4 out of 5 stars

Surrealist cinema has never been quite the same since Un Chien Andalou. Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s shocking, disorientating film was so evocative and artistically intriguing that it was immediately acclaimed as a work of genius. 95 years on, one can still see shades of brilliance, even if it’s not quite as shocking as it once was.

When reviewing a film, I usually provide a plot summary to familiarise the reader with the story. However, that’s simply impossible here. There is no story (or at least not a comprehensible one), and the entire 16-minute short is a collage of suggestive imagery. Some of it is scandalous, some parts are amusing, but it’s always bizarre—which is precisely what the young filmmakers intended.

Contrary to popular belief, Un Chien Andalou was not the first surrealist film, although it may well be the best-known. André Breton, widely considered the father of surrealism, wrote his Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, a full five years before Buñuel and Dalí attempted cinematic absurdity. Breton championed what he termed surrealist automatism, a method where the artist allows their unconscious mind to create the artwork, suppressing conscious involvement.

Several French filmmakers of the period attempted to imbue their work with this subconscious energy, creating cinema that was as jarring as it was innovative. René Clair’s Entr’acte (1924) is considered to be the first true Surrealist film. Germaine Dulac’s The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928) is a personal favourite, an unnerving masterpiece of dreamlike imagery set at a frenetic pace. This cinematic style attempted to capture the energy that Breton described as “pure, psychic automatism,” and it’s palpable in Dulac’s nightmarish film.

Undoubtedly, Buñuel and Dalí achieved the same effect. The burgeoning subconscious desires and libidinous urges are never explicitly conveyed, but merely hinted at. The duo unashamedly utilise highly graphic imagery to create an unsettling film. Even the title is strangely unnerving, deriving from the little-known Spanish phrase: “The Andalusian Dog howls—someone has died!” Much like the film, I don’t understand the expression, but it is undeniably evocative. In this respect, the title works.

The film itself opens with a barber as he polishes a straight razor on his strop. He presses the point up against his thumb; Buñuel already has us nervous. The filmmakers immediately introduce the threat of violence, creating a visceral response in the viewer, one that they capitalize on as the scene unfolds. Probably the most iconic shot in Buñuel’s career—as well as that of surreal cinema—was also the first thing he had ever filmed. As the barber looks up at the moon in a cloudy sky, he takes the straight razor and slices open a woman’s eyeball.

The imagery not only became instantly recognisable, but it also became inextricably linked to the Surrealist movement. This is rather like how Georges Méliès’ shot of the angry moon grimacing at the spaceship lodged in its eye became the logo of early science-fiction cinema; some images are so peculiarly inventive that they become cultural mainstays with surprising swiftness.

But perhaps more interestingly, these graphic matches demonstrate that, for Buñuel’s first film, he was a remarkably visual thinker. They dominate the rest of the work, employing a kind of visual Freudian free association. A team of ants appears to emerge from stigmata on a man’s hand, which cuts to an armpit, which transforms into a pine cone. The meaning is less important than the inventiveness on display.

Depending on the version you watch, there are no intertitles apart from a few confusing timestamps. The film begins with the most cinematic of openings (“Once upon a time…”), but we realise very quickly that we’re being deliberately misled. It then hops around in time without ever intending to create a comprehensible chronology: eight years later, around three in the morning, 16 years ago, springtime. Buñuel and Dalí incorporate this unhelpful guide to tease us; they feign an attempt at structure, though they only want to create a dreamlike sequence of events with tenuous connections.

With this in mind, those watching Un Chien Andalou for the first time might well experience a fair bit of frustration. I know that on my first viewing, I wanted to decipher what was being said, what the subtext of the short was, and why it was important. This was precisely the kind of pretentious mentality that Buñuel and Dalí sought to satirise–so yes, they got me. Good for them.

All the young Spanish filmmakers wanted was to create a film based on the idea that suppressed human emotions, dwelling in the psyche, could be transformed into a phantasmagoria. But beyond that, there’s little point in trying to interpret anything from this film. After all, Buñuel maintained dogmatically that: “Nothing, in the film, symbolises anything. The only method of investigation of the symbols would be, perhaps, psychoanalysis.” Of course, a Freudian analysis of the film feels fitting, but it would also feel like a tremendous waste of time; one can’t help but get the impression that the two artists are simply having fun.

Advised by Buñuel, his audience was told: “Do not dwell on what required purely rational, psychological or cultural explanations. Open the way to the irrational. It was accepted only that which struck us, regardless of the meaning. We did not have a single argument.” Perhaps this is why books turn into guns, only for our gunslinger to shoot his doppelgänger across the room. Or why a woman’s underarm hair vanishes from her body and covers her admirer’s mouth. While interpreting these perverse sequences might be fun, it’s ultimately fruitless.

One intention the filmmakers had was to shock and stun the bourgeoisie. Unfortunately for them, this wasn’t successful. It was a massive hit with the general public. While some were shocked and scandalised by the content, others found it exceptionally inventive, intelligent, and a mesmerising experience. This perfectly encapsulates the surrealist cinema movement, which Buñuel and Dalí had seemingly perfected.

The film elicited such a strong response from the public that it quickly led to apocryphal tales being told about it. One story suggested that the severed hand the girl clutches in the street was a real human limb. What’s more, some claimed Dalí had persuaded a man to cut his hand off for the production, offering to buy him lunch as compensation. Another story tells of two women who supposedly miscarried simultaneously while watching the film. These legends are all probably untrue, but they speak to the notoriety of the artwork.

It’s telling that the duo were capable of making such a beloved film without even a scrap of a narrative in place. This is because they rely on the power of imagery, allowing the audience to do the heavy lifting. As a woman picks up a severed hand in the street, her sorrowful expression mirroring that of the consoling police officer, we instinctively try to fill in the backstory. Who did this hand belong to? Why is she so affected by it? Neither of our filmmakers knows, but they’re certainly having fun confounding you.

In this respect, several contemporary filmmakers can be seen to have drawn inspiration from the Spanish duo. David Lynch’s entire style is thought to have originated from this film. Eraserhead (1977) bears a striking similarity in its atmosphere, with several other of his works, such as Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001), offering a similarly unsettling ambience. Perhaps the severed ear in Blue Velvet (1986) is a subtle homage to the severed hand, acting as Lynch’s little love letter to Buñuel.

Other filmmakers who might owe a small debt to surrealist cinema include the Coen Brothers, whose film Barton Fink (1991) feels eerily similar to Un Chien Andalou. Both feature narratives that are difficult to decipher, although the Coen brothers are far more committed to subtext than the Spanish visionaries. Unlike this 1929 classic, you feel as though a lot is happening beneath the surface of Barton Fink, even if not all of it can be trusted.

Un Chien Andalou has been recognised as such a pre-eminent work because it truly employed the suggestive power of imagery, creating a different film for every viewer. Indeed, it is a film that will probably change for each person with subsequent viewings. Every time I think about the two lovers buried in the sand, I come to a different conclusion about what it suggests. 

But perhaps this is the real magic of Buñuel and Dalí’s film: it teases our natural human impulse to create meaning, even when the filmmakers actively assure us there is none to be found. And, nearly a century later, that thought is still frightening.

FRANCE | 1929 | 16 MINUTES | 1.33:1 | BLACK & WHITE | SILENT

frame rated divider retrospective

Cast & Crew

director: Luis Buñuel.
writers: Luis Buñuel & Salvador Dalí.
starring: Pierre Batcheff, Simone Mareuil, Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí & Jaume Miravitlles.