Largely free of production constraints, short, experimental and deliberately shocking, Un Chien andalou is considered by many to be one of the most notorious expressions of surrealism on film in the last century. At its most radical, the surrealist movement asked us to rethink fundamentally our preconceptions about cinema; to challenge and subvert. The film allowed the rapid entry of its two young directors, Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, into the Surrealist movement.
Films of this movement had been unsuccessful (for example, those of Man Ray and Antoine Arnaud) up until this point; Robert Short explaining that ‘Part of the trouble was that Surrealism meant automatism – absolute fidelity to the voice of the unconscious unsullied by rational intentionality. And filmmaking cannot do without forethought, rehearsal and a certain technical expertise. ‘1 Bunuel himself clarifies that the film’s plot is the result of a “conscious psychic automatism’, and, to that extent, it does not attempt to recount a dream, although it profits by a mechanism analogous to that of dreams.
2 The surrealists were greatly influenced by Sigmund Freud, the Austrian founder of psychoanalysis. They were especially receptive to his distinction between the ‘ego’ and the ‘id’-that is, between our primal instincts/desires (the ‘id’) and our more rational patterns of behavior (the ‘ego’). Since our primal urges are often unsuitable/ inappropriate in terms of social expectations, Freud concluded that in a repressive world, we are unable to share our dreams consciously and push them into the unconscious part of our minds.
He believed that individuals must bring their hidden desires to the awareness of the conscious mind. Freud felt that despite the overwhelming urge to repress desires, the unconscious still reveals itself-particularly when the conscious mind relaxes its hold-in dreams, myths, odd patterns of behavior, accidents, and art. Through the film’s disturbing succession of images and surrealist imagery, Bunuel and Dali were able to visualise the surrealist fascination with the reality of the unconscious: the concept that the ‘real’ is to be found beyond the surface, in concealed dimensions of the psyche.
Bunuel believed that through visualising unconscious impulses, he would ‘shatter the optimism of the bourgeois world, and force the reader (or spectator) to question the permanency of the prevailing order’. 3 Cinema, as Short puts it, ‘permitted the superimposition of dreams and everyday reality; their suture in a seameless visual experience. ‘4 The ambience of the film creates a mental state halfway between dream and reality, an almost conscious hallucination.
Both Dali and Bunuel took inspiration when creating the film from the psychoanalytical practice of remembering their own dreams (the former recounting one of ants eating at his hand, and Bunuel’s being the image of a tapering cloud bisecting the moon). They dispensed with the restraints of rationality, reason and established attitudes (moral, social and artistic), using images and ideas that would surprise and provoke the spectator, in order to create an ‘autonomous’ world.
By obscuring the realist vision and idealist aesthetic the final images imparted dream-like states and represented ‘the unconscious feelings and desires of man’- both principal preoccupations of Surrealism that aimed to shock spectators into a new awareness of themselves. The surrealist technique used by the filmmakers for the first time in cinema as a way of eliciting the unconscious is known as ‘automatism’: this consisted of allowing the mind to wander without any interference from the conscious mind.
The resulting findings would not be random or meaningless, but would be guided at every point by the functioning of the artist’s unconscious mind, and not by rational thought or artistic training. The film is full of surreal images we remain unprepared for- an example is the metamorphosis of the female protagonist’s armpit with a sea-urchin accompanied by a single human footprint or the male protagonist’s strange burden of donkeys, pianos and other paraphernalia.
Bunuel reflected the significance of unconscious emotions in Un Chien andalou principally through the facial expressions and body movements of his characters, as visuals were a vital part of the silent film’s language. We are able to decipher/ gauge the feelings of the male and female protagonist as they observe a girl in the street below their window- their faces depict a sense of euphoria/ elation and delight/rhapsody (rapture? ). Similarly, the excitement of the young man’s feelings and erotic nature of his thoughts are conveyed to us by a series of highly expressive images.
The aggressive, urgent look on the man’s face as he grabs the woman’s breasts and the trickle of blood from the corner of his mouth represent his threatening (violent? ) yet primitive urges, while the frenzied/ heated way in which he caresses her breasts serves to highlight his sexual awakening. Edwards adds that ‘Every shot is a bold, telling image, revealing unequivocally those emotions which we seek to conceal beneath the surface. ‘
5 The filmmakers communicate their characters’ personal thoughts/desires through the exteriorisation of their inner life/ perturbed thoughts (? . For example, as the young man squeezes the reluctant woman’s breasts, the spectator unexpectedly sees them naked in the way that the man is imagining them to be. Dreams, according to Surrealist theory, were crucial in studying the unconscious, because it is in dreams that our primal desires manifest themselves. The incongruities in dreams, Freud believed, result from a struggle for dominance of ‘ego’ and ‘id’. In seeking to tackle the real workings of the mind, Bunuel and Dali aimed to communicate the nonsensical, inexplicable nature of dreams.
The irrational nature of the alternating shots, especially at the beginning of the film, that display dream-like characteristics are central to the film as a whole. The opening intertitle of the film, ‘Once Upon A Time’ induces/incites a fairytale mood. However, the spectator is suddenly hit with the notorious and disturbing image of a woman’s eye being sliced (a common icon of surrealism), thus quashing any preconceived notions they may have had as a result of the commencing title. This scene was considered a provocative ‘shock’ image but also a manifestation of misogyny.
To convey the illogical/ incoherent/ absurd quality of the dream state and to shock the audience, the filmmaker puts forth realistic representation, but uses juxtaposed objects and images in irrational ways. We see other indefinable examples that venture beyond the boundaries of realism- a girl, preoccupied with her mutilated hand is run over by a car on an empty street while an unmoved/ detached crowd ignore what has happened; the male protagonist erases his own mouth and replaces it with hair from the female protagonist’s armpit before she is magically transported to the seaside.
In addition, the film plays on the spectators’ expectations regarding the film narrative as we become more and more frustrated at our lack of identification with the events unfolding in front of us. Surrealists wanted to threaten our complacent acceptance of the world in which we lived- especially those of the bourgeois perceptions of reality. The assault on the viewer’s eye at the beginning of the film was adopted through a desire to shock audiences into understanding this concept.
In the third section of the film, ‘About 3 in the Morning’, we experience an exchange between the young man and a stranger, a representation/ image of the young man when he was younger. The scene is, essentially, the portrayal/ depiction/ execution/ personification of the male protagonist’s inner thoughts and sentiments, an estimation (projection? ) for his internal, intimate drama as he rests and imagines/ contemplates the man he used to be years before, represented by the newcomer.
The filmmakers use a variety of poetic images and symbols as the viewer finds themselves amidst scholastic objects (books, inkwell and pen) which may represent the man’s childhood and symbols of the bourgeoisie, and the surreal image of two resistant Jesuits tied to a piano; a reference on the filmmaker’s part to religion’s oppression/ power over an important Surrealist value, human freedom. We are subsequently transported into the dream world of the newcomer himself. The filmmakers utilise film-editing to change the setting to a park and we are presented with the image of a statuesque nude- a hint at the man’s sexual desire.
He reaches out for the woman with heartbreaking torment/ frustration and in a second, she disappears into thin air, ‘leaving him bereft of all illusion’6. This scene is reminiscent to that of the one in which the young man passionately advances on the woman, fondling her breasts and buttocks. Edwards explains: ‘To the extent that the newcomer is a facet of the young man, an imagined form of him, the sequence is again the visual representation of the young man’s turbulent thoughts as, defeated by the young woman’s rejection of him, he lies on his bed and broods on his own futile search for love.
7 As discussed earlier, Bunuel reveals the young man’s concealed/ internal feelings through the exteriorisation of his experiences and of another form of himself within dream-like sequences. There are dream-like qualities about the beach scene as we watch the female protagonist with a new lover walking and kissing along the water’s edge. However, it does not take long before the beach is transformed into a never-ending, hot desert and the insects gradually feed on them/ eat the couple alive- the intertitle ‘In the Spring’ contradicting the brutal imagery of death we see.
The illusion/ fantasy of love deteriorates before our very eyes as the couple ‘are the paralysed, mutilated, dying prisoners of their and society’s bourgeois values… ‘8 The burial of the couple in an unknown landscape and the final shot insinuating that the couple have been blinded, ‘returns us to a grim bodily motif introduced at the very outset. ‘9 Bunuel highlights how conventional characters acquire in the magnificent dream-sequences of his films a liberty denied them in their daily lives, albeit at times a liberty distinguished by horror and nightmare.
This is yet another surrealist reference. One must emphasise that despite the film’s arresting succession of images, both the characters and environment in it are realistic- a street, the seaside, a park or a room. Bunuel shows that many of the investigations of the unconscious mind have the reality and reliability of the real world itself. The explanation lies quite simply in the fact that for Bunuel unconscious longings are as real as any object we can feel or touch, and he does not distinguish between the two.
By placing the ‘unconscious’ events of the film in an everyday, familiar context, he is echoing Andri?? Breton’s surrealist concept that ‘the most admirable thing about the fantastic is that the fantastic does not exist; everything is real. ’10 It is important to note that there are several recurring motifs throughout the film which ‘make a connection between apparently disjointed episodes in a way which endows them too with the obsessive character of dream.
11 For example, the diagonal stripe pattern which can be seen on the young man’s tie and the shirt of the man with the razor at the beginning, the severed hand, the crawling ants and the striped box are just a few of the film’s recurring motifs. The references to severed hands in Freud’s essay on ‘The Uncanny’ may at least be partially responsible for the abundance of the motif. It is often interpreted that the various objects are used as a way of bringing an interior cohesion to the film’s rather obscured/ discombobulated structure, the idea that the subconscious retains certain information or images which often re-surface.
It is interesting to see that in terms of cinematic technique, Un Chien andalou is consistently full of fade-outs and fade-ins, sudden transitions and fragmentation, rapid close-ups and changes of focus. An example of an abrupt change of setting, achieved through montage, is the angry young woman being transported onto a vast, empty beach as she walks out the door of the young man’s room, or the newcomer finding himself in a park after being shot by the older version of himself in the same room.
It is in the cuts, the very points at which classic narrative montage strives most for continuity, that the film is dismantled. By disrupting the temporal and spatial dimension of film, the spectator’s sense of confusion is enhanced as the time axis is constantly changing (for example, the intertitle ’16 years before’ goes on to be ‘Towards 3 in the morning’. ) These aesthetic/ stylistic techniques are employed as a means of depicting the flowing, unusual, irrational and constantly changing nature of the world inside the characters’ minds.
The techniques of cutting, superimposing, blending, or otherwise manipulating images to create jarring juxtapositions. were devices used by both filmmakers in addition to the irrational plot sequences and development. The film has no clear-cut storyline, refusing to respect the priorities of chronology or traditional logic by moving from beginning to end in a simple, direct and incisive manner. Instead, the narrative shifts from past, present, future to hypothesized time-zones of reverie and dream in a confused manner.
Aranda explains, ‘The spectator is made anxious; his innermost psyche has been violated. ’12 The chaotic structure is of course, another stylistic feature utilized by the filmmakers in order to set the film apart from the conventional, ordered textual apparatus of the mainstream narrative film and demonstrate it as a true product of surrealism. It is clear that the entire narrative of Un Chien andalou is driven by the transitory and inexplicable nature of dreams and the subconscious, creating an atmosphere of deranged reverie and the uncanny in unexpected places very much characteristic of surrealism.
Bunuel’s desire for unconditional freedom and the need to fight against the constricting norms of his provincial middle-class upbringing are what led him to an interest in Freud and Surrealism. His interest in the Surrealistic origins in Freudian dream theory was translated into his work as he filled Un Chien andalou with dream and reverie imagery, as well as man’s chaotic, unconscious desires. Purposefully avoiding the didactic, Bunuel chose narrative strategies and visual style as a means of commenting and as a result, creates the provocative, complex, and at times, disturbing world of Un Chien andalou.