With regard to longevity and productivity, not to mention talent, the only peers of the great Spanish director Luis Buñuel (1900–83) are his contemporaries Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock. The old Surrealist was, however, a far slyer fox. Starting off as an avant-garde enfant terrible, Buñuel vanished into commercial production, where he reinvented himself as an underground auteur, re-emerging at 60 in the French cinema to wind up an old master. Buñuel’s movies are a mixed bag, but even the weakest are a trove of casual blasphemies, perverse details and irrational asides, all of which have endeared him to generations of adolescent cinephiles. His oeuvre is an ongoing private joke, summed up in the droll one-liner, “I’m an atheist…Thank God!”
Hitchcock delighted in manipulating the audience; Buñuel was satisfied with amusing himself. Lang, who was Germany’s leading filmmaker, became Hollywood’s quintessential political exile; Buñuel, as made clear by Luis Buñuel: The Red Years 1929–1939, was a player in the bloody political drama that was a prelude to World War II. He was also, as the book’s disapproving authors—the Spanish film historian Román Gubern and British specialist in Surrealist cinema Paul Hammond—establish ad nauseam, a bit of an opportunist, a sometime coward and a card-carrying Communist who seemed, in the words of novelist and longtime colleague Max Aub, “in agreement with the Stalinist way of organizing the world as long, that is, as it didn’t have to do with him.”
It’s a cruel assessment, but then Buñuel, with his university classmate Salvador Dalí, had more or less created a cinema of cruelty. Their 1929 short Un Chien andalou features the most notorious opening sequence in movie history. As an expressionless actress sits facing the camera, a strapping fellow with a cigarette dangling from his lip—Buñuel—enters the frame and, after a strategic cutaway to a cloud passing over the moon, matter-of-factly appears to slice her eye with a razor. That slit eyeball, oozing viscous fluid, belongs to a dead sheep, as any first-year film student can tell you. But after more than eighty years, the sequence has scarcely lost its cold-blooded insolence.
Punks down to Dalí’s Mohawk haircut, which he sported during the production of Un Chien andalou, the two Spaniards had followed from afar the adventures of André Breton’s Surrealist group and created their own self-proclaimed “surrealist” scenario. Most of the film’s visual ideas came from Dalí, although he had only a limited role in the shooting, mainly in the scene where the male protagonist is harnessed to two grand pianos tricked out with dead donkeys and live priests. It was Buñuel, a fan of American slapstick with experience working at the margins of the French film industry, who provided the shock montage. Un Chien andalou was distinguished from earlier avant-garde movies by its use of professional actors, standard lighting and classic editing—all in the service of dreamlike disjunctions. Its characters are no more stable than the narrative space they inhabit.
Gubern and Hammond characterize Un Chien andalou as a “frenetic Freudian satire on Jazz Age heterosexuality.” It is that, certainly, as well as a good deal more. As the original movie that sought to assault, rather than please, the spectator (or rather, to please by assaulting the spectator), Un Chien andalou remains the founding gesture of cine-transgression. Buñuel would call the film “a desperate, passionate appeal to murder,” but it was mainly a calling card delivered to Paris’s reigning artistic clique. He and Dalí understood the Surrealists better than they did themselves. With Breton’s approval, the premiere was held in a small Latin Quarter cinema, and in a scene that could have been an outtake from Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Un Chien andalou was attended by tout le fashionable monde—soigné aristos rubbing elbows with celebrity artists (Picasso, Le Corbusier, Cocteau). Dalí was delighted. In his 1942 memoir, he bragged that Un Chien andalou “plunged like a dagger into the heart of Paris…. Our film ruined in a single evening ten years of pseudo-intellectual postwar avant-gardism.” It also boosted his career; he had his first one-man show during the film’s eight-month run at Studio 28, a 337-seat theater in the foothills of Montmartre.