(The Golden Age)
Director: Luis Buñuel
Production: Black and white, 35mm; running time: 60 minutes (some French sources list 80 minutes). Released 28 November 1930, Paris. Filmed in Studios Billancourt-Epinay, France.
Producer: Charles Vicomte de Noailles; screenplay: Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí; photography: Albert Duverger; editor: Luis Buñuel; production designer: Pierre Schilzneck; original music: Van Parys, montage of extracts from Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Debussy, and Wagner.
Cast: Lya Lys (The Woman); Gaston Modot (The Man); Max Ernst (Bandit Chief); Pierre Prévert (Péman, a Bandit); Caridad de Labaerdesque; Madame Noizet; Liorens Artigas; Duchange Ibanez; Lionel Salem; Pancho Cossio; Valentine Hugo; Marie Berthe Ernst; Jacques B. Brunius; Simone Cottance; Paul Eluard; Manuel Angeles Ortiz; Juan Esplandio; Pedro Flores; Juan Castañe; Joaquin Roa; Pruna; Xaume de Maravilles.
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* * *
L'Age d'or represents a key moment in surrealist filmmaking, indeed in the history of the experimental cinema. It is also important because it formally initiated the long and distinguished career of its director, Luis Buñuel. Both these strands are inexorably intertwined in any history of European filmmaking.
Buñuel met the artist Salvador Dalí at the University of Madrid in the early 1920s, and after working with Fritz Lang and Jean Epstein, made his first film (with Dalí), the noted surrealist short Un Chien andalou (1928). After this, Buñuel threw himself completely into the surrealist movement and its guerrilla campaign against the conventional and repressive.
But he needed funds for filmmaking activities. It was thus crucial when he met a wealthy patron, the Vicomte de Noailles, who had taken to commission a film every year for his wife's birthday. (In 1930 it would be Jean Cocteau's Blood of a Poet.) In short order Buñuel had a million francs to make any film he wanted. Dalí and Buñuel tried to work together, but failed. (Dalí's credit as co-screenwriter for what would become L'Age d'or amounted to but a few suggestions.) L'Age d'or truly stands as Buñuel's first film.
The plot of L'Age d'or is remarkably simple; two lovers (Gaston Modot and Lya Lys) declare war on a bourgeois French society intent on thwarting the fulfillment of their desires. And the film did not lack for name talent. For example, the lead, Gaston Modot, was a longtime French film star, who started with Gaumont in 1909 and worked for all the great directors of the French cinema: Louis Delluc in Fièvre (1921), René Clair in Sous les toits de Paris (1930), Marcel Carné in Les Enfants du paradis (1945), and Jean Renoir in La Règle du jeu (1939) and La Grande Illusion (1937).
L'Age d'or features moment after moment of surrealist juxtapositions. A poor beggar is savagely beaten, a proud dowager is slapped, a father shoots his son. The themes of the film follow the concerns of Un Chien andalou: frustrated love, society's repression of sexuality, the constancy of physical violence, attacks on the clergy.
But L'Age d'or, a longer work, is far more complex. Although the actions of the frustrated lovers are central, the film goes off in all sorts of directions. Indeed it opens with documentary footage of scorpions. This leads into incidents on a rocky seashore where a gang of bandits (led by surrealist painter Max Ernst) are invaded by first a group of chanting bishops and then dignitaries who "have come to found the Roman Empire." The film ends with a sequence of a cross in the snow, covered tresses blowing in the wind to the tune of a paso doble. Ironically for Buñuel, when L'Age d'or was first shown it attracted the interest of a European agent for the Hollywood studio MGM. He signed Buñuel to a six-month contract at $250 a week for what was then Hollywood's most powerful studio. Buñuel left for the United States in December 1930, just as the furore around L'Age d'or was about to begin.
Late in 1930 L'Age d'or opened to the public at Studio 28 in Paris. (Studio 28 had been founded two years earlier and was exclusively devoted to the screening of avant garde films.) At the premiere two right-wing vigilante groups, the Patriots' League and the Anti-Jewish League, stormed Studio 28, hurling ink and rotten eggs at the screen, setting off tear gas and stink bombs, and clubbing members of the audience with cries of "Death to the Jews."
Later the police instructed the theatre's director to cut two scenes and the conservative press initiated a campaign to have this "pornographic" film banned completely. Le Figaro decried L'Age d'or as "an exercise in Bolshevism." By mid-December the film had been banned and all copies confiscated.
For the next 50 years the film was a tantalizing memory for only a few. Celebrations such as that by the noted film historian Georges Sadoul, present at the premier, declared that L'Age d'or was a "masterpiece in its violence, its purity, its lyric frenzy, its absolute sincerity." Only in 1980 (in New York, a year later in Paris) was the film again re-released. By then its shock value had worn off, and the film was seen more as a precedent for Buñuel's later work than a work attacking the core values of western civilization.