Subjective Notes on Un Chien Andalou
Inspired by diary style writings of T.J. Clark, namely: Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake and Landscape with a Calm, I summarized my own attempts to understand and analyze an iconic work of art: the film Un Chien Andalou. After numerous viewings, I have grouped my remarks according to their relevance to three stages of viewing the film, trying to keep the narration of each stage unaffected by the one that came next.
Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog) is a short silent film with French intertitles. The film was officially produced in 1929 by Spanish director Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dalí. Leading roles are performed by Simonne Mareuil (the woman) and Pierre Batchef (the man). Buñuel and Dali also have a couple of appearances. The soundtrack includes excerpts from Richard Wagner's "Liebestod" from his opera Tristan und Isolde and two Argentinian tangos.
First time I saw the film, I was unaware of the surrealist cinema. Initially, my interest was triggered by the fact that the film continuously juggles with such well-established traditions of cinema and the viewer’s understanding, as narrative, space, time, the relevance of the music to the narrative, representations of self, the significance of objects and actions. The introductory caption “Il était un fois...”, borrowed from numerous fairy tales, suggested there should be a narrative. However, the further I progressed into the film, the more I saw the narrative shattered. The incoherence of the events is strengthened by dismantling of the flow of time. Captions defining different time, such as “Huit ans apres” or “Trois heures du matin” and others offered a seeming progression or change in the narrative. But the anticipated change either did not happen or was not connected with other sequences, resulting in a bigger confusion. Deconstruction of space was slightly more subtle compared to that of the time and narrative. Step by step, I started noticing that same objects are in supposedly different rooms, various shots of the same angles of the same room do not have the same objects in them, outside of the room is a street and a large beach. Many objects were presented and used in an unusual manner, such as a thermos in hands for the ring, or a tennis racket, pianos and animals as a weapon. I have noticed that there is a recurrent pattern of stripes in the film. Surprisingly, during the first viewing, I have made no attempt to read the symbols of the film. Instead, I was completely disoriented by the destruction of time, space, and narrative. The only shot I have tried to interpret is when Batchef is doubled, confronting himself from the past (as deceptive captions suggested), which immediately related for me with different states of human nature. The soundtrack was one of the most profound sources of disorientation. Very playful, light and even cheerful it crowned the cloud of confusion that I found myself in.
During the second stage of viewings, I started to read the symbols in the film like a coffee cup. That brought a disappointment so big that I almost changed the subject of my paper. What I saw was a banal story of a breakup. Banal compared to the initial impression that the film questions the structure of reality, understanding of time and space. The narrative was now very clear and appeared to be presented entirely from a male perspective. The man, once a pure idealist, became a cynical person. The woman, who perhaps did not wish to support his idealism, nonetheless did not like the cynical monster her partner has become and left him for another man.
The more I watched the film, the more the symbolism seemed to support my theory. The cynical version of the self is equaled to a dead man by the empty hand where ants crawl from. The armpit is also connected with death, as the empty hand with ants is followed by a shot of an armpit and then by the grass on the earth. Then the couple looks out of the window and sees a woman with short hair playing with the cutoff hand, which seems more alive compared to the man’s hand. The woman in the street looks sad and isolated, which suggests that the hand belonged to someone whom she loved. The policeman puts the hand inside the box and hands it to her. This is the same box we saw in the beginning. It contained nothing important when it belonged to the man. Now it acquired an important function -- to guard the remnants of the loved one. Ability to experience deep feelings, something that the man has lost, transformed the box. The man, apparently moved by woman’s tragedy, is nonetheless pleasantly agitated when he sees that she is run over by a car. He wishes her dead, to justify his betrayal of his own idealist and pure self. When the woman in the street dies, this “victory” gives him so much joy that he decides to celebrate with the final proof of his masculinity and have sex with his partner right away. She resists, and he decides to impress her with his force, dragging pianos, stones, and priests, to prove himself worthy of her affection. When the action moves into the next room, we see the same man, now wearing nun’s clothes again, on the bed. A man in a white suit, that enters the room shortly after, is the younger, more naive and idealist version of the cynical person lying on a bed. If at first the cynical self seems intimidated and even accepts being punished by the idealist, the mature cynic manages to kill the idealist in himself. With the death of the idealist self, he loses the woman (gradual disappearance of her naked back). The woman, entering the room, realizes at once that the idealist she loved is gone. The death moth and the armpit signify death for the idealist self and the end of the relationship. Without the slightest regret, she leaves the man for another one and her freedom and joy are accompanied by the vast sea landscape. Using religious symbols in a random context (nun’s clothes worn by a man, dragged priests, animals sacrificed on a piano and not an altar) perhaps suggests the freedom from religious views on marriage. And again, music crowned the theory, as every time the idealism was brought forth Wagner was playing, while the cynical self was accompanied by Argentinian tangos.
Before deciding on a final change of the subject, I started reading about Un Chien Andalou. Buried under numerous interpretations of the film just as pretentious as mine, I found My Last Breath -- Buñuel's memoirs where he remarks on Un Chien Andalou, "Our only rule was very simple: No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted. We had to open all doors to the irrational and keep only those images that surprised us, without trying to explain why." (Buñuel 104). Thus, turned out, no matter how convincing my theory was to me, nothing in the film symbolized anything. This lead to a new stage of viewings. Slicing of the eye in the beginning of the film was a hint that attempts to construct conscious narratives by are a waste of time.
Regaining an open mind is not an easy task. I decided to rewatch the film focusing on details, facts, without making any assumptions. After a few viewings, I managed to forget my theory and discovered that symbols in the film are, perhaps deliberately, inconsistent. For example, right in the beginning, I assumed that the man with the razor and the man cutting the eye are the same. However, the man with the razor does not have a tie, while the one who cuts the eye clearly has one. It seems that the two priests that are dragged on the rope are the same, however, only one person is the same in both shots, leaving us with three different people as two priests. We assume that the street outside is always the same, but it’s actually different when the man falls from his bicycle, and when a woman with short hair is playing with a cut off hand. The latter is bringing us closer to the inconsistencies and contingencies connected with the process of the filmmaking itself. For example, the eye cut in the beginning was a cow’s eye, because they could not have indeed cut a human eye. Or, we learn that most of the time the actors were not sure how they are supposed to look or what they are supposed to do, it was all directed on the spot (Buñuel 104). Buñuel also mentions that during the premiere he was alternating Wagner with Argentinian tangos, and it is not very clear if the music was planned, or decided on the spot to cheer up the public and avoid the possible anger of the surrealist viewers (Buñuel 106). Inconsistencies and missteps are present in all movies, but in a movie full of random symbols it becomes a statement, making a mockery of our longing to make sense and find a deep meaning in everything.
The rotten donkeys on pianos are a reference to the novel Platero y yo (a short poem about a small donkey) by Juan Ramón Jiménez, despised by Luis Buñuel and Dali (Cook). Although no reference was provided, making it hard to verify, it nonetheless illustrates how the imagery can be conditioned by factors outside the film, in Buñuel’s and Dali’s personal preferences or biographies, or the process of filmmaking, without necessarily making any sense within the work. For example, Buñuel’s personal associations between lust and death can explain one of the sequences of the film, but nonetheless does not serve as an explanation to the film’s “plot”. Buñuel writes, “And although I'm not sure why, I also have always felt a secret but constant link between the sexual act and death. I've tried to translate this inexplicable feeling into images, as in Un Chien Andalou when the man caresses the woman's bare breasts as his face slowly changes into a death mask.” (Buñuel 15).
I found also Buñuel’s comment on the nature of the surrealist movement, the bourgeois revolting against the bourgeoisie, “But we all felt a certain destructive impulse, a feeling that for me has been even stronger than the creative urge... The idea of burning down a museum, for instance, has always seemed more enticing than the opening of a cultural center or the inauguration of a new hospital.” (Buñuel 107). Surrealists were not a harmless group of artists and their activities were not limited by the sphere of art. Buñuel writes, “the surrealists attacked a nightclub on the boulevard Edgar Quinet which had unwisely taken its name from the title of Lautreamont Les Chants de Maldoror. The surrealists all had a passionate veneration for the works of Lautreamont.” (Buñuel 117). Under these circumstances, it can very well be, that the wish of the film is the destruction of routine, accepted, established way of life, of art, and the fact that the symbolism is not readable only contributes to the purpose.
Un Chien Andalou, besides mocking our consciousness which tries to make connections and see deep meaning even where there is none, and commenting on the process of the filmmaking itself, is also playfully destroying our world of comfort. Destruction, that might, perhaps, even for a second, give space for a seeing that is outside of the usual.
Buñuel, Luis. My Last Breath. Trans: Abigail Israel. London: Fontana Paperbacks Collins Publishing Group, 1985, Print. Monoscop. n.d. Web. 10 November 2015 <http://monoskop.org/images/d/d1/Bunuel_Luis_My_Last_Breath.pdf>
Clark, T.J. The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006. Print.
Cook R.J. Surrealist Film "ANDALUSIAN DOG" ("Un Chien Andalou"). Loyola University Maryland, n.d. Web. 10 November 2015 <http://evergreen.loyola.edu/rjcook/www/sm/pdf/dog.pdf>
Un Chien Andalou. Dir. Luis Buñuel. Screenplay: Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dali. Perf. Pierre Batcheff, Simone Mareuil. 1929. Film