It's a famous surrealist silent film by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali. It was Bunuel's first film and the pair's screenwriting technique was to talk about their dreams and throw shocking ideas at each other. "No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted," said Bunuel. "We had to open all doors to the irrational and keep only those images that surprised us, without trying to explain why."
Roger Ebert calls it "the most famous short film ever made, and anyone halfway interested in the cinema sees it sooner or later, usually several times." It was a hit with the French bourgeoisie and ran for eight months, despite being guerilla low-budget filmmaking financed with money borrowed from Bunuel's mother... but Bunuel was unhappy about this. He'd wanted shock and outrage. He'd made it as a direct attack on the audience and upon avant-garde sensibilities. To quote him again: "What can I do about the people who adore all that is new, even when it goes against their deepest convictions, or about the insincere, corrupt press, and the inane herd that saw beauty or poetry in something which was basically no more than a desperate impassioned call for murder?"
However he got his wish with his next film, L'Age d'Or
(1930), which had even more blasphemy and perversion and was seen as a direct attack on Catholicism. It got banned. Bunuel was much happier with that.
The film has no story. It jumps from scene to scene with no regard for logic or even the rules of visual narrative, so for instance a character might walk out of her front door in the heart of Paris and find herself on a beach. Several of its sequences are taken directly from Bunuel and Dali's dreams. There are no dialogue intertitles, but instead indications of jumping in time ("eight years later", "at three o'clock in the morning", "in the spring") that of course mean nothing. Even its visual continuity is often illusory. If Simone Mareuil looks out of a window and then the next shot is pointing down at a dead transvestite in what looks like the street outside, our assumption is that that's akin to a point-of-view shot and that she's looking at the aftermath of a fatal accident. Not necessarily so. Bunuel wanted to violate cause and effect. Nothing can be assumed to be a result of anything else. As it happens he'd told the actress to look out the window at "anything, a military parade, perhaps."
To quote Bunuel one last time: "Nothing, in the film, symbolizes anything. The only method of investigation of the symbols would be, perhaps, psychoanalysis." Mind you, that said, the juxtaposition of a sea urchin and Mareuil's armpit hair looks like a deliberate comparison to me.
So what's it like to watch, then? It's perhaps a bit too long, but that could be explained by my copy running significantly longer than imdb thinks it should. The number of frames per second was up for grabs in the silent era. It's also evil-minded and sadistic, starting with a scene with a cut-throat razor that's easily as gory as anything in a 1970s video nasty. This is a film determined to take the unpleasant option. Pierre Batcheff has a hole in his hand, from which ants are pouring out. Books turn into guns, which are used to kill. Batcheff later gets harnessed to two pianos, two dead and rotting donkeys, two priests (one played by Dali himself) and the Ten Commandments. (He pulls these along with ropes, all at once.)
It has dark sexuality. Batcheff corners Mareuil in predatory fashion and gropes her, which Bunuel intercuts with close-up nude shots of Mareuil again being groped in similar fashion. Yes, that's right. This film has tits. There's also gender blurring, most obviously with the androgynous woman in the street outside but also arguably with our first look at Batcheff himself. What's that cycling costume he's wearing, eh? Looks not unlike a French maid's outfit to me.
It manages to have an ending, amazingly. "In the springtime" shows our two leading characters planted in the ground like spring bulbs, but dead. It's quite an image. You could fit it into all kinds of "death and rebirth" interpretations linked with springtime and perhaps even specifically Easter. Bunuel certainly has a bee in his bonnet about religion, after all.
Incidentally, look out for that group of men carrying a corpse through the woodlands. Is it just me, or do they look like gangsters?
Discussing the actors might seem largely pointless, but there is one gruesome and famous coincidence concerning them. Both leads in real life ended up committing suicide. Batcheff died of an overdose on 13 April 1932, only a few years after this film, while Mareuil suffered from depression after World War Two and in 1954 burned herself to death with gasoline in a public square. However that said, Batcheff here has a knack for being creepy when he wants to be.
Bunuel soon fell out with Dali, but this didn't stop him from going on to have a long filmmaking career. Born in Spain, he fled the fascists and the Spanish Civil War and ended up living in Mexico. He made films in Hollywood, Spain and France, including famous ones like Belle de Jour (1967). He also never lost his taste for dream logic in his movies. As for Salvador Dali... well, you don't need me to tell you about Dali. This film of theirs is mad and extreme enough to deserve its reputation, even if ultimately it failed in their stated goal of scandalising society and causing widespread outrage. People liked it. They thought it was good. Think of it as punk, but fifty years early.