A dog is kicked, four bishops turn to skeletons a blind man is pushed to the ground, an elderly woman is slapped, another bishop is thrown out a window, a child is killed, and a woman erotically sucks on the toe of a statue; also I think Jesus was involved in an orgy. These are just some of the outrageous things that happen in the surrealist masterpiece “L’Age D’Ore”, a film made in 1930 but hasn’t aged a day in its boldness, ability to shock, and its utter contempt for bourgeois life style, it’s also one of the funniest movies ever made.
“L’Age D’Ore” which is translated as “The Golden Age” was conceived by Luis Bunuel who was one of the greatest filmmakers ever to have lived and his friend at the time Salvador Dali, you may have heard of him too. The two made a film before this one, “Un Chien Andelou” which is possibly the most famous short film ever made, it was 16 minutes of surrealist majesty that was made to alienate its audience with a lack of story or structure, just images, some of them comic, some of them grotesque, but all meant to stir a reaction whether good or bad, it was the kind of film that could cause a revolution, and pretty much did. “Un Chien Andelou” caused such a great scandal where it was said at the first screening, Bunuel had stones in his pockets ready to throw at the audience in case any trouble started.
However unlike “Un Chien Andelou” which you could argue had no inner meaning behind it other than to shock, and or delight, “L’Age D’Ore” aimed more at a narrative structure, yet it never really takes itself too seriously. The film has a sense of humour to it all, yet it doesn’t play coy with the institutions and societies it sets out to mock.
I say the film has a narrative structure but it plays it loose, it’s not afraid to abandon its story for something completely different, point in fact, the film actually playfully begins as a sort of nature documentary describing a certain type of scorpion, it then delves into a prologue involving a soldier trekking through the mountains where he sees a group of bishops sitting on one of the peaks. Later on we see a group of very important looking people coming from the sea to found the land of Ancient Rome only to find the same bishops on the mountain peaks but have now turned to skeletons. We now get the main story of a man (Gaston Modot) and a woman (Lya Lys) who are caught making love in the mud while the ceremony for the new city is commencing. The man is then taken from the woman and in a fit of rage he kicks a small puppy presumably to its death, it’s fits of rage like this that turn the woman on.
The rest of the film is the man trying to find his way back to the woman, but he is continually thwarted in his attempts by the rules of the values of society who find things like sex immoral and indecent. The man constantly fights against these social mores mostly by angrily getting upset to the point that he’s willing to knock down a blind man even after he stole the cab he was getting into, or slapping an old woman in the face after she spills some wine on his hand. All the while, the woman seems to be waiting impatiently for the man to arrive and feed her sexual appetites, which he eventually does as they embrace in a garden by a mansion while an outdoor concert is playing. This involves probably the film’s most famous scene where the woman partakes in a certain foot fetish with an ancient statue.
The film ends in a telling of an orgy entitled “120 days of depraved acts” which is an allusion of the Marquis de Sade’s book “120 days of Sodom”, where we see a Jesus like man leaving a castle where the orgy took place along with three other men. The final image is the scalps of five women, presumably the ones who took part in the orgy being hung on a cross while jovial music plays at the end credits.
When I was young, one of the most vivid memories I have is being at a Christian bible camp and having our pastor/leader showing us a list of films that were deemed sacrilege to the church. I imagine the church must have had a cut off-year because otherwise I’d assume “L’Age D’Ore” which was made in 1930 would’ve been on that list.
The thing that I love “L’Age D’Ore” is its delight on its attacks on what is accepted in society and what isn’t, it’s like a breaking down of all barriers that separate us within a class system. The film to me seems to be about finding your passion and being able to knock down any restraints that stand in your way, in this case it’s the simple story of two people who just want a real good roll in the hay.
The surreal moments add to the absolute absurdity of the world Bunuel and Dali created, such as the woman finding a cow in her bed and her having to shew it away, also a wagon with what looks like some drunken poor people being pulled about in a high society dinner party. There is one telling scene that hints at a deeper attack on bourgeois society that Bunuel intended involving the killing of a young child. The scene is played for laughs as the child is shown as a rotten brat who steals from the game warden, the warden then without hesitation decides to shoot the young boy in the back, he falls down dead. Upstairs where a dinner party is taking place, a few of the members go to the window and see the child dead, they seem to take a moment to register the horrid event, then turn back to the party as if nothing has happened. A scene like this would become common in Bunuel’s work as he would attack much of high society in his masterpiece films “The Exterminating Angel”, and “The Discreet Charm of the bourgeoisie”.
Luis Bunuel was a filmmaker of dreams, he would sacrifice story for image time and time again, yet his films were irresistible to the eye, he would surely influence the modern surrealism of David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky, but his absurd cinema would also find a place in the bad taste films of John Waters, and the absurd comedy of Monty Python.
But Bunuel was very much a political filmmaker, his mockery of sacred institutions such as the Catholic church would not go unpunished, and he spent a better part of his life in sort of filmmaking purgatory as somewhat of a journeyman until he gained late international success in the 1960s with a string of masterpieces, right up until his retirement in 1977. “L’Age D’Ore” itself was banned from France in 1934 and not seen again for the public until 1979, mostly because of the blasphemous final scene depicting the Christ like individual who partook in an orgy.
After this film Bunuel and Dali had a falling out, Dali seemed to be the one who wanted the film to be a scandal by using anti-catholic imagery, while Bunuel wanted it to be a critique on bourgeois lifestyle, you can basically look at the film in both ways, but Bunuel obviously had higher ambitions in mind, and he would continue to explore these themes in his later films.
However you look at it, “L’Age D’Ore” hasn’t lost any of its lustre, it’s a potent reminder on how an attack on all things sacred also means a certain freedom from it. Nothing is sacred when it comes to art, everything can be ridiculed, tarnished, and drug through the mud, there’s a dirty sort of humanity for Bunuel’s endeavor, there’s an anger in his films, but it’s because he felt no one was ever above anyone else, it was an act of defiance from him to bring everyone down to the same level.