by Sachin Gandhi
Luis Buñuel’s surrealist L’Age D’or is packed with hilarious and unique cinematic moments that at first glance don’t seem to have a unifying thread between them. It appears difficult to find a framework that can fit a scorpion, a group of villagers or shepherds preparing for battle, the arrival of the Majorcans, a couple trying to make love, Imperial Rome, a bourgeois party, a cow on a bed, a horse carriage going through a party, a man shooting a boy, a bloody eye, a woman sucking the toe of a statue, a giraffe tossed out of a window, the aftermath of 120 days of orgies and scalps hanging from a crucifix! But if one looks beyond the silent black and white images, a few underlying common ideas emerge along with a linear love story; a love that cannot be freely consummated because society and religion get in the way. Using the couple as a focal point in this film, Luis Buñuel casts a smart eye to observe human behavior and society as a whole.
The love story involving the Man (played by Gaston Modot), a goodwill delegate, and the aristocrat woman (Lya Lys) is not shown on screen until the 15th minute mark as the film smoothly builds up events leading to the couple’s appearance. The film begins with a newsreel segment on the characteristics of a scorpion and shows how the tiny creature is able to subdue a much larger rat because of its pincers, lightening quick strikes and the presence of a poisonous bag on its tail. This opening scene plays out like a David vs. Goliath scenario with a tiny creature defeating a much larger opponent and effortlessly flows into the scene of a tiny group of villagers preparing for a battle against the powerful Majorcans. When the group of villagers learn that the Majorcans have landed, their leader signals them to battle with a “Quick to arms!” cry but we amusingly observe that the group can barely make it across the room. So it is not a surprise to discover the crew perish even before they face their enemy; basically losing even before the battle begins. This humorous scene crushes any romantic notions of a smaller-sized protagonist defeating a larger opponent as the scorpion scene may have established.
The perspective then shifts to the Majorcans who are busy inspecting their new site when they hear a woman screaming. Her screams are mistaken as a call for help while in reality the woman and Man are trying to make love. The Majorcans separate the two and have the Man taken away by police. The Man is angry at being separated but instead of attacking the Majorcans and the two law officials who have grabbed him, he takes his anger out by kicking a helpless dog and squashing a bug. After being led across the city by the two policemen, the Man eventually reveals that he is a delegate for the international goodwill society and has been chosen for his virtues such as self-sacrifice. Interestingly, the film shows that the Man displays no such qualities befitting his title and upon being released by the two policemen, the goodwill delegate has no hesitation in pushing a blind man so that he can be first in line to catch a taxi.
The Man is in a hurry to attend a bourgeois party hosted by the woman’s parents; a party where the Majorcans will be special guests. At the party, the Man and woman lock eyes and manage to sneak into the garden to make love again. However, their love session is interrupted by a phone call from the Ministry of the Interior informing the Man that he has failed in his goodwill mission where not a single child survived and many women and old men were killed as well. The goodwill delegate defiantly replies – “You’re bothering me about a few brats?”. Even though he shows no concern for the death of innocents, the Man’s desire is extinguished and the love story fizzles out. He pushes the woman away causing her to literally fall into the arms of another. Seeing the girl kiss another man causes the delegate to lose his mind. He goes about destroying her room and proverbially throws “everything but the kitchen sink” out the window, including the Pope, a giraffe and some other objects. The love story is never consummated but the film ends at the Chateau de Selliny where sexual acts took place in ample doses for 120 days.
The images in the film, including surrealist ones, are not flat but laden with deeper meaning thereby enhancing the story and bringing sharp observations about society, including the church, into clear view. For example, after the delegate goes away to take the ministry’s phone call the girl satisfies her urges by sucking the toe of a statue of Venus. The girl is part of a wealthy family so it is natural that she indulges herself with an expensive work of art, a materialistic object bought with the family money, when she cannot have real love. Further meaning is added considering the statue is one of Venus, the goddess of love, thereby creating an objectionable moment. When the goodwill delegate returns after his phone conversation, he is shown to have a bloody eye, which is a visual depiction of his responsibility in the loss of thousands of lives akin to the blood that Lady Macbeth sees owing to her guilt for murder.
Further, Buñuel’s smart observations regarding class divisions are on full display at the party. The elite crowd gathered at the party don’t bat an eyelid when the kitchen catches fire, killing a maid in the process. The guests continue with their socializing as they do when a horse carriage carrying two drunks passes through the party. The guests temporarily stop their drinking when they hear some gunshots outside, which are the result of a man who pointlessly kills his son just because the little boy was having some fun. At this, the guests have disgusted looks on their faces. They judge the father but return merrily to their party because the dead child is of no concern to them. This shooting incident and the kitchen fire implies that the rich cannot be bothered for anyone who falls below their social scale. On the other hand, when the hostess of the party is slapped by the goodwill delegate the guests stop and jump to the aid of the hostess. A slap to one of their own is of much greater concern to them than the death of those that fall below them in the social ladder. This ignorant attitude spawning from class differences between the rich and the poor has persisted through decades in every country around the world thereby making the scenes still highly relevant today.
The film also depicts a transition from an older slower pace of life to a modern speedy society in just a few images. The group of villagers perish as they move ever so slowly but a few scenes after their slow death, modern imperial Rome is shown to be a buzzing city with constant motion of cars and people. Speed is to be found everywhere and this transition perfectly illustrates the move from a slower older society to a technologically advanced one. This speed is also hinted at in moments of casual walking and shots of still posters. When the goodwill delegate is slowly led away by the police, his mind is racing at a frantic speed because he cannot forget the woman. As a result, still pictures come to life and move depicting his restless hyper energetic frame of mind.
The opening scenes of the scorpion also draws a nice inference between the couple’s two attempted love making episodes and the orgies at the Chateau. One of the characteristics described about the scorpion is as follows -
“A lover of darkness, it burrows under stones to escape the glare of the sun.
Antisocial, it ejects the intruder on its solitude”.
The two lovers also try to retreat to a quiet spot not to escape the glare of the sun, but instead to be away from judging eyes. So it is appropriate that the film ends with a location that is isolated and away from society’s judgement. At the Chateau de Selliny, for 120 days ..”four godless and unprincipled scoundrels had, driven by their depravity, shut themselves away to indulge in the most bestial of orgies”.
The men ..“took with them eight lovely adolescent girls to serve as victims for their criminal desires plus four women well versed in debauchery whose narrative skills would serve to stimulate their already jaded appetites whenever interest flagged”.
Fascinatingly, the mention of the presence of four men at the Chateaur de Selliny, who committed acts of orgy for 120 days along with four women who doubled as scribes is a reference to Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. Still, Buñuel goes a bit further in his references by including a total of 12 women who suffered at the hands of these men. This number takes on a greater importance when the first person shown to emerge from the Chateau, the Duc de Blangis, bears a close reference to Jesus. Buñuel is perhaps hinting that the 12 women are the twelve apostles which would be a nasty poke at what Luis Buñuel thought about the disciples treatment.
“A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to stay to its readers.” – Italo Calvino
This Italo Calvino definition in “Why Read The Classics?” speaks of the timeless virtues of a classic book. Similarly, this statement can be applied to a film that never exhausts everything it has to convey. A classic film stays timeless and is applicable no matter which decade one discovers or rediscovers the work in. In my opinion, Luis Buñuel’s L’Age D’or is such a classic film; a film that has not faded with age but instead like a good wine, has enhanced with time thereby allowing the humor and razor sharp observations to reach the senses without any societal filters in the way. L’Age d’or fearlessly takes sharp jabs at different rungs of society, from villagers to religious people and aristocrats. The humor manages to shed a close light on human behavior with a mix of surrealist images and images loaded with meaning. It is a film whose reception has changed with time. It was banned for 50 years shortly after release. Images which were considered scandalous in the 1930’s, such as sucking the toe of a goddess’ statue, are not likely to cause much outrage now. The proof is this film’s inclusion in the comedy poll. A film that caused a riot upon its release is now viewed with pleasure. The film is also a bright example that surrealist images can enhance a film’s meaning rather than merely shock and outrage.
How L’Age d’Or made the Top 100:
Bill Riley No. 1
Jamie Uhler No. 7
Allan Fish No. 10
Jaime Grijalba No. 16
Sam Juliano No. 19
Tony d’Ambra No. 40
Maurizio Roca No. 52