L’âge d’or (The Age of Gold) (1930): France – directed by Luis Buñuel
Not rated by the MPAA – contains suggestive material, outrageous attacks on the church and fascism, and violence/blood
When was the last time a filmmaker has been as audacious as this, as bold, nervy, and ballsy? Hardly any filmmakers have reached the heights at which Luis Buñuel set the benchmark in 1930 with L’âge d’or. It is no surprise that he was no stranger to extremely provocative filmmaking, having created Un Chien Andalou with Salvador Dalí the previous year.
The directing is rudimentary and basic, understandable given the young age of the medium. Montage had only recently been explored, with its cousin juxtaposition along for the ride. Buñuel makes bold use of the techniques, flashing images of an undisturbed bourgeois dinner party adjacent to shots of the maid, falling out of the kitchen door having been burned to death.
The silent era was only recently left behind, so it is understandable that the cast should continue to gesticulate wildly and act over-expressively, even if segments of the dialogue are fully audible. And it is understandable that the plot is minimal and fragmented, given that surrealism was the rage in the mid to late 1920’s.
L’âge d’or should perhaps be considered the cinematic masterpiece of this period. It is unfortunate that surrealist painting has continued to garner critical acclaim in the ensuing decades while surreal films have been shortchanged. Only a couple other mainstream filmmakers have dared to create imagery this bizarre, with David Lynch’s Eraserhead [review here] and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo being foremost in my mind, and only Lynch has had success being consistently surreal in the construction of his films.
It is clear that Buñuel had a solid purpose behind his striking imagery; his themes are not subtle in the least. Practically every scene is a fierce attack on either the Catholic Church (and, by extension, organized and orthodox religion) or the elite upper class and fascism. An opening sequence portrays a group of hooded, robed figures sitting on rocks near the ocean. They look like bishops, or perhaps several clones of the Pope. Later on we flash back to the scene, where a group of skeletons is clad in tall hats and robes, lifelessly grasping their staffs.
The only recurring theme involves a pair of lovers, a Man (Gaston Modot) and a young Girl (Lya Lys). Their attempts at happiness are constantly thwarted, usually by the interference of her elitist parents or conservative religious groups. They lust after each other openly, in ways that would not be legal in the United States after the Hayes Code took effect four years later. The camera occasionally dissolves into their desires for each other, displaying sultry and sensual glimpses of the girl sucking a statue’s toes or a roving eye caressing the woman’s body. One shocking moment has the couple sucking on each other’s fingertips, and in a brief shot we discover his hand has lost its fingers yet continues to stroke her face.
Attacks on the bourgeois are rampant, most notably during the dinner party they hold for themselves. As they mill around in a large room, drinking and eating merrily, they are oblivious to the aforementioned kitchen fire, or a horse drawn carriage that is pulled through their midst. A cow rests on the young lady’s bed, and she is forced to remove it before laying down her head. It is obvious that these people have no concern for life, for lovers, for anything but themselves and the continuance of their social status.
There are a multitude of shocking scenes, including one where a small boy is deliberately shot by a hunter. This is one of the few scenes, and undoubtedly one of the earliest, depicting a child murdered by an adult with a firearm (another notable instance is the scene John Carpenter refused to cut from Assault on Precinct 13). All of the above scenes are pieced together rather strangely, with little in the way of a story arc. The effect is undeniable; a vehement, scathing attack on all that Buñuel despised. Little wonder the film was banned for so long, and in so many countries.
Not everyone will appreciate L’âge d’or. It is an old film, and many modern cinematic techniques had yet to be invented. Some people might find it difficult to sit through the entire 63 minutes without a continuous soundtrack. It is undeniable, however, that there have been few films crafted with this sort of intensity and bravura, and few filmmakers passionate and inconsiderate enough to put this series of images, in this order, on film. It is a tour de force, a striking and unforgettable piece of cinema, and, for me, an exhilarating and enlightening experience.