Un Chien Andalou (“An Andalusian Dog”) is a 1929 French surrealist short silent film directed by Luis Buñuel and written by him and Salvador Dali. It launched the careers of these two Spaniards, though they’d been expecting a scandalized reaction from their bourgeois Parisian audience; Buñuel even had his pockets filled with rocks to throw at an audience he’d thought would be so outraged that they’d want to attack the filmmakers. Instead, the bourgeois audience loved the twenty-minute short.
Buñuel’s and Dali’s intention had been to shock their audience with images of blatant sexuality and violence; Buñuel called the film an “impassioned call for murder.” As a communist, Buñuel despised the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie and the Church; accordingly, he went out of his way to expose, ridicule, and offend that sanctimonious establishment in all the films of his career.
Sadly, Dali went in the opposite political direction of Buñuel, instead following that of fellow Spanish shocker Camilo José Cela, embracing Franco‘s fascism after having had a falling out with Buñuel before they could finish L’Age d’Or, originally meant to be another collaboration, but a movie Buñuel would finish without Dali. What a shame it is when talent is misused for reactionary purposes.
Two of the most famous images in Un Chien Andalou were inspired by dreams Buñuel and Dali had had, the former dreaming of a cloud cutting through the moon like a razor slicing an eye, and the latter dreaming of ants crawling on a man’s hand.
As a surrealist film, it was meant to be only one of random, shocking images with no consciously intended story or meaning. Indeed, if Buñuel and Dali were to come back from the dead and read this analysis, they doubtless would scoff at the meanings my interpretation here will impose on their fanciful flashes of black and white vignettes.
Nonetheless, the unconscious has meanings and intentions of its own, however non-rational and obscure they may be. Surrealism as an art form expresses unconscious meaning, a reality above our normal reality, hence the name of the movement. Since psychoanalysis is centred on an understanding of the unconscious, explored through dreams, free association, and the transference, a classical Freudian psychoanalytic interpretation is not only a possible way of making sense out of Un Chien Andalou: it’s the way, the royal road, even, for understanding the movie.
Il était une fois, a man (Buñuel) sharpens a razor, then goes out onto a balcony and looks up at the moon. A greyish cloud is about to cut across the full moon, just as his razor will cut through the black iris of a young woman (Simone Mareuil).
The contrast of the black sky surrounding the white circle of the moon is like a photographic negative of her white eyeball surrounding her black iris. The greyish cloud is the silver, phallic razor.
This opening scene establishes the theme of the yin-and-yang-like, dialectical relationship between opposites, here symbolized by black and white, the thesis and negation, and by the sublation of the opposites with the grey cloud and razor. We will see many manifestations of the conflict and interaction between opposites in this film.
“Huit ans après,” a man (Pierre Batcheff) is riding a bicycle down a street approaching her apartment building. He’s wearing a nun’s habit, and a box hangs by a strap around his neck. Here we see a fusion of masculinity and femininity, not only through his crossdressing, but also through the yonic symbolism of the box, which dangles like a penis…or a breast.
She goes to the window to watch him. He falls and lies on the curb in front of her apartment building; she empathizes, and rushes down to help him. Back in her apartment, she arranges the nun’s habit on a bed while he, in a dark suit, stands by a door looking at the palm of his hand. The juxtaposition of a nun’s habit on a bed suggests the meeting opposites of piety vs. sexual indulgence (as does her unlocking of the box). We’ll get more of the opposition between piety and lust soon after.
He’s looking at his hand because ants are crawling out of a yonic wound on his palm–more androgyny. The emerging ants suggest a projection outward of what’s wrong with him inside, the myrmidons (Greek: μύρμηξ, ‘ant’) of destruction. His fixed stare at the projection suggests a wish to see the bad inside him get out.
Next, we see her lying on the beach, with a closeup on her hairy armpit, which dissolves into a spherical sea urchin lying on the sand, its roundness reminding us of her eye just before it had been ‘raped,’ as it were, by the phallic razor. The armpit is a yoni, like the eyeball and the cloud-raped moon; the spiny, dark sea urchin is associated with both the yoni and a testicle, suggesting more androgyny, more unity of opposites.
The urchin dissolves into the bird’s-eye-view of the head of a short-haired woman dressed rather mannishly–yet more androgyny. Holding a phallic cane, she pokes at a severed hand, which symbolizes castration, a reminder of the ‘yonic’ wounds of the slit eye and the wound on the man’s hand. With both injured hands, we once again see a unity of male and female through the castration complex.
The androgyny of the man and this woman in the street suggests Freud’s notion of the inherent ‘bisexuality’ of both sexes: ““we shall, of course, willingly agree that the majority of men are…far behind the masculine ideal and that all human individuals, as a result of their bisexual disposition and of cross-inheritance, combine in themselves both masculine and feminine characteristics, so that pure masculinity and femininity remain theoretical constructions of uncertain content.” (Freud, ‘Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes,’ p. 342)
Let’s now contrast the scenes of both gender-benders on the street, what unifies them and what makes them opposites. He rides a bike alone, but she stands surrounded by people. He has the yonic box, she the phallic cane…though a policeman later gives her the box to put the hand inside–symbolic of sexual union as well as androgyny.
He falls to the ground, causing the woman in the apartment to feel compassion for him and help him; the androgynous woman is hit by a car, while the man in the apartment grins, sadistically enjoying watching her get hurt, possibly killed, and neither he nor the woman with him in the room go down to help the injured woman. Note the merging of pleasure and pain, not only in his sadism, but also her smile of pleasure from having the hand in the box (representing intercourse and androgyny), and this happens just before she’s hit by the car.
Now the man looks lustfully at the woman in the apartment. After having been aroused by the injury/death of the androgynous woman below, he’s now desiring this woman in the room with him. He grabs her breasts and imagines her nude, her breasts dissolving into her buttocks. We go from symbolic rape (the razor slicing the eye) to literal, attempted rape.
Remember that, as a surrealist film, Un Chien Andalou depicts the world of the unconscious, a realm of unbridled id impulses. Here, the pleasure principle rules, an ending of tension or excitation. Now, excitation can be ended by either pleasure (libido) or death, Thanatos. “We have decided to relate pleasure and unpleasure to the quantity of excitation that is present in the mind…and to relate them in such a manner that unpleasure corresponds to an increase in the quantity of excitation and pleasure to a diminution.” (Freud, page 276, his emphasis)
The man’s enjoyment of watching the androgynous woman hit by a car is an indication of his death drive, directed outwards, wished on another. His libidinous pawing at the first woman’s breasts suggest a fusion of the life instinct, Eros (of which the sex drive is a manifestation) with Thanatos (his rapist aggression), another fusion of opposites.
In light of this fusion of the life (i.e., sex) and death drives, it is significant that Buñuel chose, in 1960, Wagner‘s Liebestod (“love-death”) as part of the soundtrack for the movie. This was music he’d also used in L’Age d’Or, incidentally. The fused sex and death drives seem to be represented in many of his films, including these two early ones, as well as in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (see my analysis for that movie), Viridiana (<<her uncle’s suicide happening so soon after his having her dress in his dead wife’s bridal gown, then drugging her so he could have her in bed), and even Belle de Jour (consider this scene).
Unconscious id impulses are represented in the man’s attack on the woman; unconscious ego defence is seen in her attempt to defend herself with a tennis racquet when he has her cornered. So she, symbolically, is the ego, and he represents the id.
He grabs onto ropes linking Moses’ tablets of the Ten Commandments with pairs of pumpkins, seminarists (Dali himself being one of them), and pianos, each with a bloody, slaughtered donkey lying on the inner strings. These together represent his superego in their attempt to restrain him. He pulls on them and falls, then gets up and pulls again, all that weight slowing him down as he tries to get closer to her in the corner.
Note how the id, ego, and superego are all unconscious here. While the ego and superego are partly conscious, as opposed to the completely unconscious id, much, if not most, of the ego and superego are either unconscious or at least preconscious; so much of their activity is unknown, at least at the time, to the mind controlled by them. To understand the true feelings of the aggressive man here, since this is a surrealist film, we should see his scurrilous aggression thus as unconscious phantasy in his mind, not his actual treatment of the woman.
The decalogue tablets and seminarists represent the ego ideal that he is required by society to approach as best he can. Of course, neither the Bible nor the Catholic priesthood have ever set a good example for preventing rape, as seen in priests’ largely unpunished sexual abuse of children over the years, or in such Bible verses as these: “Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.” (Numbers 31: 17-18)
The pianos represent society’s use of culture in taming the beast; their weight slows the man down much better than clergy or tablets could. The slaughtered donkeys represent the killing of man’s bestial nature in order to civilize him. The pumpkins seem testicular to me, perhaps a reminder from society that sex is for procreation, not for mere pleasure, especially not for a man’s pleasure at the expense of a woman.
In any case, she fortunately gets away from him, slamming the door on his hand (a symbolic castration of a phallus) and reopening the yonic would from which the ants emerge, another projective ridding of the myrmidon killer within him…or is it an ejaculation (a fusion of sex with death), a masochistic pleasure from a previously rape-inclined sadist? “A person who feels pleasure in producing pain in someone else in a sexual relationship is also capable of enjoying as pleasure any pain which he may himself derive from sexual relations. A sadist is always at the same time a masochist.” (Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, page 73)
On the bed in the room she’s entered is the man, now wearing the nun’s habit and box, and behaving much better. Is this the moralizing influence of religion that’s taming his lust, or is it the feminine inside him, making him more respectful to her?
Speaking of moralizing influences, “around three in the morning,” she hears a door-bell (represented by two hands poking out of holes in a wall and shaking a Martini-shaker–symbolic of masturbation) and lets a man in who, as it eventually turns out, is also played by Batcheff. Wearing a lighter-coloured suit this time, he berates the first man for wearing the habit, demanding that he remove it, then throwing the clothing out the window. This second version of the man, now making the first version of him (in his darker suit) stand in the corner shamefacedly, represents the superego, the inner critic, chiding the dark-suited id.
(Compare the superego-man, making the id-man stand in the corner, to the id-man rapist making the ego-woman stand in the corner. These are, respectively, the conflict between the pleasure principle and the ego ideal, and the conflict between the pleasure and reality principles, intensified with the ego ideal being dragged by the id-man.)
What form of morality is being promoted in getting rid of the nun’s habit? Is it a conservative morality, telling the crossdresser that ‘real men’ never wear women’s clothes? Or is it a progressive morality, telling the man to do away with the shackles, as it were, of the hypocritical trappings of religion? Given Buñuel’s attitude towards the Church, the latter explanation seems more likely.
The lighter-suited man, “sixteen years earlier,” shows an interest in art supplies and books lying on a table, and he gives the darker-suited man in the corner two books to hold in his hands as he stays in the corner. This love of art and culture, like the dragged pianos mentioned above, and its imposition on the man standing in the corner, suggests the use of sublimation as a way of redirecting id drives down more socially desirable paths.
The id-man in the corner, though, would rather be destructive than creative (yet another juxtaposition of opposites), and so the books he’s holding transform into phallic pistols, which he causes to ejaculate bullets at the lighter-suited superego-man, killing him. He falls down dead…but in a forest, his body brushing against the nude back of the woman: another juxtaposition of opposites–the life instinct’s libido and the death drive.
Let’s compare this death with that of the androgynous woman and the fall off the bike of the man in the nun’s habit. In many ways, these first two accidents were mutually antithetical, as described above. This new death is comparable and contrasting to the previous two incidents, suggesting a sublation of the previous two.
This superego-man is played by the same actor, Batcheff, as the id-man, but the superego-man isn’t a crossdresser. The antithetical androgynes are male and female; the third man’s lighter-coloured suit is a bit effeminate looking, though. The first two fall on a street (i.e., a man-made ground); the third one falls on the ground of Mother Nature, in a forest.
Only the woman in the apartment helps the crossdressing man; several people, mostly men, go to help the fallen androgynous woman; and a group of men, including a man with a cane, reminding us of the androgynous woman’s cane, find and pick up the body of the dead third person. The Liebestod is played during all three incidents.
Sublation, or Aufhebung, is a better word to use than ‘synthesis’ to describe how contradictions are resolved in dialectical thinking. One doesn’t merely combine the opposites: one refines one’s originally proposed idea by considering the opposition’s point of view. Some of the original ideas of the thesis remain; aspects of the negation are acknowledged; some contradictory aspects cancel each other out in the sublation. Then the refined idea becomes a new thesis to be negated and sublated, all over again.
This process can repeat itself again and again in a cycle, like the ouroboros: the thesis is the bitten tail, the negation is the biting head, and the coiled body of the serpent is the sublation. This dialectic can be symbolized by these three incidents in the film.
Another thing to note about all the film’s dialectical opposites is their physicality, their materiality. Conflict and contradiction are expressed in the forms of violence (as in The Omen) and sexuality (as in Caligula), a most material expression; so these aren’t the idealist dialectics of Hegel, but the materialist ones of Marx. (“Seize ans avant” suggests an association with historical materialism, too.)
This Marxism is Buñuel’s leftism shining through, though Dali’s right-wing tendencies would limit how far Buñuel could go with his leftism. Hence, there’s very little criticism of the bourgeoisie here. His “impassioned call for murder” (I find it fairly safe to assume that, by “murder,” Buñuel meant communist revolution–that is, killing off the bourgeoisie) fell largely on deaf ears.
In the next scene, the woman that the man tried to rape enters a room and sees a death’s head hawkmoth on a wall. This, a mature creature fully bloomed into life as an imago, but with a marking like a skull on its thorax, is yet another symbol of the merging of the life and death drives.
She sees the man who tried to rape her. He rubs his mouth, erasing it from his face. Disquieted by this, she applies lipstick to herself, as if wishing to draw his mouth back on his face by sympathetic magic, or what Melanie Klein called projective identification. Instead, her armpit hair appears on his face, as if a beard! She sticks her tongue out at him several times, then leaves.
There are multiple possible meanings here. Since she’s resisted his sexual advances, he, annoyed with her, wishes no longer to communicate with her. No longer having his empathy-prompting feminine symbols (the nun’s habit and yonic box), he’s gone from lecher to woman-hating incel. Her applying of lipstick, intended to be a projected drawing of a mouth back on his face, represents a wish to restore communication.
His erased mouth is another yoni, a rejection of the feminine. Her phallic lipstick, applied to her yonic mouth, suggests a wish for sexual union and restored androgyny. Above, I showed how her armpit hair suggests her pubic hair. Instead of projecting a mouth (symbolic yoni) onto his face, she accidentally projects her symbolic pubic hair…and pubic hair can be male or female. In having her hair on his face, he’s mirroring back to her how unattractive he now finds her. Hurt, she rejects him, too.
The removal of her armpit hair and her applying of lipstick suggest something that has upset feminists for a long time: the lofty standards of beauty women are societally expected to attain. (In contemporary pornography, it is standard to remove the models’ pubic hair, too.) In sticking out her phallic tongue at him several times, she’s defying his misogyny while reaffirming androgyny.
In the final scene, she leaves her apartment building not to see the street, but a beach. A handsome young man by the shore turns and sees her; he seems to be her boyfriend, for she grins in delight to see him, and she hangs affectionately on his shoulder. They kiss.
I have elsewhere associated the sea or ocean with a state of nirvana. I’ve also associated a nirvana-like state with the biting head of the ouroboros, yet also with the danger of hellish samsara close by, on the sands of the beach, as when Luther confronts Swan on the beach at the end of The Warriors.
The woman and her boyfriend enjoy walking on the beach together, in each other’s arms; but they find the nun’s habit and box, broken and messy with sand, having washed on the shore after the superego-man threw them out the window. They represent the misogynistic id-man’s rejected feminine side as well as his rejected religious upbringing. The hostility they represent seems a danger to the man, who tosses the things aside so he and the girl can continue their blissful walk along the shore.
“Au printemps,” a time of renewed life, shows the two lovers buried almost to their chests in the sand, presumably dead. Again, Eros and Thanatos unite: “these guardians of life…were originally the myrmidons of death” (Freud, page 312). The Myrmidons, incidentally, were created by Zeus from a colony of…ants!
Freud had more to say about the interaction between the opposing life and death drives, that is to say, the pleasure principle on the one hand, and the drive to return to an inorganic state, on the other: “The pleasure principle…is a tendency operating in the service of a function whose business it is to free the mental apparatus entirely from excitation or to keep the amount of excitation in it constant or to keep it as low as possible…it is clear that the function thus described would be concerned with the most universal endeavour of all living substance–namely to return to the quiescence of the inorganic world. We have all experienced how the greatest pleasure attainable by us, that of the sexual act, is associated with a momentary extinction of a highly intensified excitation…The pleasure principle seems actually to serve the death instincts.” (Freud, 336-337, 338)
As we can see, Un Chien Andalou isn’t just a random jumble of vignettes, even if its creators insisted that it was. Like any great work of art, there are consistent themes to be explored: its surrealism merely means that one must be something of a psychoanalyst to uncover its secrets. Using free association, one looks at the freely given images and associates them to reveal the unconscious meanings within.
…and what are those unconscious meanings? The interaction and unity of opposites: male/female, life/death, pleasure/pain, sex/violence, projection/introjection. I harp on the interconnection of opposites quite a lot, but that’s because in all this dialectical intermixing, we find a deeper truth, a truth that encapsulates everything. That universal truth is what makes films like Un Chien Andalou so great.
Sigmund Freud, On Sexuality (The Pelican Freud Library, #7), Penguin Books, London, 1977
Sigmund Freud, On Metapsychology; The Theory of Psychoanalysis (The Pelican Freud Library, #11), Penguin Books, Middlesex, England, 1984