A review of the surrealist film Un Chien Andalou, taking particular note of the symbolism used within the film that relates to Freud's psychoanalytical theories.
The infamous 1929 Surrealist classic short film Un Chien Andalou was created by Luis Buñuel and Salvidor Dali following a discussion between the two men about their dreams; Buñuel revealed his vision of a cloud moving in front of a full moon like a razor blade slicing an eye, and Dali told of his of a hand crawling with ants, and there lay the major inspirations behind the film’s striking Mise-en-scene. The intention of the film was that it would symbolise nothing: ‘No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted.’ (Buñuel, 1983) However, Buñuel also stated that ‘The only method of investigation of the symbols would be, perhaps, psychoanalysis.’ (1983) In this review the revolutionary methods of psychoanalysis of Freud will be applied to the imagery found in Un Chien Andalou in an attempt to derive a meaning.
The film begins with Once upon a time…, which raises connotations of infancy and childhood and the expectation of happily ever after, and contrasts the films destructive content. A man (Buñuel himself) sharpens a razor blade in diagonal motions, and tests it’s sharpness against his nail. He moves to a balcony to look at a full moon. There is a cut to a woman’s face looking at the camera, and, juxtaposed alongside the cloud ‘cutting’ along the moon, the man slits the woman’s eye with the razor.
There are, expectedly, many different interpretations of this famed surrealist scene, which is possibly one of the most confrontational prologues in cinematic history. It could be viewed as a literal attack on vision, a warning to the viewer that they will have to view the film with ‘a different eye’, which was the interpretation of director Jean Vigo (1930). Raymond Durgnat said it could also act as a symbol of destructive sexuality, with the razor blade and eye representing the male and female respectively. (1977)
Looking at Freud’s writings on Fetishism it is possible to interpret the act as reflective of a male’s mental preoccupation with female castration. According to Freud, the fetish is a result of the conflict of thoughts at a child’s realisation that the woman does not have a phallus; the affected child perpetuates their belief regardless, and reaches a compromise ‘as is only possible under the dominance of the unconscious laws of thought’ (Freud, 2007). A substitute is appointed, in this case the eye. In an analysis of the behaviour of a man who gains sexual gratification from cutting off the hair of females, he writes ‘In him the need to carry out the castration which he disavows has come to the front.’ (2007), which is applicable in this case to the act of cutting the eye.
The vision of the full moon could also be reminiscent of the legend of werewolves; at the full moon, they become a slave to their animalistic instincts – they transform from being ruled by conscious thought to the chaotic subconscious, similarly to how the man in this scene acts upon his own destructive instincts which would conventionally be repressed.
Following this, the scene cuts to a man riding a bicycle dressed in feminine clothing with a diagonally patterned box held around his neck. His appearance suggests a female gender identity, and therefore his own castration – ‘a quid pro quo, maybe, for the infantile sadism indulged in the prologue,’ writes Durgnat (1977), who’s interpretation of the film revolves around sexual identity and frustration and relates in many ways to Freud, and therefore will be featured prominently in this review.
A woman is sat in her room, reading. She becomes aware of the man on the bike through her window as he falls over onto the street. She rushes to him and kisses him repeatedly on the face, though he doesn't respond. Returning to her room, she arranges the man’s clothing on her bed, throwing away his plain tie and replacing it with a striped tie, which she has removed from his box.
Here, the tie could be a symbol for the male genitals, with the replacement suggesting the woman’s longing for him to be more aggressive and masculine. She sits, waiting for the man to awaken from his weary, invisible state. He then suddenly materialises behind her, staring at his hand, which has a hole in the middle from which many ants are crawling. In French, avoir les fourmis, ‘to have ants’ means ‘to have pins and needles’, or to have blood flowing again in a limb which has gone to sleep, which in this case has connotations of the hand being a phallic symbol representing a return of sexual desire, although in this case it is damaged.
There then is a montage of four consecutive shots: the hand with ants dissolves to hair under a woman’s armpit, a sea-urchin, and then the head of a figure from above, holding a stick with which she’s poking a disembodied hand. Durgnat writes ‘If we take these four shots as visual metaphors, the equation is: mutilated hand equals woman’s armpit, i.e. castrated male genitals equals vagina.’ The change from ‘concave symbols’ to ‘convex symbols’ such as the sea-urchin and top of head suggests a revival of masculinity. (1977)
The figure with the stick is revealed to be a woman of ‘distinctly androgynous appearance’ (1977), which is reminiscent of the cyclist dressed in effeminate clothing. The stick here could be a clear phallic symbol, and relates to the Freud’s fetishist theory of the likelihood that ‘organs or objects chosen as substitutes for the absent female phallus would be such as appear as symbols of the penis in other connections as well’ (Freud, 2007); the woman is stood in the same area as where the cyclist fell, and could represent how the cyclist figure is perhaps conflicted with the ‘disavowal and the affirmation of the castration’ (2007) either of himself, or of his mother and women in general, thus showing his fear of it; this is also shown in his ambiguous emotional reactions to the scene.
Meanwhile, the disembodied hand here could continue the theme of psychosexuality, or could represent another area of the subconscious – the ‘abjected’ thoughts of death, blood and other body fluids. The crowd surrounding the woman is curious and eager to get close to the object, but they are held back by policemen, reflecting how society dictates that we are not to come too close to these thoughts; it is considered improper.
A policeman picks up the hand and returns it to its rightful place – inside the box. The woman looks wistful as she holds it to her chest and looks to the left; in the window, the cyclist also moves to face the left with a similar expression, which again is a possible link between the two, although he appears as if he’s averting his eyes from the scene. The woman is left, alone with the box held close, in the street as cars pass by. The man in the window becomes anxious, impatient and annoyed; then, she is hit by a car.
The oncoming traffic here could be a symbol of the public and of society, and can also be related to the man’s bicycle and interpreted as his desire to kill her. In either case, this woman’s attachment to the box is shown to be very unwelcome.
As passers-by approach the accident, back in the room the man seems to take this as ‘the signal for the ex-cyclist to advance on his girl with unbridled lechery’ (Durgnat 1977). He gropes her chest, and blood runs from his mouth, again showing the abject and possibly the subconscious coming to the fore.
As the woman tries to get away, the man begins to drag two ropes from which there are tied two priests and the corpses of two donkeys atop two pianos; he has become held back by the weight of religion, work and culture – his education. The woman runs from the room and traps his hand in a door, which we see again is covered with ants; he has been re-castrated.
In the next room, the man is seen to still be laid in bed wearing his frills and box, as if reversing all that has just occurred. A new, energetic figure arrives, who remains curiously faceless at first. He pulls the cyclist from his bed and removes the frills and box, and throws them out of the window. The cyclist tries to conceal one last part of this identity, but the man catches him; he surrenders it and it also is thrown out. He is ordered to stand in the corner.
It appears here that the new figure is trying to re-emasculate the man, which could reflect the cyclist’s thoughts that he should alter his behaviour. His battle with sexual anxiety and the fear of impotency and castration has reached the stage of outright frustration with himself.
A slow-motion shot shows the new figure looking worried and regretful, as if what he’s doing is undesirable but for the best, which contrasts the cyclist’s anger. He gives the cyclist books, but they turn into guns; a symbol of morality and intelligence becomes one of destruction. The super-egos attempt to suppress the urges of the id has failed. The energetic man is shown in slow-motion shots, giving a much gentler appearance, before he is shot down.
The scene changes abruptly to a leafy park. In his last moments the man caresses a naked statuesque woman’s back. Similarly to how the androgynous woman tentatively touched the hand (phallic symbol) before her death, this man touches an image of femininity, possibly reflecting his conflicted, repressed sexual feelings towards the motherly figure as described in Freud’s Oedipus complex, which when unresolved leads to perpetual fears of emasculation and impotency, a continuous theme of (this interpretation of) the film.
We return to the room. The woman notices a moth on the wall with a skull-shaped pattern on its back. This cuts to a shot of the cyclist, who is now ‘under the sign of death’ (Durgnat, 1977). He raises a hand to his face, and when he moves it, he reveals that he has no mouth. Here the mouth could be another symbol of sexuality, indicating that he has none – the woman reaffirms her own sexuality by agitatedly applying lipstick as a reaction. The man’s mouth then becomes coated with hair. Freud wrote that ‘fur and velvet…are a fixation of the sight of pubic hair’ (2007), again possibly linking this repeated imagery of the woman’s underarm hair to a ‘fetish’ to further suppress his castration complex.
The woman angrily leaves. The street outside of her apartment has been replaced by a beach, where a solemn young man is standing. She appears pleased to see him and kisses him enthusiastically – this man represents the sexual maturity of the cyclist, the yearned-for balance of all the characteristics he has displayed up until now, and possibly his resolving of the Oedipus complex. But he seems put off by the woman at first – ‘the man has no joy, for the cyclist was the incarnation of sexuality, degraded, emasculated and bullied until he reached, at last, this respectable stalemate.’ (Durgnat, 1977)
Interestingly the majority of the cyclist’s actions all occurred within the perceived safety of the woman’s apartment. When at last the male character is shown outside, he is acting as a conventional man, perhaps showing the apartment as a representation of his subconscious and id, and the battle of his ego to overcome the chaotic unconscious.
As they walk, they pass and pay little attention to the box and frilly clothing that that been thrown from the window, and the film ends showing them buried from the waist-down in sand, with the ironic title In Spring… showing that the frustrated sexual desires of the man have resulted in passivity.
The film is ultimately open to endless interpretations, and indeed each is as applicable and as significant as this particular one. It is the uniqueness of surrealist art that allows the spectator to create the meaning, and as surrealism is in many ways a celebration of the possibilities of the psyche, this is reinforced when we each, with our range of individual experiences, can take away very differing interpretations of this cinematic experience.
Durgnat, R. , (1977) Luis Buñuel, California: University of California Press, p21-38.
Freud, S. , ‘Fetishism’ , in Barnard, M. (ed.) (2007) Fashion Theory: A Reader, Abingdon: Routledge, p553 - 557
Buñuel, L. (1983). My last sigh. New York: Knopf.
Vigo, J. (1930) Vers un Cinéma Social