Bucket List Movie #434: L'Age D'or (1930)
That was my reaction throughout this surrealist romp by Luis Bunuel. It’s a mere 62 minutes long, but it certainly packs a punch, and will definitely stay with you. L’Age D’or (The Golden Age) is both a silent and a sound picture, and is said to be a critique on sexual repression brought upon by modern convention and religious mores. Striking and decidedly un-PC, even by today's standards, let me warn you to not expect an easy, linear story. After all, Bunuel wrote this with his frequent collaborator Salvador Dali, quite possibly the most prominent figure of the Surrealist movement. They are also responsible for 1929’s Un Chien Andalou, the infamous silent short film featuring the iconic scene of a woman’s eyeball about to get sliced with a straight razor.
The film opens with a silent documentary on scorpions which, if IMDb is to believed, was a preexisting 1912 film that Bunuel added subtitles to. Arachnophobic people, be warned: we are treated to loving closeups of scorpion stingers, and a scene where one effortlessly kills a rat. Then, in a sudden cut to a rocky beach that had me waiting for John Cleese to say “and now for something completely different”, we see a scruffy gang of outlaws attacking wealthy tourists commemorating their church. There is even a shocking bit where one of the criminals kicks a little dog away. I guess filmmakers could get away with that back then, because it's practically outlawed nowadays.
Then we get to what I guess would be considered the main “plot” (I’ll take great pains to go easy on the “p-word”) where our “protagonists”, (again, in an avant garde film like this, I must use that word loosely) the Man (Gaston Modot) and the Young Girl (Lya Lys), are interrupted from a romp on a beach by some appalled onlookers. The Man is dragged away by the police, while the Young Girl can only wring her hands.
Naturally, their repression creates great frustration, and it causes them to lash out in particularly ugly ways. The Man, for instance, brutally slaps the Young Girl’s mother just because she accidentally spilled wine on him, and the Young Girl looks on, more than a little aroused, instead of pissed off, at his abuse. When they attempt another tryst at a party, they are stopped once again and, in a scene that predates Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” video by nearly 60 years, the Young Girl desperately sucks the toes of a statue.
In between are memorable, startling, sometimes comical images: the Young Girl finds a cow on her bed (no, seriously, a real cow) and reacts with only the mildest annoyance. One of the partygoers has a bloody eye socket that is never acknowledged, The Man, in frustration, throws a burning tree out the window (do I even have to tell you it isn’t a Christmas tree?), and a distinguished gentleman has a face covered in flies.
But back to the movie’s “message”: I understand the need to stick it the upper class, but select scenes do a better job then the overall story. There’s a fire in the kitchen that nobody notices or cares about as they continue mingling. An even more alarming scene has a boy shot dead by a fellow servant, then shot again, just to make sure the job is finished. Those scenes better illustrate what’s wrong with the wealthy, and, yes, even humanity in general. The indifference, the entitlement, the vacuity; those scenes make a statement, not the main characters' dilemma.
The thing is, I could get behind the message of just leaving people alone and not being prudish about sex, but our protagonists choose to have sex in public places. Not a hotel, not in the privacy of their homes, literally public places, first at a crowded beach, and then at a party. Forgive the cliche, but… get a room, you two! Isn't it bad enough we don't know who they are, how they met, what they mean to each other, so why should we care? And why are the Man and the Young Girl so special that they can (and should) just jump each other’s bones in public places? Why can't they do it indoors like everyone else? If we were to agree with what this movie is allegedly trying to tell us, then why stop there? Why not encourage everyone to relieve themselves on the street? Another egregious flaw is that the wealthy people the movie’s supposed to be lampooning aren’t even all bad. Remember the scene I mentioned where the Man brutally slaps the Young Girl’s mother? Her husband and her fellow party guests come to her aid and comfort her, showing more kindness in one moment than our leads have in the entire film.
But I have to stop myself, because I’m reading too much into this. Bunuel was a surrealist, for heaven’s sake, and it’s no good looking for logic where little or none exist. The film concludes with a bleak, horrifying nod to the Marquis de Sade’s novel The 120 Days of Sodom. For the faint of heart who dare to soldier on to this point, don’t worry, nothing is shown, but much is suggested, which only increases the impact.
Did I like the film? No, but I can respect it on the whole. It could never be made today (mostly because of that little dog getting kicked), but I can’t help but applaud Bunuel, Dali and their ilk for creating works of art that don’t just push the envelope, but crumple it up and hurl it into the ocean. And it’s certainly a fascinating way to spend an hour.