By Daniel Barnes
*Originally published on the old E Street Film Society blog on March 25, 2009.
L’Age d’Or was made over 30 years earlier than The Exterminating Angel, but it almost feels like a savage prequel, even offering a sequence in which a group of socialites don’t notice that one of the servants dies in a kitchen fire. Bunuel’s movie (originally conceived with Salvador Dali, but completed alone by Bunuel) is a 60-minute excoriation of Catholic piety and sexual repression. The “story” is classic Bunuel gibberish – a series of false starts, dead ends, and non-sequiters that may be all or part of a dream by one or both of the protagonists. It opens with a biological exploration of a scorpion, which is described as antisocial, venemous, and cruel, traits that Bunuel clearly links to the nature of humanity. From there, the action proceeds to a doomed, nonsensical holy war, then to a tryst in the mud (or is it rape?) that upsets a group of pious patriots. The images in L’Age d’Or are both shocking and humorous – a man kicks a violin down the street, a woman shoos a cow out of her bed, a vigorous sadist’s lust appears to bring a horny young woman into being. Or is she dreaming him up?
Most of the decipherable narrative involves two young lovers thwarted – by guilt, by religion, by a hypocritical, self-righteous society – in their attempts to make love. He is a deranged pervert revealed to be the Marquis of X, a delegate of the “International Goodwill Society” who possesses no goodwill whatsoever. Similar to Fernando Rey’s character in Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, he’s a banana republic ambassador who expresses great, protective pride in his country, yet knows nothing about it and shows no interest in ever returning. The woman is arguably even more deranged and aggressive – while he becomes visually obsessed with the toes of a Greek statue, she waits for him to duck away before ecstatically sucking them.
From one of the first shots of his first film Un Chien Andalou, Bunuel has been a master of the shocking moment, and L’Age d’Or has them in droves. One of the most potent comes when a tender scene between the lovers is gruesomely undermined by the sudden appearance of a fingerless hand. We also see a clergy orchestra, the Pope getting thrown out of a window, and an eerie closing shot of a crucifix draped with scalps. L’Age d’Or is imbued with the righteous, immature rage of a young man, but as ever, it’s cut with Bunuel’s trademark atheistic ambivalence.
Much like Ford and Hawks, Bunuel was self-effacing when it came to self-analysis; like Godard, he often made himself out to be some sort of idiot savant primitive. Bunuel’s films are rich with symbolism, but he is so intent on undermining himself, you can never put all of your faith in the simplest explanation (that’s just not how atheists roll). Yes, the would-be lovers are kept apart by a weighty religious fundamentalism that drives them insane, but they’re also creepy and disgusting people with no value for life. Even that duality is undercut by the film’s ultimate revelation – that the religious fundamentalism keeping them apart is infinitely more perverted, with Jesus Christ cast as the sadistic lead in a re-enactment of “120 Days of Sodom”. Now that is some inspired blasphemy.