Un Chien Andalou (1928)

(An Andalucian Dog)
France, 17 minutes, black and white

Production Company: Ursulines Film Studio
Producer: Luis Buñuel
Directors/Writers: Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí
Cinematography: Albert Duverger
Editor: Luis Buñuel
Design: Pierre Schilzeck

The woman: Simone Maureuil
The man: Pierre Batcheff
Man with razor: Luis Buñuel
Priests: Salvador Dalí and Jaime Miraville

Un Chien Andalou cries out to be included in any discussion about film as dream. Filmed in Paris in 1928, it sprang from the European Surrealist movement of the 1920s which aimed to depict a super-reality in art and literature which gave equal weight to everyday reality, dreams, fantasies and even madness.

Un Chien Andalou was created by the Spaniards Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. Both men were at the start of their careers and both were to achieve world renown, Buñuel (1900-1983) as a film director and Dalí (1904-1989) as an artist who made frustratingly fleeting forays into movie-making.

Buñuel, an avowed atheist and Communist sympathiser sometimes involved in street brawls with Fascists, contrasted with the eccentric and brilliant Dalí. They worked in great harmony on this film devising its often grotesque, disturbing images together.

In fact Un Chien Andalou was a cause celebre, a succès de scandale, even an amour fou when it was first screened in Paris. It nearly became a crime passionelle as well when the virulently anti-establishment Buñuel hid behind the cinema screen with stones in his pockets ready to throw at any hostile critics.

Fortunately the audience, which included Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau, warmly approved, the avant-garde director Jean Vigo hailing the film as a 'masterwork.'

That, of course, was 1928, and this silent film with its primitive soundtrack of Argentinian tangos and excerpts from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, doesn't pack the quite same punch today except in its savagely famous (or infamous) opening sequence of the eye being sliced open by a razor blade brandished by Buñuel himself.

This grand Surrealist gesture (one of the main aims of the movement was to shock people) was inspired by one of Buñuel's own dreams. Another image, that of the ants crawling around on a human hand, was a regular dream symbol in Dalí's artworks.

The film's Surrealistic title - An Andalucian Dog in English - had already been used by Buñuel for a collection of poems. There is, of course, no dog in the film.

Not surprisingly the film has a tendency to mystify audiences, lacking as it does a conventional storyline. It moves - like a dream - back and forwards in time and space. Buñuel and Dali ruled that no idea or image that could be rationally understood would be included.

Instead, we see a cyclist dressed as a nun, a striped box, a watch with no hands, a masculine-looking woman poking at a severed hand found in a street, two books which turn into guns and a sea urchin linked bizarrely to the hair from a woman's armpit. The film can perhaps only be fully understood at an unconscious level.

However, the film can be interpreted as the story of a young couple told through unconscious images from their dreams. It shows how the emotional baggage they bring to their relationship destroys their love and sexual passion.

This is symbolised by the scene in which the man tries to approach the woman sexually but is held back by a bizarre contraption which he drags across the floor including two Catholic priests (one played by Dalí) and two dead donkeys lying on grand pianos.

Dalí had been including putrefying donkeys in some of his recent art works including The Stinking Ass and obviously felt they suited the film as well.

The animals could also hark back to a sickly distressing incident in Buñuel's childhood in which he found a similarly deceased donkey in his town surrounded by vultures which had gorged themselves on its decomposing remains to such an extent that they were unable to take off again.

The film also offers recurring images of death including a death's head hawk moth whose markings resemble a human skull. Tristan and Isolde, prominent on the soundtrack, is a tale of doomed love while in Spanish tradition an Andalucian dog howls at the moment of death.

The final scene of the film where the man and the woman turn into living statues also symbolises their relationship, which although apparently alive is actually dead.

Armed with this interpretation, the film becomes understandable, fun and brilliant.

Un Chien Andalou is also a stirring example to would-be film-makers everywhere in that it was shot in two weeks on a shoestring (cash provided by Buñuel's mum, who mercifully never saw it) with a crew of half a dozen.

Another aside: the original French credits for this film mis-spell most of the names of the cast and crew. This was apparently a clerical cock-up rather than a grand Surrealist gesture.

Buñuel and Dalí, meanwhile, worked together on a second movie L'Age D'Or (The Golden Age) in 1930 but fell out irretrievably. Buñuel said it his autobiography that relations became so bad that at one point he almost strangled Dalí's partner, Gala. The two artists never worked together again.

Buñuel also ran into trouble with his friend, the great Spanish dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca, who came from Granada in Andalucia. He took offence at Un Chien Andalou, believing the 'dog' was a dig at him personally.

Fortunately, this misunderstanding with Buñuel was resolved before the dramatist's untimely death during the Spanish Civil War.

Swiss TV commissioned an orchestral score for Un Chien Andalou in 1983 complete with barking and whimpering sounds from a real dog! The original soundtrack is better.

Both Un Chien Andalou and L'Age D'Or were released on DVD and video by the British Film Institute in October 2004.