Bunuel: Impossibility and Illusion
by Lindsay Krisel

"I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality if I may so speak," claims Andre Breton in the First Surrealist Manifesto. Cinema, endowed with the photo-realistic qualities of its mechanical birth, yet functional only through optical illusion, seems to be the perfect medium for the exploration of Surrealism. However, the process of creating a reality for the camera to photograph seems at odds with Breton's notion of "psychic automatism." How, then, does Luis Bunuel's celebrated Un Chien Andalou function as a Surrealist work?

Let us consider this sequence of shots from Un Chien Andalou. After ringing the doorbell (which cuts every time to a shot of disembodied hands and a cocktail shaker) ascending the stairs, and passing the young woman, a character whose face we do not see enters the room and sees the now-familiar cyclist lying on the bed wearing all the strangely androgynous ruffles and small striped box from the first part of the film. He stares, bug eyed, at the stranger who seems intent on getting him out of bed. The cyclist looks afraid and confused as the stranger shakes his stiff body, eventually pulling him to his feet. They stand facing eachother, and the stranger rips the frills off the cyclist, and throws them out the window. This cuts to an exterior shot of the building in which the items are seen falling outside the window. In the next shot, the cyclist attempts hide the string which held the box around his neck in his pocket. The stranger turns around and looks at him disapprovingly, sadly. In this shot we notice that the cyclist and the stranger, albeit with different expressions, are the same person, although the stranger appears younger than the cyclist. The cyclist looks ashamed, and gives the string to the stranger, who also throws it out the window. The stranger makes the cyclist, scared and hesitant, walk to the wall and put his head against it like a child being punished.

We are faced, here, with a physical impossibility. There cannot be two of the same person. If we watch closely we notice that we never see both their faces in a single shot -- we are fooled by the persistence of the light-colored suit worn by the stranger. Obviously, two actors played the stranger in the creation of this sequence. This fact becomes more apparent when looking at stills, because the stranger is shorter than the cyclist. Yet, as viewers, we squint at the screen wondering if we have really seen correctly -- if there are indeed two men with the same face. We believe the juxtaposition of the two separately photographed moments. Enough strangeness has already taken place in the course of this film that we, as an audience, think less of the fact that we are being visually tricked, and accept the notion of a split self within the strange world of the film. We believe the physical sameness, and look to the differences that are beyond physical to create meaning. The power of the photographic image, the mechanical recording of physical fact, helps us overlook the technical editing construction and consider the interplay of two physically embodied fragments of a single self.

Bunuel claims that the symbols have no literal meaning, and that "the only method of investigation of the symbols would be, perhaps, psychoanalysis." (Bunuel 153). This opens up a reading of the multiple selves as embodiments of Freudian constructs, particularly the stranger as super-ego. The authoritarian stranger's censure of the ambiguous sexuality of the cyclist, made concrete in the feminizing garb, corresponds with the idea of a the super-ego as an internalized form of social authority. The more youthful appearance of the stranger suggests the idealism of the super-ego. Although physically separate, the emotional interplay between the two characters suggests interknowledge. The stranger knows that the cyclist is attempting to hide the string, and won't let him get away with it. The cyclist accepts the censure, and acts guilty.

All of this occurs in images, hanging in the balance between the trappings of physical reality, and the fantastic dream-like revelatory process by which the viewer discovers both the one being punished and the one doing the punishing are part of the same being. Bunuel claims that the film's "psychic motivation and systematic use of the poetic image to overthow accepted notions corresponds to the characteristics of all authentically surrealist work." (Bunuel 152) Bunuel calls the plot of the film a "result of CONSCIOUS psychic automatism. " The film begins with reality, but uses reality as its point of departure, operating with logic beyond the conscious, with the revelatory process of dream images. The creative process of viewing the film is not to construct a reality from unreal parts, not to follow a particular dream or focus on a particular consciousness, but to be jolted out of the recognition of the real. Breton suggests that the psychic automatism of surrealism should express the "actual functioning of thought." In this exploration, Bunuel embodies different psychic forces playing out the tensions inherent in identity, in thought, in wholeness.

He also moves fast enough that the easily identifiable duality of the ego and the super-ego is immediately problematized. Almost as quickly as you can say "Sixteen years before," circumstances within this twisted world have changed, thanks to new sets of impossibilities like time paradox and the metamorphosis of objects, and the cyclist, once the willing victim, shoots down the authoritarian stranger. Just as a grasp on a meaning is gained, it slips away, back into the morass of unconsciousness, back out of logic and into the contradictory possibilities of illusion.

UC Berkeley - Film 151, Spring 1998
Copyright (C) 1998 Lindsay Krisel

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