Surrealist Film Provokes French Rioting Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

L’Âge d’or, the second collaborative film of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, was targeted by anti-Semitic, xenophobic protofascists at its screening in Paris, provoking a riot. The protestors, reacting to the film’s subject matter, which challenged Christian morals regarding love and sexuality, threw ink at the screen and destroyed Surrealist paintings that accompanied the premiere. Parisian police banned the film from distribution.

Summary of Event

Following the striking success of their controversial film Un Chien Andalou Andalusian Dog, An (film) (1928; An Andalusian Dog), Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel and Spanish artist Salvador Dalí immediately began to think of another film that would extend the surrealist aesthetic that had made their initial effort so compelling. Buñuel and Dalí came up with Golden Age, The (film) L’Âge d’or (The Golden Age), which was to be a “film about Rome.” The script that Buñuel prepared focused on his own lifelong preoccupation (according to his biographer John Baxter). Buñuel summarized this obsession as “the obstacles which religion, as well as society, oppose to the attainment of love.” Anti-Semitism[AntiSemitism] L’Âge d’or (film)[Lage dor (film)] Buñuel, Luis Dalí, Salvador Surrealist films [kw]Âge d’or Provokes French Rioting, Surrealist Film L’ (Dec. 3, 1930) Anti-Semitism[AntiSemitism] L’Âge d’or (film)[Lage dor (film)] Buñuel, Luis Dalí, Salvador Surrealist films [g]Europe;Dec. 3, 1930: Surrealist Film L’Âge d’or Provokes French Rioting[00490] [g]France;Dec. 3, 1930: Surrealist Film L’Âge d’or Provokes French Rioting[00490] [c]Film;Dec. 3, 1930: Surrealist Film L’Âge d’or Provokes French Rioting[00490] [c]Violence;Dec. 3, 1930: Surrealist Film L’Âge d’or Provokes French Rioting[00490] [c]Art movements;Dec. 3, 1930: Surrealist Film L’Âge d’or Provokes French Rioting[00490] [c]Popular culture;Dec. 3, 1930: Surrealist Film L’Âge d’or Provokes French Rioting[00490] [c]Religion;Dec. 3, 1930: Surrealist Film L’Âge d’or Provokes French Rioting[00490] Breton, André

L’Âge d’or, which premiered October 28, 1930, in Paris, France, earned generally respectful but bemused reviews, and the film played without incident through November. By December, however, fascist agitators were planning a demonstration in Paris against what they considered was the corruption of French culture by Jews and atheist artists. In the film, a documentary-like prologue shows two scorpions killing a rat. Scenes follow in Surrealist juxtaposition. Prosperous colonists arrive on an island. They recall Spain’s voyages of discovery and Christianization. Protestors reacted to the film on December 3, when right-wing thugs interrupted the show by throwing ink at the screen and shouting “Death to the Jews!” The protestors set off fumigation devices in the audience, attacked spectators with blackjacks, smashed furniture, and slashed many of the paintings on exhibit in the theater’s lobby. Most of the audience, however, remained in the theater to see the rest of the film. They also signed a petition condemning the riot.

The League of Patriots, a right-wing organization, attempted to distance itself from the most destructive acts of its followers but condemned “the immorality of this Bolshevist spectacle.” The newspaper Le Figaro declared that no one could find “the faintest artistic value” in the film. On December 5, the distributor was ordered to cut two scenes featuring archbishops, and on December 8, the Paris prefect (chief magistrate) demanded the removal of all scenes with a Christ figure, of which there were none. (The prefect, or one of his minions, apparently had depended on Dalí’s comment that in the film “the Comte de Blangis is obviously Christ.”) On December 11 the film was nevertheless banned from further showings, and police raided Studio 28 in Montmatre (Paris) and Buñuel’s home on December 12, seizing two of the three existing copies of the film. Noailles, Charles de Charles de Noailles and Noailles, Marie-Laure de Marie-Laure de Noailles financed L’Âge d’or as well as Un Chien Andalou and managed to hide the negatives of L’Âge d’or at the Spanish Bookshop.

French Surrealist writer André Breton, characteristically, was excited by the furor and prepared a manifesto demanding an accounting of the incident. He and poet Éluard, Paul Paul Éluard also produced a leaflet, which had a photograph of the ripped Dalí paintings and the ink-covered screen under the title “A Christian Alphabet.” Breton also encouraged a screening in London, which took place on January 2, 1931, with the sole surviving print.

Buñuel’s and Dalí’s collaboration on this film had not proceeded profitably, however, as Dalí dismissed most of the ideas that Buñuel had sketched out in his notebook, while Buñuel did not find Dalí’s fixation on images drawn from Roman Catholic regalia interesting, rejecting them as “insufficiently savage.” Noailles was ready to support their next effort. Buñuel, while remaining ambiguous about his new screenplay, proposed a budget of one million francs for the new film. Noailles wanted to keep it closer to 350,000 francs, but as the project grew from two reels to seven, the budget eventually reached Buñuel’s mark.

While Dalí always claimed that he was instrumental in the creation of both of their first two films, Buñuel insisted that “Dalí sent me several ideas, and one of them at least found its way into the film.” Evidence shows that both artists had ideas that were incorporated into the final production, but Buñuel prepared the shooting script and controlled the actual shooting. Noailles asked Buñuel to prepare a silent and a sound version because many theaters did not yet have equipment for synchronous sound.

The film was made at the Billancourt studios, utilizing the same cinematographer and production manager as Un Chien Andalou, with location shots in Catalonia, Spain, and in the Paris suburbs. Painter Max Ernst played a pirate chief, and poet Prevert, Jacques Jacques Prevert appeared as a man walking along a street. Éluard provided some voice-over narration. During the time that the film was in production, a group of surrealist activists invaded a nightclub they believed had taken its name disrespectfully from writer French Comte de Lautreamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror (wr. 1868-1869), excusing Buñuel from the action because, as a foreigner, he would risk deportation if he participated.

L’Âge d’or’s tight production schedule, typical of Buñuel’s rapid fashion of work, ran from March 23 to April 3. Buñuel edited the film in Paris, adding a musical score with excerpts from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Claude Debussy, and Richard Wagner. Russian film director Serge Eisenstein, Serge Eisenstein also had been working at the Billancourt studios and had neglected to offer a gift (actually, an expected bribe) to a charity in the name of the Parisian police, which further aggravated the prefect’s distrust of foreign filmmakers (including Buñuel and Dalí).

Buñuel waited for the distributor, Mauclair, to release the film, but it premiered at several private screenings. A notable screening on July 9 had an international audience that included American writer Carl van Vechten and British sculptor Jacques Lipschitz. The film opened at Studio 28 on October 12. Breton and Éluard prepared a twenty-eight-page program book with a gold cover. The studio’s foyer displayed paintings by Dalí, Ernst, Jean Arp, Joan Miró, Man Ray, and Yves Tanguy. Buñuel was in Hollywood at the time of this private screening, negotiating unsuccessfully with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studios.

Noailles was the most vulnerable of those involved with the production. He wrote to Buñuel, insisting that “We are obliged to avoid all scandal in the future.” He was forced to resign from Paris’s ultra-exclusive Jockey Club, and the intercession of his mother at the Vatican prevented Noailles from being excommunicated. Her bribes and a promise to destroy the print reduced the pressure on Noailles, and he himself defended the film, offering to send Buñuel copies in the United States and the negatives and the print when Buñuel returned to Europe. Buñuel biographer Baxter surmises that Buñuel actually thought of destroying the film as a kind of dramatic gesture epitomizing his career to that point. Buñuel wrote that “After L’Âge d’or, I sometimes thought that my career as a director was finished.”

When Buñuel learned that the right-wing Spanish government had been overthrown, he sailed to France and arrived at Le Havre on April 1, remaining in Europe until 1936. He then went into exile in Mexico after the attack on the Spanish government by Francisco Franco’s armies.

Impact

American writer Henry Miller, an enthusiastic and knowledgeable film lover, contended in a 1938 essay (“The Golden Age”) that the most important aspect of the cinema was that “in it all the possibilities for creating antagonisms, for stirring up revolt” were present. He believed L’Âge d’or placed the spectator “at a miraculous frontier which opens up before us a dazzling new world which no one has explored.” Buñuel was unable to explore this world in the immediate aftermath of the L’Âge d’or scandal. However, Buñuel’s reputation as an avant-garde artist working on the fringe of the cinema continued to grow even as L’Âge d’or remained out of general circulation for the next four decades. The film’s scarcity contributed to the legend surrounding its production and suppression, which Dalí used to his advantage during the rest of his life as a painter and notorious advocate of Surrealist art.

Although the film itself has lost its power to shock and startle an audience in the manner it did in 1930, when it offered onscreen a vision of a world that had no precedent in any form, the film remains intriguing both as a historical record and as an act of cinematic invention. Also, the various economic and cultural obstacles that Buñuel continued to confront in Mexico followed him upon his return to Spain in 1961 to direct Viridiana (film) Viridiana. The film outraged Franco and his supporters in a fashion similar to the Fascist response to Buñuel’s first two films. Buñuel’s ability to scandalize the bourgeoisie and fascinate and delight film lovers sealed his legacy as one of the most admired of filmmakers of the twentieth century. Anti-Semitism[AntiSemitism] L’Âge d’or (film)[Lage dor (film)] Buñuel, Luis Dalí, Salvador Surrealist films

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ades, Dawn. Dalí and Surrealism. New York: Harper & Row, 1982. Fine biography with special reference to Dalí’s attachment to the Surrealist movement and chapters on his role in Surrealist cinema.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baxter, John. Buñuel. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1998. Excellent biography that includes descriptions of the making and impact of L’Âge d’or.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buñuel, Luis. My Last Sigh. Translated by Abigail Israel. New ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. An inviting, revealing autobiographical exercise by Buñuel, conveying the style and spirit of the artist.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Durzoi, Gerrard. History of the Surrealist Movement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. A massive, detailed history of the art, literature, and philosophy of the Surrealist movement around the world.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kyro, Ado. Buñuel: An Introduction. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1953. Includes an infomative account of L’Âge d’or and its original presentation. A solid historical context drawn from contemporary sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Richardson, Michael. Surrealism and Cinema. New York: Berg, 2006. Introduction to Surrealist film as well as an examination of the works of Luis Buñuel and other Surrealist filmmakers from the 1920’s to the beginning of the twenty-first century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schillaci, Peter P. “Luis Buñuel and the Death of God.” In Three European Directors, edited by James M. Wall. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1973. Interpretation of Buñuel, rich in insights into the director’s mind and with vivid descriptions of his major films.

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