Luis Buñuel’s ‘Un Chien Andalou: Logic in the Illogical
On the 29th of July 1983, one of the most outstanding filmmakers of the twentieth century, Luis Buñuel died in Mexico City, Mexico. The Spanish film director has always been associated with the Surrealist movement and such talents as Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, René Magritte and Paul Éluard. The 1929 film Un Chien Andalou, produced in collaboration with Salvador Dali, was highly acclaimed by the leader of Parisian surrealist group, Andre Breton, as an epitome of Surrealism. “Its combined elements of shock, horror, dream, sex, illogicality and anti-bourgeois sentiments, utterly at odds with conventional film-making and all an essential part of surrealist thinking, are as striking today as they were more than seventy years ago, and the opening sequence of the eye-ball sliced by a cut-throat razor – filmed in close-up – never fails to turn the stomach of an unsuspecting cinema audience.” (Gwynne Edwards, A Companion to Luis Buñuel).
The famous opening scene is a visual representation of Buñuel’s own dream, followed by similarly shocking, or simply irrational, sequences inspired by dreams of his collaborator and friend, Salvador Dali. The first ever film of this kind, Un Chien Andalous aimed at eliminating all logical associations, becoming thus an ultimate challenge to the rational approach of Jean Epstein and his peers. Referring to his and Dali’s discussion on the film’s screenplay, Buñuel stated: “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.” (Luis Buñuel, My last sigh)
However, despite of this very definite statement, the film is not free from existing cultural references, and their presence suggests that the ‘visual stream of unconscious’, proclaimed by both artists, is not entirely stripped of logic. Especially the portrayal of the young woman in the film poses some questions. “Initially, she sits quietly, reading a book, which is seen to contain a reproduction of Vermeer’s Lacemaker, but then, suddenly preoccupied by thoughts of the young man, she throws the book away, rushes downstairs, and begins to kiss and embrace him as he lies inert in the road. In this context, the significance of the Lacemaker for both Buñuel and Dali needs to be considered.” (Robert Harvard, Companion to Spanish Surrealism).
The fascination of Buñuel and Dali with Vermeer’s painting is possible to have started at the Residencia de Estudiantes (Students’ Residence) of Madrid, where they both lived during their university years (a reproduction of the painting hung in the Residentia). According to Manuel Delgado Morales, their attention towards the Lacemaker could have been drawn by their mutual friend, poet Federico Garcia Lorca, also a resident at the same student hostel, who had already referred to Vermeer and his work in his 1918 poem Impresiones y paisajes. In fact, “One of the most frequent portrayals of female characters in the literary creation of Federico Garcia Lorca is that of women engaged in embroidery, lacemaking, and sewing. Lorca’s fascination with women’s needlework was shared by his friends Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel, a fact that suggests that all three of these avant-garde artists sought to reconsider the symbolic potential of these artforms normally carried out by women. It seems likely that Lorca, as well as Dali and Buñuel, first took an interest in the artistic portrayal of women engaged in lacemaking, sewing, and embroidery because of the revolutionary implications of this domestic activity.” (Alice Jan Poust, Lorca, Buñuel, Dali: Art and Theory).
Dali declared his fascination with the Lacemaker at a 1955 lecture at the University of Sorbonne: “What moved me most about that painting was how everything converged exactly into one needle, in a pin that was not painted, but merely suggested. Very often I felt the pin’s sharpness pierce my own flesh so realistically, on my elbow, that I would awaken frightened from the most heavenly naps. That painting had always been considered pleasant, and excessively restful. For me, it possessed one of the most violent forces in the aesthetics domain, which can only be comparable to the recently discovered antiproton.” (Poust)
Knowing all this, the connection between the character of the woman in Buñuel’s film and the Lacemaker seems evident. “In the sense that the young woman in Un Chien andalou is initially tranquil but then sexually aggressive, she embodies the two contrasting sides of woman, which both Buñuel and Dali associated with the Lacemaker, and which, in Spain and other Mediterranean countries, have their extreme forms in the virgin and the whore.” (Harvard). As it happens, the film seems to draw on certain connotations and imply symbolic meanings which would, in many ways, contradict initial claims about its irrational and erratic character.
Un Chien Andalou