Reviewed by Ally
A Surrealist film comprising a series of vignettes. The film begins with footage from a documentary about scorpions. It then cuts to a man who sees a group of “Majorcans” (actually bishops) on a beach. He rallies a small group of wounded soldiers to attack them, but they collapse one-by-one along the way. A large group of wealthy people arrive by boat to greet the Majorcans, who have become skeletons in vestments.
In the midst of the group, two characters — The Man (Gaston Modot) and the Young Girl (Lya Lys) — embrace passionately in the mud. They are promptly separated. Their thwarted romance becomes the most prominent strand of the film. They pine lustfully for each other while separated and, even when they’re eventually united, they are unable to consummate their passion. They struggle to find a comfortable position to embrace, and knock their heads together clumsily. When they finally overcome these obsctacles, The Man becomes fixated on the foot of a statue. When he leaves to answer a telephone call, the Young Girl fellates the statue’s toe. Later, in a fit of jealousy after seeing the Young Girl kiss someone else, The Man destroys a bedroom, tearing into the feather pillows and defenestrating a burning tree, a bishop, a plough and a model giraffe.
In a short final sequence, title cards give a brief synopsis for 120 Days of Sodom, explaining that the survivors of the orgy are about to leave the Chateau de Selliny. The first to exit is the orgy’s instigator, the Duc de Blangis, who strongly resembles Jesus Christ. Three other noblemen limp out of the door after him, followed by a woman in blood-stained clothes. The Duc comforts her, then takes her back inside. A scream is heard and the Duc exits again, now sans beard. The final shot is of a crucifix with several scalps attached to it, accompanied by jovial music.
Surrealism, n. Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.
~ André Breton’s definition of Surrealism
L’Age d’Or, being a piece of genuine Surrealism, works on an instinctive level. I loved it, and I feel like I understood it, but putting that into words is another matter. Some themes are very prominent. The film might be considered a satire of organized religion, the bourgeoisie, and sexual repression and frustration.
But other scenes are complete non sequiturs. What does kicking a violin down the street have to do with anything? Damned if I know, but it’s an amusing image. (One of my favourite gags in A Night at the Opera involves a violin used as a baseball bat, so maybe I just have a thing for the irreverent treatment of orchestral instruments.) The lack of a coherent overall explanation risks being frustrating, but this lack of fulfillment is mirrored in the plight of the young lovers — a link which is, ironically, quite satisfying.
The film is deliberately inconsistent, even amateurish. It fluctuates between talkie and silent, and sometimes sound and image are mismatched. A shot of a collapsing building is accompanied by an unconvincing sound effect. The loud ringing of a cowbell lingers long after the cow has left the room. We see the young lovers embracing in the garden but hear them talking as if settling down to sleep. The effect is bathetic and sometimes downright disorienting. Thanks to my perverse sense of humour, I also find it very funny.
And it’s the humour of L’Age d’Or that especially appeals to me. It has important, possibly controversial things to say about the dehumanizing effects of the class system and organized religion, but it says them in a playful way. The final scene is so shockingly blasphemous, even now, and even to an atheist like me, that I couldn’t help but laugh.