This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.
In 1929, you weren’t supposed to like Un Chien Andalou. You were supposed to experience it, maybe, but “like” is probably too strong a term. Director Luis Buñuel has seven films included in the top 250 films according to Sight & Sound and co-writer Salvador Dalí, well, you know him, too. The two men met and described dreams to each other and used the images to craft a movie. You get the sense in reading about it that they felt they had to share their images with the world.
Un Chien Andalou is, inarguably, a bunch of images. It’s a surreal 21-minute set of images, totally devoid of story or timeline. Scenes shift in time, with title cards that tell you one scene is years before another scene, but the cast may or may not be the same from moment to moment. Reviews of the film take great care to point out that just because one scene shows someone look out a window, the next scene does not necessarily show you what they are looking at. We’re conditioned to expect that and we certainly were in 1929, which is what makes the fact that it may not be true all the more interesting.
But that opens the question, really, because we have to ask if it actually is interesting, almost a hundred years later. It’s a ridiculous film, but it also was then. If you read user reviews in the usual places you’ll see people excited to tell everyone how much they get it with their five-star reviews and people who are frustrated and confused with their one-star reviews. I don’t feel like either is strictly necessary, but a lot of the one-star reviews express criticism that I have to assume Buñuel and Dalí would have agreed with. People are frustrated there’s no story and it’s all disconnected images. They’re right.
There are two movies we’ve watched in this space that I was reminded of: Battleship Potemkin and Last Year at Marienbad. The former is another piece of dated cinema but an undeniable classic. The latter is another divisive art film that’s just as likely to skew viewers in one direction as the other. Un Chien Andalou is a singular thing, but it occupies the same space as a lot of great works. The difference is in intension. The men behind this movie wanted it to do what it did to everyone who saw it, like it or hate it. If your anger is that it makes no sense and it’s just a dumb, random collection of images, it “worked,” whether you like that or not.
That said, it’s fairly impossible to ignore the more extreme elements. I knew to expect the most famous images, with an eye being sliced open and some equally creepy imagery around body parts. I did not know to expect a man dragging two pianos with two rotting donkeys. Is this a representation of sexual frustration or animal instinct? I have to go back to the men behind it who would insist that absolutely any digging is of your own accord, they don’t intend anything. This isn’t even a sly joke, very specifically, it isn’t that you don’t get it, it’s that there’s nothing to get.
This kind of directorial intent resists criticism. Did you hate it? Excellent. Did you love it? Excellent, maybe even equally so. There is an argument to be made that by intending no meaning, they’ve made a perfect puzzle box. You can keep trying to find ways in, but it’s constructed perfectly. You cannot find what does not exist to find.
It’s all striking and it’s interesting and it’s worth the time, still, especially because the time is one minute shorter than an episode of network television minus commercials. Film students over the world watch this because it’s so central to the start of everything, but you may as well watch it because it’s free and it’s short. Maybe the images will connect with you. Maybe you’ll insistently find meaning, defying the authors. Maybe you’ll just marvel at the audacity and imagine one hundred years ago, the guts it must have taken to say that this was it, come see it.
Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I don’t think so, now. Minnie and Moskowitz is not one of my favorite movies or even one of my favorite movies by Cassavetes, but it’s hard to rate Un Chien Andalou these days. It’s barely a movie, arguably not a movie by the terms we’d use today. I can appreciate the audacity, but that’s about it.
Is it the best movie of all time? No. It’s on several top 100 lists because directors vote on those and they all want the world to continue to allow for space for something like this. I can completely appreciate that and I do think they mean it when they say this is one of their favorite movies. I think it is pretty difficult to offer a fair analysis of this movie today, which is why Persona, which owes it a very heavy debt in the striking images department, is still my vote.
You can watch Un Chien Andalou for free on YouTube. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.