Salvador Dalí is best known for his role in the Surrealist movement, having produced hundreds of iconic works throughout his lifelong career as an artist. However, what many don’t know is that he also made significant contributions to cinema alongside revolutionary filmmakers of the 20th century, having developed interest for theatre and film in his early years. One of his most celebrated works in this field is Un Chien Andalou.
Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog, 1929) is a Surrealist short film, co-directed by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. Its running time of 21 minutes consists of bizarre, profound and dreamlike imagery, giving the viewer an immersive experience into the Surrealist movement and way of thinking in its most authentic form. Un Chien Andalou reflects themes such as the passage of time, death, desire, dreams, and the morbid mystery of the human psyche. However, the film is completely open to the viewer’s personal interpretation, and its creators made it clear that meaningful intent did not form part of its script or direction. Luis Buñuel explained this in his memoir, published in 1983: “Our only rule was very simple: No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted. We had to open all doors to the irrational and keep only those images that surprised us, without trying to explain why.” This makes the film all-the-more interesting and intriguing; each viewer will find different scenes most striking or profound to them, and therefore construct his or her own meaning.
In the following paragraphs, I will elaborate on my personal interpretation of Un Chien Andalou’s thematic background, anchored to the few behind-the-scenes commentaries given by Buñuel and Dalí. If the film sounds appealing to you, I highly recommend watching it before you continue reading, seeing as the aim of its directors was to promote individual and interpretative thinking. You can access it for free at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=cB7gd_t6WMQ&ab_channel=CuratedMovies%26TVShows.
Do not watch if: squeamish or easily-impressionable, not into suspense, not keen on being confused for 21 minutes, not (yet) acquainted with Surrealism.
Definitely watch if: interested in the visual arts and humanities, fascinated by the Modernist period, enthusiastic about psychology, intrigued by the obscure.
Dreams and psychoanalysis
“My amour fou—for the dreams themselves as well as the pleasure of dreaming—is the single most important thing I shared with the surrealists. Un Chien Andalou was born of the encounter between my dreams and Dalí’s. (…) When I arrived to spend a few days at Dalí’s house in Figueras, I told him about a dream I’d had in which a long, tapering cloud sliced a moon in half, like a razor blade slicing through an eye. Dalí immediately told me that he’d seen a hand crawling with ants in a dream he’d had the previous night. “And what if we started right there and made a film?” he wondered aloud.” —Luis Buñuel (My Last Sigh, 1983)
It has become evident that the state of dreaming is central to Un Chien Andalous; if not for its thematic weight, at least for its role in the birth and direction of the film. Watching it feels like accessing the strangest and most inexplicable parts of your subconscious—the dreams you want to analyse, but forget as soon as you wake up in the morning. The imagery plays into irrational ideas, fears, and longings. For this reason, I did not mind feeling utterly confused from beginning to end; although it’s difficult to keep track of any consistent plotlines, the confusion is greatly appreciated once the credits start rolling and you realize the different effects the film has had on your mind.
Death and desire
“I also have always felt a secret but constant link between the sexual act and death. I’ve tried to translate this inexplicable feeling into images, as in Un Chien Andalou when the man caresses the woman’s bare breasts as his face slowly turns into a death mask.” —Luis Buñuel (My Last Sigh, 1983)
Some of the most ‘uncomfortable’ scenes in the film are either loaded with sexual symbolism, images of death, or both. This might be because both topics have long been subject of taboo in many cultures and societies; however, Buñuel and Dalí did not shy away one bit, shedding some light on how ahead of their time both creatives were. What’s most interesting about this particular point is how both themes interact, and add to the dreamlike quality of the film. Dreams, much like death and desire, are things you can hardly choose or control. The influence of psychoanalysts such as Sigmund Freud shines through, pushing ideas that were revolutionary at the time.
The passage of time: an ironically-eternal motif
The dreamlike state of mind reflected by Un Chien Andalou is partly achieved through its treatment of time: time as a constant dominant agent in our lives, and our distorted perception of time and space. The main reason for it being such a significant agent in the film is the way in which it’s structured. Throughout the film, different scenes are separated by title cards. They read: “once upon a time”, “eight years later”, “around three in the morning”, “sixteen years ago”, and “in Spring”. Among such provocative and perplexing imagery, the title cards are the only hint of rationality or structure in the entire film. I found myself grasping for these shots in hopes of understanding what was going on, but to no avail. This is, once again, part of the underlying nature of Un Chien Andalou: it opens all doors to the irrational and the surreal. At the end of the day, the passage of time is one of the main mysteries that conditions the human experience.
All in all, I found watching Un Chien Andalou quite the enriching experience: artistically, historically, and psychologically. Like much of the Modernist movement and Surrealism in particular, it captures the zeitgeist of the time, and brings us closer to the ways of thinking that emerged at the turn of the 20th century. Without a doubt, the work is a ground-breaking cinematic masterpiece, especially when considering that it was produced in the late 1920’s. I believe that any curious mind will agree.
Quote sources: Buñuel, Luis (1983). My Last Sigh – Autobiography. Partly available at: https://archive.org/details/mylastsigh0000buue/
Image sources: all images are screenshots taken from Un Chien Andalou (1929), freely accessible on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=cB7gd_t6WMQ&ab_channel=CuratedMovies%26TVShows