Love, Lava and Lavatories
The opening scene of Luis Bunuel's first film is a combination of two dreams, his own dream of a cloud slicing through the moon, and that of Salvador Dali involving a hand with ants crawling out of it. This scene is often considered the most obvious example of cinematic Surrealism. But what exactly is Surrealism? Why is this scene surreal? How else does the Surrealist vision manifest in Bunuel's oeuvre?
In his autobiography, Bunuel writes that above all else surrealists had a passion for the irrational. His aim was to fight a despised society (and its religions, bourgeoisie and work ethic) through shock and scandal. In films like L'Age D'Or, and That Obscure Object of Desire, Bunuel explores l'amour fou, another aspect of the surreal, which he defines as the impossible force that brings two people together and the subsequent impossibility of them ever becoming one. Surrealists also privilege dreams and the unconscious, giving them equal if not greater importance than waking reality. In his Surrealist Manifestos, Breton conceives of a return to childhood and the juxtaposition of impossible opposites that greatly influenced Bunuel's definition. Breton also emphasizes the importance of the resolution of dreams and reality.
The use of film as a medium for the realization of Surrealism is problematic. On the one hand it is perfect for the surreal endeavor in that it allows for the juxtaposition of unrelated and often opposing images with an ease that is impossible in other visual media. Film is based on montage, which is created through juxtaposition. But on the other hand film requires much planning and forethought, and so unlike literature or painting it is a medium that discourages spontaneity. Both Bunuel and Breton call for automatic writing, there can be no automatic filmmaking.
Within the above definition the sliced eye sequence is obviously surreal through its privileging of dreams, introduction of scandal and juxtaposition of impossible opposites, like the calmness of the night sky and violent blinding. These moments exist throughout Bunuel's career. Another interesting example of Surrealism can be found in the Third section of L'Age D'Or, the founding of Imperial Rome. The scene I am interested in opens with the arrival, by boat, of a distinguished group to an island and their subsequent disembarking. They proceed up the rocks to the dead bodies of the Majorcans with their disintegrating robes (although they were alive and chanting only moments ago), and gather for what seems to be a memorial service. The solemnity is destroyed by an off screen scream which the crowd and the audience strain to locate. The source of these ecstatic shouts is a young woman, lying on the ground and kissing a man passionately. They are dragged apart but both reach out toward each other. The camera then shows the man's face in close up which is then dissolved into a medium close up of the lover. This shot is idealized. She is made up and in nice clothes as though posing for a portrait, but in the most unlikely of locations, a bathroom. This dissolves into a shot of just the toilet with a piece of flaming toilet paper. The next shot is a dissolve to bubbling flowing molten lava, which them dissolves back into the man's face. The soundtrack contains the screams, soft music and when the lava begins to flow the sound of a toilet flushing.
The above sequence is full of examples of the surreal. First, the dead archbishops propped up in an almost laughable manner critiquing religion and its immense power. The skeletons, still wearing their hats and clutching their bibles, are made to seem ridiculous and the involved ceremony seems excessive. The juxtaposition of overt sexuality and desire and this solemn bourgeois religious procession is an example of the juxtaposition of impossible opposites. The lovers themselves are obviously an example of l'amour fou, choosing to explore their desires in a most inappropriate setting and then unable to consummate their passions.
The most surreal moment of this scene is the waking dream/fantasy of the male character. Upon losing his lover, rather than imagining lovers, openly sexual acts, or even a beautiful landscape, he sees a toilet. It is as if Bunuel is saying that when society tries to civilize and control desires, that is precisely when they become excessive and "perverse." He uses the image of a toilet, an obvious symbol of excrement and dirt, (far from what is generally erotic) for shock value. The flowing, gurgling lava suggest destruction and the toilet conveys the idea of what is hidden and polluted. These fantastic images are in complete opposition to the images of love and erotic desire that appear in the preceding shots. The lava also suggests the all-consuming power and intensity of his desires and the flowing might be a counter image to his impotence and inability to satisfy these desires. The lava is alive and surging, yet he is powerless and will soon be seized and led away.
In this sequence Bunuel manages to shock and scandalize the viewer by juxtaposing what is generally considered erotic and arousing with what is usually viewed as putrid, destructive and disgusting. The kiss and the toilet; the lover and the bathroom; impossible opposites. Through this impossible joining he suggests that it is the repression of desire by bourgeois society that has led to these images and to the man's subsequent fetishes. Bunuel is successful in his attempt to scandalize the dominant groups by humorously pointing out their repressive forces. He then highlights the importance of fantasies and dreams in their role as the only outlet of the repressed masses.
UC Berkeley - Film 151, Spring 1998
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