Plot Outline :
Modot and Lys, simply called the Man and the Woman, are the lovers who allow nothing to prevent them from demonstrating their feelings for each other. They want to make love, but must first overcome a number of seemingly insurmountable obstacles: the church, bourgeois social etiquette, and their own psychological handicaps.
DVDTalk Review :
With a distance of three-quarters of a century, it’s pretty easy to see where those two madcap surrealists Buñuel and Dalí were coming from; L’Age d’Or is three parts Buñuellian cinema genius and one part Dalí-esque showmanship. Smack in the middle of the political confusion between the wars, the film was made in a climate where intellectual provocateurs were taken seriously, particularly publicity-seeking prankster-troublemakers like this pair of Spaniards. Un Chien Andalou was not the work of artists seeking quiet approval and L’Age d’Or has to be seen as a deliberate provocation by bad boys who wanted to cause a stir. Orson Welles would do much the same thing years later with his War of the Worlds radio show, a bold statement created for the express purpose of making him a household name; L’Age d’Or worked in that Buñuel and Dalí were instantly known world-wide.
The movie is a puzzle that juxtaposes obvious content with more subtle and disturbing ideas. 1930 was a time of such division in Europe that anyone making any kind of political statement could expect trouble, and even though L’Age d’Or has no nudity or overt sex, there are images alluding to sexual activity that are still shocking. Buñuel cuts to the two lovers expressing their erotic impulses by sucking each other’s hands, an activity followed by a disturbing reveal of one of Gaston Modot’s hands with its fingers bitten or sucked away.
Lya Lys’ toe-sucking is instantly one of the more extreme images in movies, ever; a literal vision of the kind of minor fetishistic perversion celebrated in one form or another in practically every Buñuel picture. Let’s see, there are also bugs squashed, as in Ensayo de un Crimen. There’s a dreamlike fancy dress party attended by complacent swells who refuse to acknowledge chaotic events around them, preferring to concentrate on specific offenses against their dignity (The Exterminating Angel, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie).
But mostly it’s a ‘mad love’ (L’Amour Fou) movie, one in which love exists even when rolling around in filth, and passion is an essential imperative. It doesn’t matter that thousands perish because a Goodwill mission is abandoned – the hero must pursue his erotic quest.
L’Age d’Or will leave viewers without some background in the Surrealist movement scratching their heads in confusion. Suffice it to say that these rogue artists subscribed to the notion that their artistic movement would alert the world to an awareness of its hollow institutions and beliefs. Out of the rancor and chaos of the shock of art would come a new world of truth and beauty. Or at least that was the stated desire, which had more of an anarchist (the classic anarchism) tilt than the Communist-Bolshevik accusations that were to follow.
Anti-clerical, anti-Church rhetoric was a big part of the Communist platform then, and real trouble started as soon as L’Age d’Or began showing. One scene used sacred Catholic objects, at which point (according to commentator Short) agitators tossed ink at the screen, disrupted the showing and destroyed an exhibit of surreal art in the foyer. Denouncements equating Surrealist obscenity with Bolshevik blasphemy and (typical for France of the time) anti-Semitic hatred incited more violence. Newspaper debates bolstered circulation while cementing Buñuel and Dalí’s fame, and the censors stepped in with the ‘logical’ response: Seize the film and destroy all the prints.
Luckily for us, the original elements were safeguarded, insuring that Buñuel’s movie can today be seen for what it is instead of becoming a legendary lost film based on unseen pornographic content. The key surrealists exponents responded to the ban by publishing a manifesto of intent in the papers, and the movie’s fame was set in stone.
But L’Age d’Or did not spark a flowering of anarchic art films aimed to bring down hypocritical society. The surrealists instead concentrated on films that met their artistic standards for abstracted erotic delirium – Peter Ibbetson, King Kong. On the political plane, the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup was heralded as key to the proper surreal spirit and exalted as art in Europe, even as the American public was unimpressed with Groucho’s skewering of the hypocrisy of War.
In 1935 Andre Breton tried to get L’Age d’Or screened in the Canary Islands, proclaiming it “the only enterprise exalting love as I envisage it.” The local governor wasn’t interested. Luis Buñuel eventually found himself in Hollywood working on Spanish dubbing for commercial Hollywood fare, there to venture to the Mexican film industry and restart his career making blatantly commercial pictures – but often with surreal stingers in their tails.
1. Commentary by Robert Short (26min)