Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí were commissioned by Marie-Laurie and Charles de Noailles to produce a follow-up to Un Chien Andalou, 16 minutes that forever changed the face of cinema. Much like The Phantom of Liberty, L’Age d’Or is structured as a vicious string of gags. According to Buñuel, Dali “wrote that his intentions ’in writing the screenplay’ were to expose the shameful mechanisms of contemporary society. For me, it was a film about passion, l’amour fou, the irresistible force that thrusts two people together, and about the impossibility of their ever becoming one.” L’Age d’Or is a little bit of both. Buñuel, then married to Olympic bronze medallist Jeanne Rucar, met Dali’s future wife Gala in Cadaqués in 1929. “I found myself saying that what repelled me more than anything else in the female anatomy was when a woman had a large space between her thighs,” said the fetishistic Buñuel, who would later choke Gala in a blind rage after a trivial disagreement. Dali, according to Buñuel, was transformed upon meeting Gala. “Our ideas clashed to such an extent that we finally stopped collaborating on L’Age d’Or.” How ironic that this film about impossible love would serve as the backdrop for Buñuel’s rejection of Dali’s love for Gala and, as a result, put an end to their incredible creative allegiance.
Four bishops worship alongside a mountaintop before rotting away beneath the ardent Spanish sun. A bandit (Max Ernst) revolts against a group of Majorcan citizens, his death (he’s defeated before he could ever make physical contact with the “enemy”) suggestive of a futile lower-class struggle against high society. There amid the rocks, a Man (Gaston Modot) and Woman (Lya Lys) make passionate love. Torn apart by several Majorcan men, the couple spends the duration of the film fending off church and bourgeois strangleholds. From the film’s accompanying program comes this particularly insightful commentary: “It is love that brings about the transition from pessimism to action: Love, denounced in the bourgeois demonology as the root of all evil. For love demands the sacrifice of every other value: status, family, and honor.” This thwarted love must now seemingly transcend itself in order to win its war against oppression. From mountaintops to palace halls, this struggle is a particularly pervasive one. Ironically, the film’s high society is viciously self-devouring: the Woman is the daughter of a marquise and the Man is the Ambassador of Good Will (appointed to the position not long after knocking down a blind man begging for alms). Unconsummated desire leads to erotic displacement. This is Buñuel’s fabulous cinema of fetishist codes: Mordot sees Lys in advertisements on the street; a breezy sky permits self-love; and Lys performs fellatio on the toes of the statue of Venus.
In his autobiography, Buñuel speaks fondly of the drums of Good Friday: “Nowhere are they beaten with such mysterious power as in Calanda.” They beat “in recognition of the shadows that covered the earth at the moment Christ died.” The sounds of these drums (the music of a humble people) are unnervingly juxtaposed with the music of the L’Age d’Or’s privileged class. “When two groups beating two different tempi meet on one of the village streets, they engage in a veritable duel which may last as long as an hour—or at least until the weaker group relents and takes up the victor’s rhythm. By the early hours of Saturday morning, the skin on the drums is stained with blood, even though the beating hands belong to hardworking peasants.” Somewhere in an impregnable castle, the survivors of the film’s Chateau de Selliny partake in a Sadian orgy. Among them is the Duke of Blangis (here, the giddy doppelganger for a sexually liberated Jesus). The sound of Debussy loses out to the drums of Calanda and, in effect, Buñuel suggests that love can conquer all sorts of moral restraints. By film’s end, the director’s atheistic humanism ravishingly contemplates the freedom of men uncontaminated by God.
The surrealist manifesto included in the film’s original theater program suggests that “the social function of L’Age d’Or must be to urge the oppressed to satisfy their hunger for destruction and perhaps even to cater for the masochism of the oppressor.” It’s no coincidence then that film suspiciously begins as a documentary on scorpions, a class of arachnid predominantly found in the hottest regions of the Western world. One of the more telling title cards reads: “Not at all sociable, it ejects the intruder who comes to disturb its solitude.” A scorpion then cripples and devours a large rat. While the scorpion itself is not unlike the meddlesome bourgeois of the film’s second half, the arachnid comes to represent any and all mechanisms of oppression. According to Buñuel, the Surrealists “made very clear distinctions between good and evil, justice and discrimination, the beautiful and the ugly.” Buñuel scoffed at critics who praised his visual aesthetic. He said it was non-existent, perhaps because the Surrealists were self-named anti-visualists. And though there is no denying the potency of his images, Buñuel was more a master theorist: a purveyor of anti-oppressive codes and signs. It’s telling that he was fan of the Marquis de Sade’s “recipe for cultural revolution.” Indeed, if de Sade had lived anytime during the 20th century, perhaps he would have made a film like L’Age d’Or.