Un perro andaluz (Un Chien Andalou, 1929)
Directed by Luis Buñuel
Written by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí
Starring: Pierre Batcheff, Simone Mareuil, Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí
Making sense of Buñuel’s Un chien andalou
BY BEATRIZ CABALLERO RODRIGUEZ
Daring and irreverent, Un chien andalou sets out to break expectations and to shock viewers out of their bourgeois numbed comfort. Although a black and white, silent film only seventeen minutes long, it remains one of the most influential and celebrated short-films in the history of cinema. Co-written and directed by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, released in Paris in 1929, the film became a sudden and unexpected success (much to Buñuel’s chagrin), which secured their admittance into the French surrealist circle lead by André Breton. The nonsensical and fragmented storyline; the mise-en-scéne (created by Dalí), bursting with symbolism; the unconventional appearances of characters; the disorienting intertitles; the incoherent representation of time and space; and the clever use of montage come together to create an oneiric atmosphere which invites ambiguity and defies the neatness of a single unequivocal interpretation.
Whereas a first viewing confronts the spectator with an illogical plot, or lack thereof, this is not to say that this film lacks meaning or that it cannot be interpreted. Very much the contrary is true; interpretations abound. Surrealism, Freudian psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, and Feminism are just some of the approaches which have been used to analyse it. Nevertheless, the surrealist and deeply symbolic nature of the film does mean that no definitive interpretation can ever be reached.
Unsettling, even disturbing and shocking, Un chien andalou begins with one of the most iconic scenes in the history of cinema, when Buñuel himself prepares a razor to slice the eye of the female protagonist (played by Simone Mareuil), who willingly allows for this to happen. The slicing of the eye (in truth, a dead cow’s eye) is often interpreted as an eye-opener, as a metaphorical and even ritualistic introduction in preparation for the break with convention which is to come. In other words, it constitutes an assault on conventional ways of looking at the world. On the other hand, there is no getting away from the fact that this scene is first and foremost quite literally an act of violence, by a man on a woman. The subsequent result of this act is blindness. Is Buñuel revelling in misogynistic aesthetics? Or is he being critical of patriarchal ideology and of the overbearing power of men over women? We will never know; as with the rest of the film, each viewer will have to make up their own minds and construct their own meaning.
Despite the lack of plot and conventional characters, some recurrent themes can still be identified. Most notably, death (presence of dead animals and bugs); sexual desire (we see the main male character, played by Pierre Batcheff, groping Mareuil’s breasts and later her buttocks); and anticlericalism (the outlandish portrayal of priests). The film is full of references to the existential conflict between the asphyxiating weight of religion in contrast with the vacuum left by God’s death as announced by Nietzsche. This is most famously represented in scene where Batcheff’s character, after having struggled with his instincts of sexual desire, is seen picking up two ropes in order to drag two stone tablets (presumably with the Ten Commandments) and two grand pianos containing dead donkeys, all of which is tied up to two priests (played by Jaime Miratvilles and Salvador Dalí himself) who are also being dragged. Does this indicate that the young man cannot be so easily dismissive of the weight of religion and tradition? Or are Buñuel and Dalí simply ridiculing the role of religion –and priests- in modern life? We get a hint at where the answer may lie when, at the end of the scene, the man lets go of the ropes he was dragging and pursues the woman once again.
In conclusion, I suggest that with Un chien andalou, Buñuel embraced the expressive possibilities that the alliance between film and surrealism offered, and used them to open a window into the subconscious in order to better understand key elements of our nature and our culture. As he puts it, “The cinema seems to have been invented to express the subconscious life, whose roots penetrate so deeply into poetry.”
 Luis Buñuel, “Cinema, Instrument of Poetry (1953),” in The European Cinema Reader, ed. C. Fowler (London; New York: Routledge, 2002): 45-48 (47).
Un perro andaluz is fully available on the RTVE website: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9L2AJmNoUgo
Beatriz Caballero Rodríguez is a lecturer at the University of Strathclyde. Her main areas of research include Spanish History of Ideas, Spanish Cultural Studies and Trauma Studies.