André Breton writes in his Manifestos of Surrealism, one of the cornerstones of the surrealist movement, that the movement “is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought.” The second manifesto of the collection was published in 1929, the same year Un Chien Andalou was produced, and its influence is palpable. The short film, a collaboration of Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel, is driven by the unpredictable forces of dream logic.
Un Chien Andalou opens with classically romantic images and classically romantic music (Buñuel indicated in 1960 that Wagner’s “Prelude” and “Isolde’s Death” were the pieces of choice to accompany the silent film). But before the film begins, we are greeted with “Il était une fois…” or, “Once upon a time…” The next shot fades into a man (played by Buñuel) smoking a cigarette, and whetting his straightedge razor. We follow him through a pair of glass doors onto the patio, where he looks up at the moon. The next shot is of a woman’s face, with one eye held open by a pair of strong hands. We see the moon once more, with a thin cloud sliding in front of it, and then cut to what has become the most infamous and iconic shot of the film: Buñuel’s razor slices through the young woman’s left eye. The slicing of the eye announces a new mode of vision and thinking characteristic of the avant-garde movement.
Little else in the film is so clear-cut; it has yielded analyses suggesting undercurrents of sexual frustration and impotency, but Un Chien Andalou is necessarily unanalyzable. Buñuel and Dalí relish in the absurdity of film, and more generally, art. While this opening sequence houses one of the more memorable scenes, it is wholly unrelated to the rest of the film’s muddled and confused narrative. The next scene is led by an intertitle reading “Huit ans après,” or “Eight years later,” bringing us into an entirely new setting with entirely new characters, before the audience has had a chance to fully acclimate to the first locale. Buñuel and Dalí used title cards announce the temporal setting several times, but they range in scale from hour to season to spans of over a decade. These characters are plagued by the confusion of the film; because they lack the basics of characterization, they function more as symbols than people. The chaos that Dalí and Buñuel impose on the formal and stylistic elements of Un Chien Andalou seeps through to the film world. Gender identity is disorganized, and sex is equated with death.
One of the more telling scenes in the film consists of a man attacking a woman. As he moves toward the woman, his hand flies to his face, and he wipes off his mouth. Her first instinct is to begin applying lipstick, struggling to define her own mouth as extant. This seems to be the most direct communication from the filmmakers to the audience: as filmgoers we struggle to define meaning in things that are not always meaningful. If somebody can manage to find meaning in Un Chien Andalou, a film composed of shots that are disjointed, disorganized, and disturbing, shots that are intentionally devoid of signification, they can find meaning in anything. Dalí and Buñuel succeeded in fulfilling their promise of creating a film fueled by their own dreams, and little else.