UN CHIEN ANDALOU (1929)

  • Director: Luis Buñuel
  • Writers: Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí
  • Starring: Pierre Batcheff, Simone Mareuil, Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí, and Jaime Miravilles
  • Accolades: 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#94)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming (with ads) on Tubi App

The name of Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog) is purposefully meaningless, just like the rest of the film. It is maybe the most famous short film of all time, partly because it studied in cultural circles outside of the cinema world. It is considered one of the major works of surrealist art, and was co-created by perhaps the most famous of the surrealist artists, Salvador Dalí. Supposedly Dalí brought pockets full of stones to the premiere “in case of negative reactions.” But of course, the negative reactions were the entire point. Luis Buñuel, Dalí’s partner, was furious that the film’s biggest audience turned out to be the “bourgeoisie,” calling them the “inane herd” that “saw beauty and poetry in something which was basically no more than a desperate impassioned plea for murder.” In other words, the intended message was “eat the rich,” but it turned out to be the rich that were most into it.

If you aren’t familiar, Un Chien Andalou is only 16 minutes long, and is often the only non-feature on “greatest movies” lists. Its story is meant to be like a dream and not make sense. The primary actors are a lecherous man (Pierre Batcheff), a woman he chases after (Simone Mareuil), and a third man also played by Batcheff. But the thing about Un Chien Andalou is that events not only follow each other like non-sequiturs, but the creators would insist that the usual cinematic language of shots one after the other are entirely our own constructions. The man looks out a window at a woman in the street and sees her struck by a car. But is he actually looking at her, just because the shots follow one another, or are the two shots entirely unrelated and it’s all in our heads?

This extends to the most famous shot of Un Chien Andalou, right at the beginning, where we see a man sharpening a razor, a woman sitting in a chair, him holding her eye open… and then, a moment later, a razor blade slicing through an eye, the vitreous liquid spilling out. Of course, it’s actually a dead sheep’s eye. Are we supposed to think it’s really hers? If so, what does it mean? If not, what does that mean? Clearly the filmmakers are playing with our basic assumptions. Of course, a lot of people don’t really get past that part, because for most people watching eyeballs get sliced up is super disturbing.

Other famous images are the hand infested with ants, the man suddenly pulling on two grand pianos covered with priests (played by Buñuel and Dalí) and dead donkeys (even more random than that sounds in context), and the final shot, where a woman and man traipse off happily onto a beach, followed by a title card reading “the Next Spring,” when we see them half-buried in sand, apparently dead. The title cards add to the disorientation, as they are all over the place and seem to have no relation to what’s going on. I halfway expected them to be read by the narrator from Spongebob Squarepants. One reads “Eight Years Later,” but in the interim we’re still in the same scene and no time seems to have passed.

What Buñuel and Dalí had intended to be a rallying cry against the excesses of contemporary European society turned out to be surprisingly popular, running at one Parisian theater for months. They did get one thing they wanted, as the local authorities reportedly received dozens of reports of the film’s obscenity. In addition to the weird eye slicing, it also includes shots where the lecherous man blatantly gropes the main female character, then imagines her breasts and butt to be naked. Or again, we make those connections because we expect one thing to follow another, maybe it’s not him imagining it at all.

While Un Chien Andalou was literally funded by Buñuel’s mom, but the film attracted the attention of local well-to-do patrons, who commissioned a longer follow-up. As things turned out, Buñuel and Dalí had a falling out during the filming of this project, and Dalí quit and went off to do more paintings (like The Persistence of Memory) and Buñuel finished the movie, which he called L’Age d’Or (The Golden Age). The movie got him in big trouble with the Catholic Church at a time when that was a pretty big deal, and he ended up going to Mexico where they would let him at least make semi-mainstream movies, before making his triumphant return to Europe decades later. In fact the church was right, and Buñuel’s point was pretty much that they sucked. And I suppose they sort of proved his point, and he therefore got what he wanted.

Far better writers than I have sat down to try and parse out what’s actually the meaning behind Un Chien Andalou, even though its creators absolutely insisted until the end of their days that nothing in it is a symbol for anything else, that’s it’s all just images. I think I will go ahead and take their word for it. Un Chien Andalou’s importance can be debated (Ebert went so far as to call it “the ancestor of independent cinema,” which seems to me a stretch), but it’s short, so if you’re interested in this kind of thing it’s probably worth checking out.

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