shot in standard definition in the first place. First up is a twenty-five minute introduction to L’Age D’Or from Robert Short that covers some of the same ground as his commentary track but which does a nice job of giving us some historical context for the movie and setting it up nicely. Aside from that, there’s the welcome inclusion of the feature length ninety-nine minute documentary, A Proposito de Bunuel, directed by Jose Luis Lopez-Linares and Javier Rioyo in 2000. A very comprehensive look at the filmmaker’s life and work, it’s the best of the excellent supplements in the set (it was also included with the Criterion release of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) as it covers not only the two films contained in this set but the man’s later works as well.
As is the norm for the BFI, aside from the DVD and Blu-ray discs the set also contains a full color booklet, this one containing credits and bios for the main players in addition to some essays on the film and some notes from Bunuel himself on the film.
The Final Word:
While the transfers for these two films are only ever going to look so good, the BFI have done a fine job here bringing them to Blu-ray and Bunuel fans will not only appreciate the quality of the sound and image but of the supplemental package as well. A very well rounded release overall, just a super classy effort in every way possible.
Note: The screen caps below are from the DVD, not the Blu-ray disc.