[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]
Paris, 1929: the height of the surrealist and the Dada boom. Two young Spaniards decide to submit a film to the reigning lions of the movement, who had their doubts about the viability of cinema to their poetics. Others had already worked in the vein—notably Jean Epstein and René Clair in his amiable mystification Entr’acte—but no one had yet created a serious masterpiece, major or minor. The Spaniards, in order to gain the approval of their masters, wanted to make an incomprehensible film, one that would carry out the surrealist precepts of “poetry freed from the ballast of reason and tradition,” as Buñuel himself put it. Down the drain with centuries of rational and logical notions of narrative order; to become free, cinema must purify itself of the past. To accomplish that goal, Buñuel and Dalí shot the film together, then Buñuel took over and began the laborious cutting process. They showed the workprint over and over, trying to exorcise any intrusion of narrative coherence or conventional sense. Whenever somebody would say to them, “Oh yeah, I get it,” they would whip out their cutting shears until eventually they satisfied themselves, as they said at the time, that “NOTHING in this film means ANYTHING.” The first public showing was a tumultuous one, accompanied by a destroyed screen and a smelly battle in the theater between partisans and vegetable-throwing detractors.
One could call the result the first great anti-narrative film in the history of cinema. Clair’s Entr’acte of five years earlier doesn’t qualify because it is a non-narrative picture, one that doesn’t care very much about the Western narrative tradition and the expectations it creates in audiences. It takes a goodnatured spoofing attitude toward storytelling, but does not mount a compulsive reactionary rejection of traditional narrative methods. Un Chien andalou, on the other hand, is militantly, vehemently, and very consciously directed against received ideas of storytelling, and its very anti-narrative attitude is surely the most important component of its lasting fame and continuing success with film audiences around the world.
Nevertheless, there’s a lot more to the film than its narrative distinction. That extra something, however, is available almost exclusively to Buñuel fans, the people who have seen enough of his films to know what his interests and preoccupations are. Only they can really see this film not so much as a shocker that succeeds principally on its narrative mechanics, but rather as a perverse sort of preview trailer for all of Buñuel’s subsequent creative corpus—a trailer not in narrative terms, but rather in imagistic ones; in the terms that set Buñuel so far and so distinctly apart from every other director in the world.