“It’s a show about nothing!” A quote often attributed to the 1990’s classic sitcom Seinfeld describes the show and this film well. But while in Seinfeld they refer to nothing as the minutiae of daily life, Un Chien Andalou is truly a movie about nothing that is in fact meant to mean nothing.
In the late 1920s, Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali were just two poor starving Spanish artists in post-World War I Paris when they decided to make Un Chien Andalou. They had become friends while still living in Spain in the mid 1920s.
The script was written in seven days on a shoestring budget of under 100 000 francs donated by Bunuel’s mother. The plot came quite quickly to them; Dali noted that he had a dream about ants swarming around in his hands to which Bunuel replied that he dreamt of slicing someone’s eye open to which they both said: “Let’s go and make a movie about it” and thus a classic film was born.
There was just one cardinal rule as Bunuel stated: “No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted. Nothing symbolizes anything.” By now you’re probably wondering how this film could have been any good. What was so special about it?
There is a lot that makes this surrealist film significant, mostly because it was so out of the ordinary to make something so irrational at the time. The avant-garde film movement was big in France during this decade and most of the elite of the day followed it quite closely.
While both avant-garde and surrealist film were unconventional and unorthodox, avant-gardeism was often obsessed with meaning and over-analysis of different symbols. Dali and Bunuel made this film in a sort of affront to upper-class elites and filmmakers of the day by bringing in themes and motifs used a decade earlier.
The film is in many ways unconventional and somewhat disturbing, even by today’s standards. It begins with its most well-known scene.
With Tristand and Isolde continuosly playing in the background, a man stands at a window, sharpening a razor blade. He then goes up to a woman sitting on a chair by the window and stands behind her and lifts the razor up to her eye.
The camera then jumps to a thin cloud passing by the moon and then jumps back to the man with the razor, very visibly cutting open the woman’s eye. Although it is clearly not the woman’s eye and some sort of animal (it is apparently a calf), it is still quite disturbing.
The eye-cutting scene is then followed by a man with a handful of ants, a transvestite on a bicycle, a hairy armpit, a severed hand on the sidewalk, a silent-movie style sexual assault, a woman protecting herself with a tennis racket and so on.
There is no actual logical plot that follows any timeline and to describe the movie would only be a list of various images that are portrayed throughout it. Time is even irrelevant in this film as it constantly jumps around from eight years later after the first scene to sixteen years later a couple of shots after while all the characters suspiciously look the same age.
The film made its debut at Studio des Ursulines with the well-to-do artist elites of Paris including the likes of Picasso in attendance. Bunuel expected such an uproar at the screening of the film that he filled his pocket with stones to throw at the audience members in case of disaster.
To his and Dali’s dismay, however, the film was received with much praise and applause. It was an overnight success and was very popular with wealthy elites, some going as far as offering to fund a sequel. The irony continued decades later with a deluge of film academics trying to associate the film with meaning, something both Bunuel and Dali were not extremely fond of.
This film, although almost devoid of any meaning at all (the title even has absolutely nothing to with the film) still gave meaning and inspiration to many people. The film inspired such artists and directors as David Lynch, the Pixies, David Bowie and basically the entire genre of surrealist filmmaking.
Un Chien Andalou is remarkable for many reasons, including the interesting stories behind its creation and origins, but mostly because it challenged the norms of the day to an extreme degree. It was an attempted giant middle finger aimed at the elitist culture of the time and that is something everyone can get behind.