Reality and Paradox in Un Chien Andalou
"...I'd felt increasingly seduced by that passion for the irrational which was so characteristic of surrealism."1 So writes Luis Buñuel in his autobiography, My Last Sigh, and thus offers a quite useful starting point from which to begin analyzing his films, here Un Chien Andalou(1929) in particular. If we are to take his word that "[in] the working out of the plot every idea of a rational, esthetic or other preoccupation with technical matters was rejected as irrelevant,"2 that he and Dali employed a process similar to automatic writing in composing the script, the film represents a product born more or less from the workings of the unconscious, a wonderous sort of resource for those irrational things which he was so drawn to.
One way to approach such a film is to treat it as a manifestation of psychological processes, or perhaps as a work which consciously plays with perceived psychological processes. A psychoanalysis of that sort would no doubt be justified both by the writings of Buñuel as well as by the content and style of the film which appear to be laden with Freudian (or perhaps Lacanian) meaning. But perhaps we can also consider the emotional value of a surrealist film like Un Chien Andalou, experiencing it on a more visceral level. After all, Buñuel himself was "seduced by that passion for the irrational." Are we as viewers seduced by that passion as well? And if so, how is that emotional impact conveyed?
Here it may help to recall a comment by André Breton: "the Surrealist atmosphere created by automatic writing, which I have wanted to put within the reach of everyone, is especially conducive to the production of the most beautiful images."3 For Breton, the value and beauty of an image is contingent on the spark created by the clash between two opposing elements, like the "man cut in two by the window."4 One of the key strengths of Surrealism, then, if not the definition of it, is a kind of dialectic process whereby a conflict or paradox yields a new type of reality, a surreality. In Buñuel's films, some of the most striking and beautiful images occur precisely where such a paradox exists, but what gives them their distinct emotional impact is the fact that they are often conflicts of desires. A sequence from Un Chien Andalou can serve as an example. The extract sequence begins after the stranger in a suit and hat enters the cyclist's room, pulls off the cyclist's drag garb and box and throws them out the window, then orders him to stand facing the wall with his arms up as if on a crucifix: An intertitle reads, "Seize ans avant (Sixteen years ago)," and as the stranger turns to leave, we find that he is a spitting image of the cyclist. He spots some books scribbled upon by ink, walks over, closes the books, and holds them to his chest with an air of disapproval. He returns to the cyclist, still standing by the wall, and hands him the books, shaking his head as if in disappointment. After he turns once again to leave, the cyclist suddenly spins around with a glower on his face, and the books in his hands become guns. The doppelganger turns to face the cyclist with a hurt look, but the cyclist mercilessly fires several shots. The doppelganger's eyes roll back and he begins his slow-motion collapse, but falls in a meadow by a gentle lake, next to a nude woman who sits with her back facing the camera. He reaches out and tries to clasp her, but his fingers claw down her bare back, and he falls as the woman vanishes.
We can certainly study this excerpt here in terms of psychoanalysis, and it would yield a very convincing model for understanding the sequence. The cyclist, finally fed up with the constraining effects of the super-ego, lashes back and retaliates by turning the objects leveled against him, the books, into the weapons of vengeance, the guns. The killing of the doppelganger, who acts almost like a father figure, seems to be open to oedipal readings as well. However, the affective power of the sequence resides not so much in the acting out of this id impulse (or perhaps the ego) but rather in the surreal way in which these emotions are played out.
Here it is important to note that one quality which distinguishes Surrealism from other styles of art that intentionally distort reality is that it must establish a picture that is mostly realistic. Whereas an Expressionist film like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari would manipulate the mise-en-scene to create a visibly stylistic manifestation of the feeling to be expressed, Surrealism depends upon the believability of most key elements in the frame to highlight the element that doesn't quite fit into the picture. In this way, much of the initial action of the extract can be seen as establishing that realism. The geometric integrity of the room is intact, the objects and characters appear as they would in real life.
However, as the crescendo of the soundtrack nears a climax, the cyclist's books turn into guns, the first subversion of reality in this extract. Then, in the key moments, the violent death of the doppelganger, and thus the liberation of the cyclist's impulse, is immediately followed by the sublime lyricism of the man reaching for the woman in the meadow. Just as in Breton's suggestion, the beauty of the image occurs somewhere in the clash, the juxtaposition between the brutality and the serenity, the fulfilled desire and the unquenched longing.
Whether Buñuel's surrealism really comes from his unconscious or from his calculated efforts to imitate what the unconscious might look like on film, its effectiveness in creating such lively and emotional images is due in large part to the stylistic fusion of reality and paradox.
UC Berkeley - Film 151, Spring 1998
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