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Saturday, 21 May 2011

Silent Film Marathon: Film 14

Luis Bunuel has been one of my favourite directors ever since I saw The Exterminating Angel, now one of my all time favourites films.
Ever since then I have been gradually gathering as many of his films as I can, and have watched some whereas others remained untouched, L'Age D'Or was one that remained untouched for some reason.

This was Bunuel's first feature length film, coming after the marvellous and iconic Un Chien Andalou, it isn't exactly a Silent film, so I kind of cheated by including it in the marathon. The early 30's was the real rise of sound in film, but despite the fact that an audio has been transposed onto this film it still lingers very much in Silent film territory.
So while the actors do technically "speak" their dialogue, the dialogue itself feels very detached from the images, much of the film contains no dialogue and is filmed in a traditional Silent film fashion and furthermore, intertitles are still used. So this strange film arrived at a time of great change and seems trapped between the two wildly different era's of Cinema.

The film is primarily a Romance, with large elements of surrealism and a strong critique of the Catholic Church and of Bourgeois society, a theme that Bunuel would return to over and over again throughout his very long career. But the primary theme, which also happens to be one of Bunuel's "favourite" themes to deal with, is that of sexual repression caused by the bourgeoisie and the church.
To simplify the films complex themes, it is basically about a couple of young lovers who are unable to consummate their love in the oppressive society they live in, which leads to some rather violent and strange outcomes, but Bunuel goes further in his criticism by showing those responsible for this oppression taking part in various sordid deeds.

The last shot of the film
Now I feel I must say a word or two about this last segment, which has little to do with the actual story of the film (which in itself is very vague anyway), but has a large part in constructing the message of the film.
This last segment is a reference to one of Sade's writings, 120 Days of Sodom, this reference is the main cause for the controversy that surrounds the film in my opinion. But it really isn't graphic at all and is little more than a reference, I admit that I was expecting something far worse but luckily it was very mild by today's standards, it is a criticism of the whole bourgeois society and the church who while causing this sexual repressing are at the same time carrying out various sordid deeds in secret. Could it be that the repression they suffered when younger is what cause them to do what they do know, will the main character end up like them ? It seems to be a vicious circle, but Bunuel leaves it very much open for interpretation, so I may be completely missing the point here.

Another interesting element was the films look at violence. The main character kicks a dog, squashes a beetle, kicks a blind man and is generally violent although not particularly aggressive, he seems to do it as a second thought and each time it is for no reason. In other instances violence is used in a darkly comical fashion, such as the scene in which the young boy is shot (pictured to the left). An explanation towards the man's strangely violent behaviour is offered some towards the middle of the film, it is explained that he was working for the Ministre De L'Interieur and was tasked with being as generally violent as he could be, although I have to admit I don't think I quite grasped this aspect of the film as the sound was very poor and I was watching it without subtitles. Still, it was clearly a critique of the government and it's heavy handed violent nature.

Most viewers focus on the surreal or controversial elements, but the truth is much of the film is made up of the Romance between the two characters, even though that in itself is handled in a surreal fashion.
It is a kind of black-comedy-surrealist-romance.
This unique blend of genres will certainly not be to everyone's tastes, but in my opinion it's one of the best surrealist films ever made, but that's coming from someone who isn't really a fan of surrealist film and a big fan of Bunuel.

As this was Bunuel's first feature length film it lacks the more refined and polished nature of is later works.  The camera work is simple, the film is driven mainly the imagery and the events on-screen, but having said that I must admit that some shots were done in an admirable fashion to further the surreal feel of the film as a whole, shooting such shots in a conventional way could kind of go against the surreality depicted in them so I'm glad he employed a bit of technical creativity there.

Overall the film is far from being a significant technical achievement, even though it definitely is a technical curiosity of sorts due to it being torn between two era's of film making and bearing strong elements of both era's. The truth is Bunuel was not a skilled filmmaker when he made this film. He had little knowledge whatsoever of how to edit and ended up shooting the film in sequence and then just running the reels together.
So on second thoughts, this film may be a technical achievement in a strange kind of way, for it was made by a man who did not actually know how to make a film, and yet it's still very good.

One thing that I think must be kept in mind when watching this is that it is actually very close to being a black comedy. Some scenes are just not meant to be taken any other way, and if you do take them seriously you will probably be offended in some way or another.
A cow on a bed, symbolic or just silly?
Even the central Romance is subject to a few comedic scenes as their love is constantly frustrated by various ridiculous interventions. Some scenes are downright ridiculous such as the cow on the bed, others are a much darker source of comedy, such as the man who suicides and ends up on the ceiling or the man who shoots a child for knocking his cigarette out of his hands.
Definitely not the kind of content anyone can appreciate but those who enjoyed Un Chien Andalou and were perhaps left wanting more as after all that film is little more than a short of about 20 min, should watch this film.

These kind of experimental/avant-garde films aren't usually my cup of tea, I admit that I will find them very interesting most of the time as Cinema is a subject that I plan to study all my life, so how could I not be interested in the various weird and experimental works that have been made over the years. But I do not often enjoy watching them, and they will rarely become favourites of mine as they are often marred by pretentiousness or are downright tedious. But Bunuel avoids much of that by not getting to caught up in symbolism and making the film pretty humorous.
 So this film, for all it's strangeness and rough edges was quite fascinating, and while it is far from being one of the best thigns Bunuel's had done, I still feel like it is something all cinephile's would find of interest.

All in all, L'Age D'Or is a strong first feature from a director who eventually became one of Cinema's most interesting and provoking directors. It feels a bit to full of different ideas, is pretty poorly made and can be heavy handed at times, but overall I enjoyed watching it.

Up next is a review for Chaplin's City Lights, and after that will come the final review in the marathon, which will remain a surprise for now!

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