A man and a woman compulsively get together despite the forces of society, indulging in apparently perverse acts of love.
Two years after their seminal short, Un Chien Andalou, director Luis Buñuel and painter Salvador Dali reteamed to make a talking feature, then quarreled, leaving Buñuel to make up most of the film on his own, delivering not just shocking surrealism but a sustained series of extreme images and outright blasphemies.
Buñuel’s wry, black wit – even the cast list provokes sinister chuckles (best-ever character description, ‘Defenestrated Bishop’) – which couches the most outrageous assault on bourgeois sensibilities in an elegant, devilishly charming manner. It begins with found footage of scorpions attacking rats and each other from a 1912 documentary (with the perfectly surreal title, Le Scorpion Languedocien), then shows human scorpions, with churchmen who are as bad as bandits.
It’s a celebration of revolutionary love in an imperial Rome which looks like modern Paris, with a couple who roll in the mud (or worse), are separated by dour cops, chomp enthusiastically on each other’s fingers, get diverted from necking to suck the toes of a marble statue and make declarations like ‘oh, what joy in having killed our children!’. A government minister makes a telephone call to the hero, who doesn’t care about a breaking scandal; the minister shoots himself, and his corpse lies on the ceiling.
The most conceptually violent business is saved for an epilogue which offers a scene from the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days in the City of Sodom as doddering aristocrats stagger away from an orgy of sexual violence – led by Sade’s Duc de Blangis (Lionel Salem), who is here the image of Jesus Christ. Jesus stabs to death a wounded girl, and the scalps of the degenerates’ victims hang from a cross. There were organised riots in the cinemas.
Bunuel's surreal talkie is irreverant and witty and also art.