It's Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali's follow-up to Un Chien Andalou
, which was sixteen minutes of free-associating surrealism with nudity, gore, violence and dream imagery. To their disappointment, that had been quite popular. They'd been hoping for public outrage and mobs in the streets.
L'Age d'Or, on the other hand, caused a riot when the fascist League of Patriots threw ink at the cinema screen, attacked other members of the audience and destroyed art works in the lobby. A week later the police banned it. Its patron, the Vicomte Charles de Noailles, would eventually withdraw it from circulation and it didn't end up getting an American premiere until nearly fifty years later, in 1979. Bunuel went home to Spain, although not for very long because a few years after that came the Spanish Civil War and Franco's fascists taking power. Contemporary Spanish opinion of L'Age d'Or included the following. "The most repulsive corruption of our age... the new poison which Judaism, masonry and rabid, revolutionary sectarianism want to use in order to corrupt the people."
Sounds as if it pissed off the right people, then. It's not as startling as Un Chien Andalou
, but it achieves the impossible by managing to sustain an hour-long running time. That's pretty good for surrealist nonsense. Admittedly there's more of a storyline this time, not to mention dialogue and sound, but it's still basically about throwing weird and unpleasant stuff at the audience for effect.
It begins with a documentary on scorpions, which was a real film from 1912 to which Bunuel merely added a commentary track. Poor people hear that the Majorcans are coming and in response go off to take up arms. Four bishops sit on the beach and are turned to skeletons. Everyone takes off their hats and a man (Gaston Modot) lusts after a woman (Lya Lys), into which is cut footage of a volcano and the sound of a flushing toilet. Modot is dragged away and we see that he's not very nice, since he likes kicking small dogs, squashing beetles and kicking blind people to the ground. On Sundays, buildings sometimes fall down. A man has a sausage-shaped stone on his head, someone's bed has a cow in it and a child gets shot to death.
Did I mention that it's surrealist?
What makes it watchable is the fact that it has ongoing story-like elements. It's not sixty minutes of meaninglessness. In fact you could break it down into three broad categories:
(a) Modot and Lys wanting to have sex
(b) a hostile portrayal of religion and society
(c) violence, by implication out of frustration at (a) and (b). Bunuel called the film "a desperate and passionate call to murder" and said that "for me it was a film about passion, l'amour fou, the irresistible force that thrusts two people together, and about the impossibility of their ever becoming one." However it was (b) that got people upset, especially his attacks on religion.
Modot and Lys are the nearest we have to protagonists. Modot is magnificently unpleasant. He's the kind of man who'd let you punch him in the face if it meant he could kill a small animal. He and Lys are obsessed with each other, but Modot's also obsessed with absolutely any feminine image he might pass in the street, including advertisements on sandwich boards. I assumed he was some kind of molester until he finds Lys again and the two of them are crawling all over each other. Lys later starts sucking a statue's toes in her sexual frustration, while of course the surrealism is never far away, e.g. in one shot Modot strokes Lys's cheek and his hand is deformed with no fingers.
Modot's sex drive falls off a cliff when he sees a vision of Lys in old age (courtesy of laughably bad make-up), although in fairness he doesn't run away at this but instead becomes uncharacteristically gentle and hair-strokey. If it hadn't been for that scene, from this and Un Chien Andalou
I'd have been worrying about Bunuel. Incidentally he fell out with Dali so violently that on the first day of shooting, he chased him off the set with a hammer.
The society stuff is interesting too, if only for its juxtapositions. Bunuel will drive a horse and cart through a high society ball, for instance, and that's not just a figure of speech. (The cow's a real cow too.) There's cruelty towards the powerless. Women, children and old people are abandoned to die, which is a curious scene because our young rebellious Modot is the one who effectively killed them and doesn't care, while his rich, influential patron feels so disgraced that he commits suicide. This isn't because Bunuel likes the upper classes, mind you. I think he'd happily boil them in oil. It's just that he doesn't seem to have any great fondness for the poor either, or indeed for children or animals. He hates everyone, or at least he's doing a decent impression of that here.
Bunuel's at his most savage on the Church. Bishops here are cartoon characters, being abandoned by the beach or thrown out of windows. (This is always in full regalia, needless to say, complete with mitre and crosier.) For a while I was thinking that the contemporary hysteria about this being anti-Catholic was overdone, but then Bunuel finishes by making Jesus Christ one of the rapist killers in the Marquis de Sade's The 120 Days of Sodom.
It works. The film works. You'd never have expected that, but it does. It's a curiosity rather than a masterpiece or anything, but you can't say it's not screaming about the entire world at the top of its lungs. The priests of its Catholic Church for instance are either musicians for hire, rubbish to be discarded or the representatives of a man who kills women for sexual pleasure. Oh, and the final shot is of murdered women's scalps attached to a crucifix, accompanied by light music. It also gets mildly historical about the origins of Rome and the Vatican.
The film's capable of being erotic, although this time there's no nudity. It's gratuitously violent, but angrily so and going to considerable lengths in order to find punches not to pull. Its surrealism is sometimes inspired. I quite liked it. It's okay.