by Emily Wilder
Un Chien Andalou
Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí, Les Grands Films Classiques, 1929
‘In spite of how badly it’s done, what follows is so strong the audience doesn’t realise,’ Luis Buñuel boasts of Un Chien Andalou’s (1929) famous opening scene: a woman having her eyeball sliced open with a razor. Anyone who now watches the cutaway from actress Simone Mareuil’s face to the hairy head and pale eyelashes of a cow would laugh at Buñuel’s self-assuredness. The film nevertheless catapulted Buñuel and his collaborator Salvador Dalí into the heart of the Surrealist movement, and will no doubt receive continued attention at its upcoming centenary in 2029. Yet for all its avant-garde and shock-factor posturing, at its core festers a hatred almost as predictable as it is regressive: homophobia. Apart from a handful of critics, scholarship has been reticent about calling the film what it is: a twenty-two-minute-long homophobic joke. An even smaller number has been willing to acknowledge just how much Dalí and Buñuel plagiarised their victim’s work in order to ridicule his sexuality. It is time we re-examine this landmark of cinema and interrogate its appropriation of early 20th-century queer texts in service of homophobia.
Federico García Lorca — to all intents and purposes Spain’s national poet — is nearly as famous for his assassination as he is for his work. In June 1936, two days after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Lorca was shot on military orders as punishment for his open homosexuality and, supposedly, his socialism. To this day, the location of his remains is unknown, thanks largely to Spain’s 1975 Pacto de Olvido (Pact of Forgetting) which actively prevents investigation of Civil War human rights abuses. Rewind thirteen years, to when Lorca, Dalí, and Buñuel were just forming their artistic trio at the Residencia de Estudiantes, Madrid’s answer to Oxford. Buñuel and Lorca were initially close friends, Lorca introducing an “uncouth” Buñuel to poetry and theatre. However, the friendship became strained by a growing intimacy between Dalí and Lorca, and later ruptured completely when Buñuel — who made no secret of his homophobia, visiting public bathrooms at night to attack gay men — confronted Federico. Details vary between accounts; the essential exchange, however, remains the same. ‘Are you a fag?’ Buñuel demanded, to which Lorca replied: ‘You and I, we’re finished.’
Lorca withstood harsh criticism of his work from his friends, who sneered at its folkloristic motif and rich evocation of rural Andalusian culture. On one occasion, around 1928, Lorca read to them from his new play at Dalí’s behest. ‘That’s enough, Federico,’ interrupted Buñuel, ‘It’s a piece of shit.’ Dalí concurred. Despite the critical acclaim Lorca was garnering, the two rejected the “putrefaction” of such sentimentality and cultural allusion. Lorca fled to New York not long after the bust-up with Buñuel and underwent a personal and artistic crisis. When he became aware of the content of Un Chien Andalou, he was quick to grasp the film’s meaning: ‘Buñuel has made a tiny little shit of a film called An Andalusian Dog; and the Andalusian Dog is me.’
The similarities between Lorca’s works and the film script are too frequent and striking to have been coincidental, yet Luis Buñuel would deny Lorca’s claim for the rest of his life. It is not hard to see why the title alone — Un Perro Andaluz in Spanish — raised suspicion: those at the Residencia who came from southern Spain were called perros andaluces, with Lorca the most famous. According to Buñuel, the title was ‘not arbitrary, nor the result of a joke,’ citing instead an old book of his poetry (conveniently unpublished and now lost), entitled Un Perro Andaluz, as the true source. The thought of using this title for the film made Dalí and him ‘piss themselves with laughter,’ Buñuel adding, ‘I must warn you, no dog appears in the book.’ By contradicting Lorca’s gut feeling, Buñuel only seemed to give it further credence.
Buñuel does not have a reputation for telling the truth about the film. The provenance of the most iconic shots is murky to say the least. The most famous sequence of all — the moon / cloud, eye / razor — Buñuel has variously claimed to be Dalí’s and as his own, amongst several other credible theories. There are factual inconsistencies down to the smallest details; even the provenance of the very idea for the film is contested. Ian Gibson, eminent scholar on Lorca, Dalí and Buñuel, described the filmmaker’s autobiography (where many of his reflections on the film are documented) as “unreliable”. We should not take at face value Buñuel’s assertion that the Andalusian poet has nothing to do with Un Chien Andalou.
The title was not Lorca’s only grounds for sensing betrayal; the film is shot through with homophobia. The male protagonist wobbles onto screen on a bicycle, dressed in a frilly maid’s costume, and promptly falls off. A “dialogue” of Lorca’s from three years earlier, entitled El paseo de Buster Keaton (‘Buster Keaton Takes a Walk’), depicts a slightly feminised Buster Keaton getting on a bike, falling off, and having two unsuccessful encounters with women. Dalí will have been aware that this scene reflected something of Lorca’s own experience — not least since he asked Lorca to sleep with a woman, while he watched, if their own relationship was to continue. Dalí liked El paseo so much that he extended the metaphor into the collage El Casamiento de Buster Keaton (‘The Marriage of Buster Keaton’) for Lorca, a depiction of the actor’s heterosexual marriage featuring the potent Lorquian symbol of the moon. Without a doubt, the key elements of Lorca’s subtle dialogue on his homosexuality have been transposed onto the main character of Un Chien Andalou. The protagonist’s effeminacy is then played for laughs throughout the film, including in his frilled outfit, his sideways flop onto the pavement, and the huge baggage which prevents him from attaining female love interest.
The mockery of sexual minorities is not, however, limited to Buñuel and Dalí’s former friend, and often operates beneath opaque layers of symbolism. Buñuel and Dalí create a spectrum of pernicious portrayals of gender, from an effeminate man (treated as a byword for homosexual), to an androgynous person, to a masculine woman. These are not two artists vastly ahead of their time. Through pointed dissolves and cutaways, policemen saluting women who act as male, replacing men’s mouths with female armpit hair, they imply that this gender fluidity (which starts with homosexuality) will lead to the subordination of men, and a rise to power for women. This message is perhaps most encoded in the metaphor of the ants, which the audience first sees crawling out of a hole in the male protagonist’s right hand. Scholars, such as Paul Begin, are thoroughly investigating Buñuel’s avid interest in entomology: the ants in Un Chien Andalou — “parasitic” and “malevolent” creatures — imply the corrosion and undermining of man’s power, and by extension, society.
In other words, homosexuality is a man weakened, who will in turn weaken the entire structure of society if left unchecked. Buñuel, then, wanted pest control. He believed that the solution lay in men freeing their minds from ‘the arbitrary mores and values of society’; according to Paul Begin, the insects in Un Chien Andalou thus ‘reveal buried human drives without the burden of social constructs’. But in light of Buñuel’s night-time excursions to inflict harm on gay men, it is not Lorca who seems the obvious candidate for someone parasitic and malevolent, unable to see past the arbitrary mores and values of society. Nor does it sound convincing that Buñuel was the one forced to bury his human drives under the burden of social constructs. Yet, this is the premise of Un Chien Andalou.
In much the same vein, Dalí and Buñuel believed wholeheartedly in the Surrealist use of scandal as a tool to promote change — another instance where irony appears to go over their heads. As Buñuel wrote in his autobiography, My Last Sigh, ‘Scandal was a potent agent of revelation, capable of exposing such social crimes as the exploitation of one man by another, colonialist imperialism, religious tyranny — in sum, all the secret and odious underpinnings of a system that had to be destroyed. The real purpose of Surrealism was not to create a new literary, artistic, or even philosophical movement, but to explode the social order, to transform life itself.’ But it was his homophobia which formed these ‘odious underpinnings,’ and Lorca and other gay artists were the ones ‘exploding the social order’. That Buñuel himself might have been the one being scandalised and “tyrannical” seems to have passed him by entirely. If scandal and revolution are the conditions for Surrealism, then Lorca was true Surrealism, not Buñuel, Dalí and Un Chien Andalou.
The greatest outrage has yet to come. Between 1921-24, Lorca wrote a lesser-known group of poems entitled Juegos (‘Games’), and dedicated it to ‘Luis Buñuel’s head, in close-up’. The playful eroticism of the poem was not likely appreciated by Buñuel, especially as another in the collection is titled Canción de la Mariquita (‘Song of the Sissy’). When we compare these fragments to the opening scene of Un Chien Andalou, we do indeed find a shot of Luis Buñuel’s head close up — Buñuel’s self-casting means he is quite literally playing the role Lorca wrote for him — with a subsequent shot of a full moon. Still more similarities exist between a slightly earlier group of poems, Nocturnos de la Ventana (‘Nocturnes by the Window’), and Un Chien Andalou. The most prescient lines read:
High goes the moon.
Low runs the wind.
(My long gazes
explore the sky.)
Moon upon the water.
Moon beneath the wind.
An arm of night
enters through my window. [...]
The moments wounded
by the clock... were passing.
I lean my head out
of the window, and I see
how much it wants to cut me
the knife of the wind.
On this invisible
guillotine, I have put
the heads without eyes
of all my desires.
The parallels leap out: the references to gazing at the moon (as Buñuel does); the insistence upon cutting, wounding, and enucleation; the window and the night air; and finally, the poet’s desire. Additionally, these two poems are classically Lorquian: images of the moon, balconies like the one Buñuel stands on, eye-wounding, and a general atmosphere of menace were well-established motifs in Lorca’s repertoire by the time Un Chien Andalou was created. It therefore becomes undeniable that Juegos, Nocturnos de la Ventana, and El Paseo de Buster Keaton have all been plagiarised. Subtle, tentative explorations of what it meant to be gay in the early 20th century have been appropriated by an ex-lover and a homophobe and weaponised to ridicule their author on a global stage. I am reminded of Dalí’s complaint that the accidental and temporary omission of their names in the credits was a ‘gross moral and material wrong’. This pales in comparison to the wrong done to Lorca.
Aesthetic or personal differences came between Dalí and Buñuel while working on their second film, L’Âge d’Or (working title: La Bête Andalouse — ‘The Andalusian Beast’) and they did not collaborate again. Dalí and Lorca’s relationship did continue in some form, with or without the busted third wheel to their Keatonesque bicycle. That the filmmakers launched their careers through homophobic plagiarism of Lorca’s early work, however — the same work that they sneered at to his face — was never publicly acknowledged. And while some have critiqued the way Dalí and Buñuel use gender fluidity, few criticise them for how they pillory sexual minorities. Following Lorca’s assassination, Buñuel and Dalí’s public stance toward him seemed to alter somewhat: the former, though still disparaging of his work, described Lorca himself as ‘the masterpiece’, while Dalí took to El País in 1986 to announce that theirs was a love both ‘erotic and tragic’. Ian Gibson, a specialist on Lorca, Buñuel and Dalí, believes that the two ‘went to the grave thinking about Lorca’s shooting’. Buñuel was certainly correct (if he seldom was elsewhere) when he wrote of Lorca in his autobiography: ‘Le debo más de cuanto podríaexpresar’ — I owe him more than I can say.
EMILY WILDER reads French and Spanish at Magdalen, and feels like sub fusc was a rip off now that she's sitting finals in her pyjamas.
Art by Tara Kelly