L'Age d'or Review
Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’or, the sum total of Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s cinematic collaborations, arguably represent the Citizen Kanes of experimental filmmaking, if, that is, two titles can share the accolade. Now more than eighty years old the pair have been subject to much critical discussion and analysis over this time, to the point where any thoughts I may have on either are essentially redundant. Certainly, I can acknowledge that these films are excellent - and they truly are - but what can I add to the argument that hasn’t already been said? Despite the range of possible readings and interpretations, from the psychoanalytical approach adopted by Robert Short for his commentaries and introduction here to the more auterist method of hunting for the germs of those themes which would become so integral to Bunuel’s subsequent solo work, every possible angle has seemingly been covered. Indeed, such is the sheer amount of ink spilt on Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’or, not to mention their much vaunted statuses as absolute classics of the experimental form, that I don’t believe anyone has clicked on this particular review in order to read my own take and interpretations. Rather the interest, I would argue, is not so much in finding out about the film themselves, but instead in finding out about the disc. Any potential buyer of this new Blu-ray is either fully aware of the Bunuel-Dali works because they’ve already seen them or because their reputation precedes them. The ultimate questions then are as follows: firstly, does this Blu-ray disc warrant a purchase and, secondly, does it mark a sufficient improvement on previous DVD editions to justify an upgrade? And so onto these more technical considerations…
L’Age d’or and Un Chien Andalou have been released as a ‘dual format edition’ edition by the BFI, in other words a two-disc set containing both a Blu-ray and a DVD. The discs have been encoded without region locking unlike their previous DVD edition which was Region 2 only. Both films are also presented in HD despite initial reports suggesting that Un Chien Andalou would be standard definition only. L’Age d’or was sourced from the restored 35mm negative held by the Pompidou Centre, whilst Un Chien Andalou utilises a 16mm negative of the 1960 restoration with its soundtrack taken from the BFI National Archive’s 35mm print. The latter has attracted some attention given the existence of a more recent Spanish restoration, but the BFI were unable to gain access to this particular version and so had to turn to Contemporary Films’ negative instead. Of course, the resolution of Blu-ray and 16mm are roughly equivalent and so the use of a such a format shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing. Moreover, even if you were to approach Un Chien Andalou’s presentation with lowered expectations given the circumstances, I’m sure you will be suitably impressed.
It’s worth remembering that neither Un Chien Andalou nor L’Age d’or were professional productions in the sense that they were made with studio backing, although that’s not to say that there was a lack of technical expertise behind the camera. For example, the director of photography on both was Albert Duverger who already had ten years experience and worked with the likes of Raymond Bernard and Jean Epstein prior to shooting these two films. However, rough edges are to be expected, ones which are furthered by the occasional use of stock footage and other existing materials (the accompanying booklet names the various sources) as well as the history of suppression encountered by both works. In other words there are going to be inconsistencies in the image and some damage; anyone expecting pristine prints and transfers is going to be sorely disappointed, but then such expectations should never be there in the first place.
Needless to say all efforts have been made to remove dirt and damage and to make the image more stable in certain instances. Of course, such improvements can only go so far, yet through this unavoidable damage, as well as the necessary inconsistencies of quality, the requisite levels of clarity and contrast remain. We really are getting the films in as good a condition as could be arrived at given the circumstances with any flaws being entirely out of the BFI’s hands. (Also, call me perverse but there is a certain beauty to seeing damaged, torn or warped frames in high definition; as a complete aside one hopes that Bill Morrison’s Decasia one day sees a Blu-ray release.) Furthermore, such concerns as original aspect ratio (1.19:1 in the case of L’Age d’or, 1.33:1 for Un Chien Andalou) have been addressed making this an undoubted improvement over the BFI’s original DVD edition, whilst the original French intertitles are in place (alongside optional English subtitles for L'Age d'or; Un Chien Andalou has its occasional subtitles burnt into the image).
Soundtracks are present in PCM mono and Dolby Digital mono on the Blu-ray and DVD respectively. Both were sourced from 35mm materials and come across well. The Un Chien Andalou soundtrack is 1960 ‘sonorised’ version prepared by Bunuel consisting of a pair of tangos and excerpts from Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. L’Age d’or was an early sound feature, though effectively shot semi-silent with only a few instances of dialogue. As such it has inherent flaws which need to be taken into account when assessing the quality of presentation here. With that said any issues relating to their transfer onto disc are non-existent and as with the image there are no reasons for genuine complaint.
As an additional bonus - and exclusive to this new edition - we also find a newly composed score by Mordant Music for Un Chien Andalou. Those who purchased the BFI’s MisinforMation release from last year should be fully aware of Mordant Music and their particular style, which has been likened to “an electronic hall of mirrors”. The composition here is neither as aggressive as the more abrasive passages from MisinforMation nor as tranquil as the gentler instances. Yet it nonetheless remains a typically distinctive work here utilising sampled animal sounds alongside the more familiar distortions and shifts in intensity to create an altogether different approach to Bunuel’s combination of Wagner and the tango. Furthermore, the effect on the film is an interesting one insofar as it finds parallels with Bunuel and Dali’s disjointed approach and arguably matches the sense of assault the filmmakers had in mind when conceiving of the famous eye slicing scene or the image of the dead donkeys in a pair of grand pianos to which members of the clergy are also attached. Some will no doubt decry that to watch Un Chien Andalou without Bunuel’s intended accompaniment is therefore the less purist means of sampling the film, especially as it has the side-effect of potentially disrupting its editing rhythms. But to do so is also to ignore the positives of such a re-interpretation - indeed, both Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’or, as said, have been subject to numerous different readings over the years, so why not see the former in a new light, and one that would possibly encourage alternative emphases?
Elsewhere the other bonus features match exactly those found on the BFI’s earlier DVD edition. Thus we have Robert Short providing a full commentary for Un Chien Andalou (which actually exceeds the duration of the film and continues for another three minutes once the end title has appeared onscreen), a partial commentary for L’Age d’or, and a lengthy 25-minute introduction to both. This latter piece was filmed in standard definition and therefore appears on the DVD of this dual format edition only. (The two commentaries, not to mention the alternative Mordant Music score, are understandably present on both.) Short’s take on the film, for the commentaries, is that of a close reading of the text and offering up his own interpretations. Needless to say these shouldn’t be taken as definitive given the richness of both Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’or, but he argues his case well and at the very least should spark some debate. His introduction, on the other hand, is just that: a placing of the films within their context as surrealist cinema with some discussion of their origins and production as well as the relationship between Bunuel and Dali. The piece is shot in single-take talking head format, but the wealth of detail Short provides makes this more than worthy of a look.
The other holdover from the old edition is the presence of Jose Luis Lopez Linares and Javier Rioyo’s 2000 documentary A Proposito de Bunuel. (It can also be found on Criterion’s two-disc edition of Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.) At 99 minutes in length this piece, as well as surpassing the running time of Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or combined, makes for an understandably in-depth look at Bunuel’s life and career; the focus going beyond the films from 1929 and 1930 to encompass his entire filmography. Utilising a wealth of clips (from Un Chien Andalou to That Obscure Object of Desire) and a host of interviewees, it tells of Bunuel primarily through anecdotal form. Bunuel himself, meanwhile, earns a presence courtesy of readings from his published works. There is a slight misgiving inasmuch as the various participants aren’t named, although viewers should easily identify many of the more familiar actors on parade from Carole Bouquet to Michael Lonsdale. Furthermore, the vast majority are offering up first-hand recollections of their subject thereby making this a valuable document. Of course, the fact that the BFI have decided to maintain its presence alongside the main feature and short - as well as the one that Criterion have similarly included it on one of their Bunuel discs - should back-up any claims to its validity.
Finally we have the accompanying 26-page to consider. For the most part this is a direct reprint of the one found in the earlier BFI edition, albeit at a slightly different size. That original release was packaged in box form, with the two discs (Un Chien Andalou and A Proposito de Bunuel on one, L’Age d’or on the other) enclosed in a digipack akin to a CD album alongside a large-form 28-page booklet. The contents, however, are much the same: two pages of notes on the film by Robert Sharp; a reprint of the ‘Manifesto of the Surrealists concerning L’Age d’Or’ brochure from 1930; Bunuel’s notes on the making of Un Chien Andalou; brief bios for Bunuel and Dali; and credits for the films. This new booklet omits the bibliography and selection of quotes about the two films from various sources (including Henry Miller and Jean Vigo) but adds credits for A Proposito de Bunuel and the now-standard notes on the transfers. The choice of illustrations also differs slightly.
And so to answer those two questions asked in the first paragraph: does this Blu-ray disc warrant a purchase and does it mark a sufficient improvement on previous DVD editions to justify an upgrade? Put simply it’s an easy ‘yes’ in both cases. Any hesitation should be firmly put to one side, as things currently stand this BFI edition should be considered the definitive release of these classic films.