So there’s something you all should know about me.
For as long as I can remember, my biggest body-horror trigger is anything having to do with eyes. I’m not even sure why – I’ve never had any kind of traumatic eye injury, nor has anyone in my family. I’ve got 20/20 vision, and one eye was even tested at 20/10 once. My brother had amblyopia as a very young child, but that was fixed through the strategic use of eyepatches for a couple years; no surgery. Still – any time I see or hear about anything that involves poking, cutting, piercing, or even just touching eyes, I get a full-body shudder and can even start flailing like I’m trying to drive away bats. I can’t even watch someone put in contact lenses.
Which brings us to our next film, the surrealist classic Un Chien Andalou. I came very, very close to skipping over it; my hardcover copy of the 1001 Movies list book has a note I wrote next to its entry, in large block capitals – “NO WAY IN HELL.” And that is because, in the film’s most famous sequence, a man comes up behind a woman and he
(Kim’s shoulders tense, she stops writing)
(five minutes later)
comes up behind a woman and he
(stops writing again, closes laptop)
(twenty minutes elapse)
behind a woman and he
(closes laptop again)
(takes deep breath)
and he uses a razor to slice open a woman’s eyeball.
(squeals, slams laptop shut and flees to bedroom, grabs childhood-favorite Snoopy doll on bookshelf, and hides under covers with it)
(one hour elapses)
….So I had my trepidations.
But the film is short, it’s free on Youtube, and the….offending scene is early. And, it would be cheating if I skipped it. So I gave myself permission to cover my eyes at that bit, since it was just a few seconds and would be over soon. Even so, as it got up to that part my hand almost instinctively shot out and hit the “pause” button on my screen so I could brace myself first. It’s said that there’s an edit just before the actual razor slice, where you can tell that they’ve swapped in a cow’s eye; I couldn’t tell you if this is true, because my hands were over my eyes and that is the only way I was ever going to be able to get through this film and that scene so you’re just going to have to deal with it, okay?
The rest of it…wasn’t bad, but it was baffling. Un Chien Andalou was a collaboration between the surrealist artists Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel, both of whom intended that the film not make sense. Instead, it’s a series of unconnected images which Buñuel and Dali lifted from their own dreams – a man wearing a nun’s wimple rides a bike, an androgynous woman idly pokes at a dismembered hand on a sidewalk, a man’s mouth disappears and he replaces it with a woman’s armpit hair. Buñuel and Dali selected their sequences with the intent of not making sense or providing a narrative structure – they wanted audiences to bring their own interpretation to the scenes. Viewers over the years have tried reading a narrative structure into it, largely because most of the action is performed by a single couple stuck in a room together; however, that wasn’t the intent. It’s just sort of a stream of….stuff.
Also, this being Europe between the wars and Buñuel and Dali being surrealists, they wanted to shock audiences. So there’s a handful of violent actions (as we know), and some sexualized moments when a man gropes a woman’s bare breasts and butt. This was shocking for audiences at the time, to be sure – on top of them also being uneasy about not knowing what in the bleeding hell was going on.
Nearly a century later, though, audiences may be more jaded. Visceral body horror aside, there was only one other sequence that got any reaction from me other than mild bafflement. At one point a man drags two grand pianos through a room, each one topped with a decomposing donkey carcass. As the sequence goes on, though, you see that there is also a priest attached to each rope, each looking utterly confused. I had to chuckle at that.
I did a bit of spelunking on Youtube after watching, when I saw there were some “[So and so] reacts to Un Chien Andalou” clips; save for a couple of serious Buñuel fans, though, most other reactions were similarly confused variations on “….I have no idea what this means.”
This could be another “it’s not them, it’s me” situation, though. I’ve always had a mixed response to contemporary art, and to Surrealism in particular; either I have a visceral, gut-level response to something, or I’m left cold. Reading about context doesn’t help, either – for me, even though I know the meaning behind Damian Hirst’s shark-in-a-tank piece, it will forever look to me solely like a half-finished natural history museum exhibit. It’s the same here – I’ve read that Buñuel’s inclusion of the donkeys on the pianos were inspired by seeing dead donkeys in the farm fields when he was a kid, but it was the priests that caught my eye. And no matter how many times I read that the razor scene was inspired by Buñuel seeing a very thin cloud bisecting the moon, my reaction will always be a shrill internal shriek.
But. I have watched it. And now I never have to watch it again in my life. Huzzah.
(You will note that I have not included a still of that scene in this review because are you kidding me)