L’Age d’Or (The Golden Age): Bunuel’s Scandalous Essay about Eros and Civilization

(The Golden Age)

The great director Luis Bunuel notes quite revealingly in his autobiography, My Last Breath: “Our sexual desire has to be seen as the product of centuries of repressive and emasculating Catholicism. It is always colored by the sweet secret sense of sin….”

This is not only a key statement to all of his rich and rewarding ensuing work, but goes right to the center and raison d’etre of the scandalous silent black-and-white masterpiece, “L’Age d’Or” (“The Golden Age”), a scabrous essay of Eros and Civilization before Freud’s psychological writing became popular.

The tale unfolds as a surreal, dreamlike, deliberately pornographic and blasphemous work. It was written by Bunuel and the painter Salvador Dali, who had collaborated two years earlier with Bunuel on another seminal film, “Un Chien Andalou” (“An Andalusian Dog”)

A couple is constantly interrupted and torn apart from passionate and furious lovemaking in public by various societal forces: The police, hypocritical members of high society, and above all the Church.

For a short film-essay (only 63 minutes), there are numerous shocking images, such as the celebrated toe sucking.

Narrative Structure:

The first scene is a sequence about scorpions.

The unfolds as a series of vignettes, wherein a couple’s attempts at consummating their romantic relationship are continually thwarted by the bourgeois values and sexual mores of family, church, and society.

The couple are first seen creating a disturbance by making love in the mud during a religious ceremony. The man is apprehended and led away by two men who struggle to control their captive’s sudden impulses. He momentarily breaks free long enough to kick a small dog. Later he struggles free to crush a beetle with his shoe.

Escorted through city streets, he sees an ad that inspires him to fantasize a woman’s hand rubbing herself. He then becomes transfixed by another ad showing woman’s legs in silk stockings. He eventually escapes his handlers, inexplicably assaults a blind man, and gets into a taxi.

Meanwhile, the woman is at home, telling her mother she hurt her finger, which is wrapped in bandage, which disappears and reappears from scene to scene.

The woman and her parents attend party where the guests seem oblivious to alarming or incongruous events, such as a maid who screams and falls to the floor after emerging from a doorway where flames are visible.

Then a horse-drawn cart filled with rowdy men drinking from large bottles passes through the elegant company in the ballroom.

The father chats with guests while ignoring several flies on his face.

A small boy is shot and killed for a minor prank.

The man arrives at the party and sees his lover from across the room. He behaves brusquely toward the other guests while looking ardently at the woman, and she looks longingly at him.

The woman’s mother hands the man a drink, but spills a drop on his hand. He becomes enraged and slaps her, which excites the daughter.

Seeking sexual satisfaction, the couple go into the garden and make love next to a marble statue, while the rest of the guests are outdoors for an orchestral performance of Liebestod.

When the man is called away to answer a phone call, the woman sublimates her sexual passion by fellating the toe of the statue until the man returns.

The Liebestod music stops abruptly when the conductor, his hands gripping his head, walks away, and wanders into the garden.

The woman comforts the elderly conductor before finally kissing him. The man stands up, bumping his head on a hanging flower pot, and grasps his head in pain as he leaves the garden.

He stumbles away to her bedroom where he throws out the window a burning tree, a bishop, a plow, a giraffe statue and handfuls of pillow feathers.

The final vignette is an allusion to the Marquis de Sade’s 1785 novel (first published in 1904) “The 120 Days of Sodom; the intertitle reads: 120 Days of Depraved Acts,” about an orgy in a castle, wherein the surviving orgiasts emerge to the light of mainstream society.

From the castle door emerges the bearded Duc de Blangis  (character from de Sade’s novel) who resembles Jesus the Christ. He comforts a young woman who has run out from the castle, before taking her back inside. A woman’s scream is heard, and only the Duc re-emerges, beardless.

The concluding image is a Christian cross festooned with the scalps of women, then accompanied by jovial music, the scalps sway in the wind.

Some critics have described L’Age d’Or as the most anti-religious, most anti-bourgeois of all of Bunuel’s films.

The film was made before the revolutionary avant-garde went on to lose its sense of humor, and surrealism fell prey to advertising agency chic.

Cast
Gaston Modot as The Man
Lya Lys as the Young Girl
Caridad de Laberdesque as a Chambermaid and Little Girl
Max Ernst as the Leader of men in cottage
Josep Llorens Artigas as Governor
Lionel Salem as Duke of Blangis
Germaine Noizet as Marquise
Duchange as Conductor
Valentine Penrose as a Spirit

Credits:

Directed by Luis Buñuel
Written by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí
Produced by Vicomte Charles de Noailles, Marie-Laure de Noailles
Cinematography Albert Duverger
Edited by Luis Buñuel
Music by Luis Buñuel
Georges van Parys
Distributed by Corinth Films (1979 U.S. release)

Release date: November 29, 1930

Running time: 63 minutes
Budget 1 million francs