L'Âge d'or Movie Review
Of course, ultra-conservative piety was never the problem with Buñuel. On the contrary. Today, more than twenty years after his death, he remains cinema's most gleeful blasphemer, and in L'Âge d'or his contempt for the church found its most straightforward representation. Pauline Kael described the picture as "deliberately, pornographically blasphemous," a summation that cannot be improved upon; an example of Buñuel's heresies might include the concluding sequence in which Jesus is written into the same Marquis de Sade material that served as the basis for Pasolini's Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom, and there are many more. (The woman for whom the film was commissioned was, incidentally, a direct descendent of the Marquis's.)
But even if L'Âge d'or had ended with the Resurrection, the public would likely have stormed the screen. Buñuel and artist Salvador Dali, who collaborated with him on the film's script, were adherents of the Surrealist movement that was the style of the moment in the Paris art world in 1930, and in L'Âge d'or they created an obstinately irrational attack on social mores. Like all Surrealists, Buñuel and Dali were preoccupied with the irrational - with the logic of dreams and the subconscious - and armed with suitably free-associative imagery, they illustrate, in L'Âge d'or, how it is that society stands in the way of man's most basic pursuits. In L'Âge d'or these basic pursuits are largely characterized by lust. You may have noticed that I haven't provided a plot synopsis of L'Âge d'or. The reason is that no one could. I can say that a rough outline of the film would include the information that a passionate young man (Gaston Modot, who had the good fortune to appear in that other touchstone of cinematic outrage The Rules of the Game) falls in love with - or perhaps already was in love with - a similarly passionate young woman (Lya Lys). This love finds outlets deemed by society and the church to be inappropriate - the woman, dreaming of her lover, sucks the stone toe of a statue at a garden party, to use one rather benign example - and society in turn takes every measure to keep them apart.
The magic of L'Âge d'or lies in these dreamlike images. The film opens with instructional footage about the life and habits of the common scorpion (a knowing commentary provided on the new Kino DVD release reveals a structural logic to this opening that I had missed through several viewings) and before it's over cows have appeared in beds, children have been hunted and killed by gamekeepers, and priests, plows, and burning trees have been thrown from second-floor bedroom windows. It's all very strange - and unimaginably shocking for 1930 - but none of it is entirely random, and deeper meanings are there, tantalizing close to the surface.
A battle was waged for the future of film when the medium was still new, and by 1930 those who envisioned a narrative function for the form had won out over those who hoped for a more purely artistic, experimental role. (And Buñuel, who went on to an illustrious film career, kept the surreal alive within the narrative tradition as much as any other director.) L'Âge d'or, to my mind, was the last great offensive from that loyal opposition. It's an important historical document in the histories of film and art, a work of the rarest poetry, and a reminder, in the era of White Chicks and Garfield: The Movie, that film is capable of so much more.
Aka The Golden Age.