- Gender as Trauma in Buñuel's Un chien andalou (1929)
In his text "Cinema, Instrument of Poetry" (1953), Luis Buñuel encapsulates his view on the function of the filmmaker in a quotation by Friedrich Engel's, which he appropriates:
The novelist [or filmmaker] will have accomplished his task honour-ably when, through a faithful depiction of authentic social relations, he will have destroyed the conventional representations of the nature of these relations, shaken the optimism of the bourgeois world and obliged the reader to question the permanence of the existing order, even if he does not directly propose a conclusion to us, even if he does not openly take sides.1
It is my contention that this is precisely what Un chien andalou (1929) sets out to do with regards to gender. Its poetic, surrealist, oft en dream-like nature allows for—even encourages—various readings and layers of interpretation, which coexist with one another. This article argues that, in line with the intention expressed above, one of the functions of this film is to identify and depict social assumptions and attitudes toward gender, to challenge their conventional representation, and to question the permanence of the existing gender relationships and roles at the time the film was produced.
Although a black and white, silent film only seventeen minutes long, Un chien andalou remains one of the most influential and celebrated short [End Page 41] films in the history of cinema. Co-written and directed by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí,2 released in Paris in 1929, the film became a sudden and unexpected success that secured their admittance into the French surrealist circle lead by André Breton. The nonsensical and fragmented storyline, or lack thereof, the mise-en-scéne (created by Dalí) bursting with sym-bolism, the unconventional appearances of characters, the disorienting intertitles, the incoherent representation of time and space, and the clever use of montage come together to create an oneiric atmosphere that invites ambiguity and defies the neatness of a single unequivocal interpretation.
Deeply influenced by psychoanalysis, here I contend that Un chien andalou is largely an exploration of trauma. In his preface to the publication of the script for Un chien andalou, Buñuel expresses his adherence to "surrealist thought and activity"3 in a reference to Breton's 1924 First Surrealist Manifesto.4 This manifesto aimed for nothing less than expressing "the actual functioning of thought,"5 which he hoped to accomplish by challenging and destabilizing reason so as to access the contents of the subconscious mind. Not in vain, Andrew Webber describes Un chien andalou as "psychically driven."6 Not only is Un chien andalou arguably filled with disturbing, sometimes even violent and traumatic images (the slicing of a woman's eye, crawling insects, decomposing animals, etc.); more radically than that, the lack of temporal coherence and of spatial structure as well as its fragmented narrative (interspersion of apparently disconnected shots and the lack of a coherent resolution to the action) reminiscent of the logic of dreams all mirror the fragmented identity and fragmented discourse associated with the traumatized self. Thus, the connection between Buñuel's early take on cinema and the subconscious, and by extension trauma, comes to light.7
By opening the doors into the subconscious, surrealist cinema, and Un chien andalou in particular, not only grants us a glimpse into our repressed impulses and desires, but it also becomes a suitable vehicle to expose and express trauma by, first, identifying those traumas that have been confined to the subconscious and, second, by expressing them through the use of moving images and sound in a way that surpasses the limits of common language and everyday reality. That is to say that avant-garde surrealist cinema provides an outlet for the articulation of trauma in a language that is kindred to the language of its native environment, the subconscious. [End Page 42]
It is the trauma produced by an overly rational society that leads surrealists to question the place and value of rationality, and to search for alternative forms of expression and thought. Let's not forget that Surrealism itself is deeply rooted...