Analysis of ‘Viridiana’

Viridiana is a 1961 Spanish-Mexican film by Luis Buñuel, loosely based on the novel Halma by Benito Pérez Galdós, and starring Silvia Pinal in the title role, as well as Fernando Rey, Margarita Lozano, and Francisco Rabal. As usual, Buñuel criticizes the Church and bourgeois society in this film. It is about a novice soon to take her vows as a nun, but who finds it increasingly difficult–due to external pressure, or internal?–to reconcile herself with the moral ideals of the Church.

Viridiana was the co-winner of the Palme d’Or at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival.

Here are a few quotes in English translation:

Viridiana: I know my own weakness, and whatever I do will be humble. But, however little it is, I want to do it alone.

Jorge: I always knew that you and I were going to end up playing cards together!

Verdiana was the name of a generous, charitable saint who secluded herself for 34 years to focus on her faith. The Viridiana of this film is similarly, if not so extremely, reclusive, but just as generous and charitable. Her name comes from a word meaning ‘green’: I think of an old meaning of green, from back in Shakespeare’s time, meaning ‘youthful, inexperienced, immature’; but also, ‘fresh, recent, new’ (Crystal and Crystal, page 205), strongly implying ‘pure.’ There is, indeed, a strong sense that this novice embodies all of these definitions, in more ways than one.

She also happens to be a beautiful young blonde, most desirable to men; her choice to become a nun seems to be, at least in part, motivated by a fear of sexually predatory men. Her virgin purity makes her all the more attractive to her uncle, Don Jaime (Rey), who finds that she reminds him of his late bride, who died before he could even consummate their marriage.

When devotion is carried too far.

His preoccupation with her beauty and purity reminds me of Heinrich Heine‘s poem:

Du bist wie eine Blume,
So hold und schön und rein;
Ich schau’ dich an, und Wehmut
Schleicht mir ins Herz hinein.

Mir ist, als ob ich die Hände
Aufs Haupt dir legen sollt’,
Betend, dass Gott dich erhalte
So rein und schön und hold.
You are like a flower,
So lovely, fair and pure;
I gaze at you and wistful
Melancholy slips into my heart.

It’s as though I ought to place
My hands upon your head
And pray God to ever keep you
So pure, fair, and lovely.

This notion of extreme purity leads to an exploration of the themes of modesty, humility, and every other point on the circular continuum I symbolize with the ouroboros, including the dialectical opposites of pride (the serpent’s biting head) vs. shame (the bitten tail). Viridiana is so particular about her maidenly modesty, it’s a source of narcissistic pride for her. Thus, even the mere suggestion of male physical closeness feels like a violation to her.

This excessive modesty comes from her stern Catholic upbringing, once again Buñuel’s satirical target. She has no interest in visiting her Uncle Jaime, whom she’s met only once; but she’s pressured into visiting him by her mother superior. She’d rather stay secluded and cloistered, suggesting she regards the Church as more of a family than her biological one. I suspect she had an unhappy family upbringing, driving her to the Church for a replacement.

Viridiana, the Mary wanna-be.

The Virgin Mary seems to be an idealized parental imago for Viridiana, the perfect mother who represents an ego ideal to which she aspires. We get a sense of this when she prays the Angelus with the homeless people. Mary is “full of grace” (κεχαριτωμένη), which the Catholic Church interprets as a kind of purity existing from birth, the Immaculate Conception. Viridiana would thus want to identify with Mary, for narcissistic reasons.

Any man even making a pass at her threatens this purity she so covets, causing her narcissistic injury. Viridiana, I suspect, has transferred her feelings of maternal love to Mary, just as Don Jaime, admiring Viridiana’s beauty and purity, transfers his love of his deceased bride onto her, especially since the two women look so alike. Indeed, transference is a major theme in this Freudo-Marxist film.

Normally, one thinks of transference in the psychoanalytical setting; the patient transfers the feelings of a powerful emotional bond, especially one from childhood, onto the therapist. Viridiana has made this kind of transference onto Mary, her ‘therapist.’ Similarly, Viridiana has become, however unwittingly, Jaime’s ‘therapist.’ They are using their transferences in an attempt to heal, though these attempts ultimately fail.

On the first night of Viridiana’s visit, we see her in her bedroom, taking off black stockings to reveal her delicious legs; Buñuel’s lustful camera does a closeup on them, another example of his irreverence towards Church authority. She unpacks a large wooden crucifix and a crown of thorns. She’s so devoted to her faith, she’d rather sleep on the hard floor, as Jaime’s servant, Ramona, notes.

Sleepwalking Viridiana tosses yarn into the fire.

Now, Ramona is an interesting character to compare and contrast with Viridiana. Jaime’s servant is dutiful, bashful, and modest, but also lacking in the novice’s religious pretensions. This is another of Buñuel’s jabs at the Church. And who, I’m curious, is the father of Ramona’s naughty, nosy daughter Rita? Jaime has been kind enough to take mother and daughter in: is the girl an illegitimate child, as Jaime’s son, Jorge, is? Again, we see Buñuel’s alternative morality to the hypocritical one of the Church.

I suspect that Ramona has a secret love for Jaime, an Oedipal feeling, perhaps, transferred from her father onto her master, but a feeling she’s too shy to express openly. In any case, after he hangs himself and she meets Jorge, she transfers her love from father to handsome son…and feels that love more overtly, this time.

The morning of the second day of Viridiana’s visit, she goes to a servant milking a cow. She tries pulling on one of the cow’s teats; but they are long, even phallic in length. She can’t bring herself to handle them, as doing so, it seems, far too much resembles masturbating a man to orgasm (i.e., the squirting out of the milk). Her pious modesty is so extreme, she cannot do anything even vaguely redolent of sexuality.

Then, naughty Rita agitates her by saying she saw her in her nightgown the night before, having sneaked a peek from a nearby terrace. Viridiana blenches at even having been spied on by a pre-teen girl.

That night, Jaime has been fetishizing the bridal clothes of his deceased wife; he puts his too-large foot into one of her high heels (symbolic intercourse wish-fulfillment), then stands before a mirror while almost trying on her girdle. Apart from the erotic overtones of these actions, we sense his pathetic yearning for his lost love, his unfulfillable wish to be at one with her.

Then he sees Viridiana sleepwalking in that white nightgown, with her pretty bare feet and lower legs exposed. She is doubly vulnerable before him, in a relative state of undress, and unaware of it. The thought of his predatory eyes on her will terrify her when he tells her what he’s seen the next morning.

During her sleepwalking, she’s also psychologically naked and vulnerable, for her unconscious is let loose, expressing her hidden desires, if only symbolically. Kneeling at his fireplace, she empties a basket of yarn and needles into the fire, representing an unconscious wish to be rid of clothing, the antithesis of a nun’s modesty. She has a bad habit, it seems.

Don Jaime (Rey) and his niece, Viridiana (Pinal)

Then she gathers ashes in the basket and takes them to his bedroom, then sprinkles them on his bed; the ashes, we learn the next day, are a symbol of penitence…and death. What has she to repent of…secret, repressed sexual desires? Death associated with his bed suggests once again the marriage of the life (e.g., sex) and death drives.

The next day, Don Jaime, so captivated by Viridiana’s beauty, her purity (So hold und schön und rein), and of course her resemblance to her deceased aunt, asks her to dress up in her bridal gown, another shocking thing to do, in Viridiana’s view. The deceased bride, having worn white to the wedding, was in all probability a virgin (especially given the conservative mores of the time); but Viridiana–though complying–still feels uncomfortable doing it, as she feels like a sex object.

She of course is being objectified and ogled by her uncle, who has Ramona drug Viridiana’s coffee. Ramona, wholly devoted to her master, will do whatever he wants her to do, even as wicked a thing as helping him take advantage of his unconscious niece! Why? I suspect because Ramona secretly wishes Jaime desired her in the same way…also, allowing Viridiana to be deflowered–and thus, shamed–would serve Ramona because of sexual jealousy. Hence, she doesn’t mind telling Viridiana of Jaime’s shameful wish to marry his niece. Still, he’s a good man, in Ramona’s mind.

Don Jaime, Viridiana, and Ramona (Lozano)

Viridiana is already uneasy enough knowing her uncle is the father of an illegitimate child (Jorge), for such is her lofty moral ideal. Her purity is part of what makes her so attractive to him; she looks so sexy in that virginal white dress…and she knows exactly how he feels about her.

Being in that dress with him at night is, of course, a reenacting of his wedding night with her aunt, when she died of a heart attack before he could consummate the marriage. This lonely, reclusive man has yearned to have that night given back to him, and now he can have it back through Viridiana.

Even before Ramona has given her the drugged coffee, Viridiana can sense her uncle’s lust; wearing that bridal gown strongly implies a soon-t0-be-lost virginity, which is anathema, horrifying to her. By helping Jaime satisfy his desire, though, Ramona can satisfy hers vicariously through Viridiana. Meanwhile, little Rita is frightened by a bull she claims entered her bedroom; the animal represents a sexually predatory male…is this an omen of what’s to come between Jaime and Viridiana?

While sexual assault (of anyone, woman, man, or child) is of course never defensible, especially to a communist like Buñuel, Viridiana’s predicament can be seen unconsciously, symbolically as a wish-fulfillment in that it desecrates the Catholic ideal of sexual purity in a woman. Destroying this impossible ideal by demonstrating its unattainability can liberate women sexually, by making them give up on it. Indeed, Viridiana will be so liberated at the end of the film.

Note that Jaime never carries out his plan to deflower her. While she’s unconscious, and Mozart‘s Requiem Mass is playing (symbolizing a fusion of the libido and death drive), he kisses her on the lips, unbuttons her top to reveal her creamy cleavage, then kisses her there (and naughty Rita spies on them); but moral scruple makes him come to his senses, and he stops. He mustn’t stain such divine purity.

Jaime burns with lust…and love…for his niece.

So hold und schön und rein.

The next morning, when he tells her he took advantage of her while she was out cold, even when he later insists he never actually penetrated her, she can’t be certain of which statement is the truth, and which the lie–has he, or has he not raped her? So she, “for mere suspicion in that kind, will do as if for surety,” and imagine the worst. But how can she be unsure of what’s happened? Surely she knows that she will feel vaginal soreness, pain from a ruptured hymen, that there will be blood, if he’s had her.

He lies about having intercourse with her while she slept (later admitting he’s lied) so she’ll think her ‘stained’ body will make her unworthy of being a nun, then she’ll have nowhere else to go but to live with him. She’s afraid of male sexual predation to a far greater degree than the average woman, religiously devoted or not—why?

I don’t think we’re supposed to believe she was sexually abused at an earlier period of her life (though she, in all likelihood, has endured men’s leers and groping hands on many occasions throughout her life); for if she was raped, given the strict Catholic morality of her world, she surely would have already considered herself too ‘unclean’ to be a nun.

Now, for her, the meaning of sexual assault is expanded to mean “that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28) Furthermore, given the way rape victims tend to be slut-shamed, especially in Viridiana’s prudish world, she will feel as guilty, however unjustifiably, of having ‘tempted’ her attackers as they are of attacking her.

So hold, und schön, und rein…und schlafend.

So her fears about whatever Don Jaime has done while she’s been unconscious are not based on a fear of possibly having been penetrated, nor do they seem to be a kind of PTSD reliving of what may have happened to her sometime before the beginning of this film. His having touched her, kissed her, and partially undressed her are rape enough. 

And how far did he undress her? She has no idea. We know he only unbuttoned her top: he saw her cleavage, but not her whole breasts. Still, how does she know he didn’t undress her further? Does he know what her whole naked body looks like? Did he fondle her nakedness? Taste it? How many of her anatomical secrets does he know of?

Even the few of those secrets that Don Jaime knows would be enough to make any woman cringe, because they have been divulged without consent (consider the complaints against lecherous Bill Cosby to see my point). But for a woman as proud of keeping her secrets hidden as Viridiana is, her uncle’s–however slight–‘breaking and entering,’ as it were, is all the more outrageous and unbearable.

She feels the shame, but don’t forget that he does, too. After all, he’s the sinner, not she…and no one is more aware of his exclusive guilt than he is. He’s so tearfully desperate to get her forgiveness that, when he doesn’t get it, he hangs himself.

What we must remember is that he doesn’t merely lust after her–he’s fallen in love with her (which is not to excuse him for his scurrilous scheming), out of her resemblance, in her looks, her walk, her voice, in every way, to his beloved late bride. He’s transferred that deep passion onto Viridiana.

Buñuel has been said to have valued sex over love: this seems to be a vulgar, bourgeois interpretation of his frank depiction of sexuality in his films, and it’s utter nonsense. Buñuel uses sex to enhance love, to free it from the bourgeois chains of Church morality.

Jorge (Rabal), his girlfriend Lucia (Victoria Zinny), and Buñuel.

Another theme in this film is that of solitude. Viridiana prefers being cut off from the larger society: if not hidden from it in the convent, then in the outbuilding section of late Jaime’s estate, which he’s left to her and Jorge. Her religious solitude, as I’ve said above, echoes that of the saint who shares her name; but is this solitude out of spiritual conviction, or social alienation?

Jaime’s solitude is certainly out of alienation, for he, as a bourgeois, rentier capitalist, is inevitably affected by the estrangement that capitalism causes. He has some goodness, though, as all the characters in Viridiana are each a mix of good and bad. For example, Jaime has taken in Ramona and Rita, and he even saves a bee from drowning.

His illegitimate son, Jorge, has a sexual interest in Viridiana that bothers both her and his jealous, live-in girlfriend, Lucia, who soon leaves him; but he isn’t the type to rape a woman. The worst he does is to walk into Viridiana’s bedroom without her permission. He kisses Ramona on the lips only because he knows, from the longing in her eyes, that she is aching for his kiss.

Still yearning to be a good Christian even though she feels unworthy of being a nun, Viridiana takes in a group of beggars to live in the outbuilding part of the house. As pitiable as these wretches are, though, they’re far from virtuous; they make one of them, a bald fellow without his upper front teeth, into a pariah because his varicose veins seem to them to be a symptom of leprosy.

Out in the field with Viridiana, they pray the Angelus with her while Jorge’s hired workers are renovating the house and surrounding area; in other words, the first group is engaging in faith, while the second group is actually working. Here is another example of Buñuel taking a jab at the Church, which values grace through faith over good works. She and the beggars are praying a useless prayer to her idol, Mary, while Jorge’s men are making themselves useful–working, because il faut cultiver notre jardin.

One of the beggars, El Cojo (‘the lame one,’ played by José Manuel Martin), fancies himself a faithful Catholic and not only helps Viridiana in leading the Angelus prayer, but also paints a portrait of the Madonna; still, he’s a bad, even violent fellow, for he threatens the ‘leper,’ and later Jorge, with a knife, and even tries to rape Viridiana toward the end of the film. Again, Buñuel demonstrates the emptiness of faith as against good works.

The Least (of His Brethren’s) Supper.

When she, Jorge, Ramona, and Rita leave the house on business (the servants have also left, out of disgust with the beggars), the beggars decide to go in the house and have a party. They’ll clean up after, and no one will be the wiser…or so they imagine.

This party symbolizes a proletarian seizing of the means of production…though it’s a poorly planned ‘revolution,’ more like anarchist Catalonia, or the Ukrainian Free Territory under Makhno, than anything like the Bolshevik takeover of Russia. Accordingly, their ‘insurrection’ doesn’t last.

During their dinner, they take a group photo at the long table. Buñuel deliberately has the actors pose in a manner parodying Leonardo DaVinci’s Last Supper, with the blind Don Amalio (played by José Calvo) in the middle, in Christ’s place. When Enedina (played by Lola Gaos) takes the photo, her lifting up of her dress is the ‘flash!’

After that, the ‘leper’ puts on a record of Händel‘s Hallelujah Chorus, and he dresses up in some of Jaime’s bride’s clothing, repeating the suicide’s cross-dressing, though in a comical, rather than pathetic, way.  His dancing around to the music is more of Buñuel making fun of religious piety. He tosses to the floor the feathers of a dove, symbolic of the Holy Spirit, he found earlier.

The ‘leper’ in drag.

Furthermore, this juxtaposition of these would-be lumpenproletariat revolutionaries with Christian music and iconography represents how the infantile disorder of ‘left’ communism is as unrealistic as is Viridiana’s idealization of Marian Catholicism. Just as there is no way to be a morally perfect woman, there is also no way to have a perfect communist revolution, all in one fell swoop. The beggars have no vanguard to educate and organize them, so their ‘revolution’ is practically still-born.

And so, because these people are, in varying degrees, degenerates, their party degenerates, too. A man takes Enedina behind the sofa and has her. An older beggar, Manuel, who has a penchant for gossip, tells Don Amalio about the screwing around, but he won’t lead the jealous blind man over to the sofa to beat the man for taking his woman; so Don Amalio smashes his cane on the dinner table, destroying the dishes.

As we can see, their ‘revolution’ is a bit too Makhnovist for comfort. Jorge, Viridiana, Ramona, and Rita return early to find out what’s been happening. El Cojo and the “leper” subdue Jorge while Ramona goes off in the car to get the police; this leaves Viridiana to the mercy of El Cojo’s lust. She fights the good fight to get him off of her.

All her efforts to be a good Christian, to show charity and compassion to the beggars and to give them moral instruction, have been for naught. Jorge, however, promises money to the “leper” if he’ll beat El Cojo on the head with a small shovel to stop him from raping her. Though El Cojo is stopped, she, overwhelmed with trauma, faints…just as she was unconscious when Jaime–almost–had her.

Viridiana’s neurotic moral perfectionism, vs. Jorge’s laid-back, realistic morality.

Note how, only when unconscious, will she allow any man to touch her. This shows how, only in her unconscious mind, will she allow herself any expression of sexuality. The conscious wish to be an imitator of Christ, of Mary, is clearly a reaction formation against her deepest, most repressed desires, expressed when she was sleepwalking.

The wish to lead a life of chastity rubs against its dialectical opposite, the secret wish to be sexual. Jorge, in contrast, is neither extreme: he accepts the ephemeral nature of sexual relationships, and is none too upset when Lucia leaves him. At the same time, he doesn’t force sex on anyone, unlike El Cojo, the ‘good Catholic.’

Viridiana’s trauma from the attempted rape has, for what it’s worth, one good side effect: she’s been liberated from her attachment to an impossible moral ideal–perfect chastity. As painful as this has been for her, at least she can now get off her high horse and join humanity…and become truly humble, not affectedly so.

She looks at herself in a small mirror, Lacan‘s mirror, as a tear runs down her cheek. That nun she’s seen in the reflection was an illusion, not the real her, but an idealization that has alienated her from herself. Her ability to be ‘pure’ cannot be eternal and unchanging. She must accept this painful truth.

She joins Jorge and Ramona in the main part of the house. He’s pleasantly surprised to see Viridiana at the door. Since Ramona is already his lover, Viridiana’s involvement is implying a ménage à trois, surely to the chagrin of the Francoist censors, but this ending was allowed nonetheless. Instead of listening to pompous religious music, the three would rather hear some fun popular music, Ashley Beaumont’s Shimmy Doll

Their sitting at table together to play cards suggests an equality the beggars couldn’t attain: that of male and female, of master and servant. Jorge’s moderate ‘socialism,’ if you will, is rather like Dengism; one incrementally moves from capitalism to communism, as Xi Jinping‘s government is doing. His sexuality is similarly neither prudish nor overly licentious. No idealistic rushes to extremes here, but rather a cautious creeping ahead.

Jorge doesn’t like the degenerate beggars any more than the other workers in his home. He considers Viridiana’s charitable duties to them pointless; he does, however, tolerate them for a while…until they commit their crimes on him and her. He also takes compassion on a dog, Canelo, and he offers money to the “leper” to stop lustful El Cojo. Though Jorge, representing industrial capitalism, is the bourgeois owner of the house given to him by his father, he’s clearly more generous than the average capitalist.

So, Jorge’s morality is a comfortable middle ground between Viridiana’s Catholic idealism and the reckless anarchism of the beggars. It’s like a Marxist sublation of the Christian thesis of an unattainable moral perfection, and its Makhnovist negation. This is the alternative morality Buñuel is proposing, and it’s a refreshing alternative to all the rubbish we’ve had thrown in our faces for so long.

Analysis of ‘L’Age d’Or’

L’Age d’Or is an hour-long French surrealist film made in 1930 by Luis Buñuel and written by him and Salvador Dalí. Since Buñuel had a falling out with right-wing leaning Dalí, his collaborator on Un Chien Andalou, leftist Buñuel was now free to finish this new movie by attacking the bourgeoisie and the Church as much as he liked.

The movie’s title, “The Golden Age,” is surely ironic given his attitude towards capitalism, then in a great state of crisis with the Great Depression, as well as with the rise of fascism in Italy, Germany, and his native Spain, where clashes between right-wing tradition and the left were soon to reach a boiling point.

Though not as famous as Un Chien Andalou, L’Age d’Or is nonetheless considered another landmark in surrealist cinema, and because of Buñuel’s liberation from the fascist-tending Dalí, this film perhaps deserves even more attention.

Here’s an interesting quote from the film, in English translation: “I have waited for a long time for him. What joy to have our children murdered!” –young girl, to her lover

As with Un Chien Andalou, L’Age d’Or is a set of vignettes that seem unrelated; if seen, however, as a series of free associations and dreams put up on the silver screen, one can play the role of psychoanalyst and link the apparently random visuals to show a coherent chain of themes, revealing the meaningful world of the unconscious.

Scorpions, crawling phalli that sting you with an ejaculation of death!

The film begins with a kind of short documentary on scorpions. These vicious, phallic, predatory arachnids–which attack with lightning speed, are unsociable, and prefer hiding in darkness to being seen in the light of day–set the tone of this film, with its themes of quick, impulsive violence and sudden deaths. Therefore, it shouldn’t be dismissed as an unintelligible opening to the film.

“Several hours later,” we see a beggar-soldier up high on the rocks of an inlet, watching some archbishops chanting among the rocks. (An instrumental rendition of Mozart‘s Ave Verum Corpus is playing; knowing Buñuel, the inclusion of this music, significantly excluding the Latin text, is ironic.) The man goes back to his hideout to tell his fellow beggar-soldiers that the Majorcans have arrived, so their leader (played by Max Ernst) tells them to get up and go fight them. Part of the scherzo of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is played during this scene; scherzo in Italian means, ‘joke,’ suggesting the pitiful condition of these beggar-soldiers.

Here we see a representation of the revolutionary proletariat, starving and weakened, yet ready to fight the bourgeoisie and Church authoritarianism. The archbishops are on the rocks, for the Church was built on a rock.

“And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter [Πέτρος], and upon this rock [πέτρα] I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)

The hardness of the inlet rocks suggest the stony rigidity of Church dogma, as opposed to the mystical peace of the sea, as I’ve described it elsewhere. Indeed, it’s easy for many to go from the heavenly bliss of having been ‘touched by God’ to the hell of being forced to obey the dictates of religious authority…a dialectical shift from freedom to slavery.

Upon these rocks, they’ve built their church.

This preoccupation with Peter, the Rock and the first Pope, is a statement on the establishment of the papacy, the head of the authoritarian hierarchy of the Church that Buñuel so despised. Hence the use of rocks and rocky ground as motifs in the film, as well as any variation on them and their hardness–mud (a mixture of water with loam, silt, or clay–tiny, granular rocks), dirt (tiny rocks and sand), statues of marble (limestone), brick buildings reduced to rubble, even the hard, rocky background of the warring scorpions. The clergy and bourgeois are our stinging human scorpions.

A fleet of boats carrying bourgeois arrives on the inlet, the people aboard disembark, and they go up and down the rocky hill (symbolically rising and descending a hierarchy) to meet with the chanting archbishops, who are now a group of skeletons. When Nietzsche’s message in Thus Spoke Zarathustra and The Gay Science has reached the ears of the ruling class, they carry on with their ceremonies as if God were still alive. After all, such religious authority is still politically useful.

As the bourgeois are about to begin their ceremony, they suddenly hear a woman’s scream of pleasure. They look over and see her and a man making love in the mud. They go over and separate the two lovers.

The two are fully clothed at the time, so what’s the problem? Oh, yes, we always forget: public expressions of affection aren’t to be encouraged in polite, bourgeois society, especially during a religious ceremony.

The man and woman, making love in the mud during the ceremony.

Since the man and woman aren’t married, their lovemaking is tantamount to adultery. The repeated frustrating of their attempts to be together reminds one of the myth of those fated adulterers, Tristan and Isolde: indeed, both when they’re separated, then reunited about twenty to thirty minutes later in the film, we hear Wagner‘s Liebestod

This urge to be together in love, a union constantly being thwarted in the film, represents capitalist alienation. Since Church hierarchy helps the ruling class keep the people in their place, it’s appropriate in this film to see the symbolism of the rocky Church juxtaposed with symbolism of the people’s plight.

The ceremony involves a huge brick as a symbol to commemorate the Church’s rule–that brick, a rectangular rock, essentially–a man-made rigidity. The removal of the young woman from the man’s arms is followed by a scene of her at home; then we see a toilet, we hear a flushing, then slimy mud slobbering on the ground, suggestive of diarrhea flushed away, just as his love has been flushed down the toilet by a prudish Church, an ecclesiastical excrement that projects its own filthiness onto others.

The movie narrates the establishment of the rock of the Church of “imperial Rome,” once a pagan dominion, now a Christian one. We communists know what to think about the imperial world, past and present.

The man (Gaston Modot), after his lover has been taken from him.

The present-day Rome of the movie shows us a number of odd but explicable visuals. A man walking out of a café brushes dirt off his suit jacket: as with the two muddy lovers, capitalist society and Church morality makes all ordinary people feel soiled and unclean.

“Sometimes, on Sunday,” we see the demolition of a few houses on a street. Families’ homes reduced to rubble, to a mess of rock: this is what Peter the Rock does to families and communities with his repressive religious authority, backed by the bourgeoisie. 

Recall Marx’s words: “On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form, this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among proletarians, and in public prostitution…Do you charge us with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To this crime we plead guilty.” (Marx, page 52)

A man walks on a sidewalk, kicking a violin, then smashing it under his shoe; the profit motive commodifies, cheapens, and ultimately destroys art.

The rock of St. Peter’s Church, weighing down on the heads of the people.

Elsewhere, in a park we see a statue of a man wearing a crucifix, holding a large book (presumably the Bible), and oddly, he has a long, flat, almost rectangular block of stone balancing on his head (reminding us a bit of the rectangular clay cube we saw during the religious ceremony). A man is passing by the statue with an almost identical rock balanced on his head. The rock of the Church rules over idealized religious figures, so naturally that rock will rule over the average man, too.

On the streets of Rome, we see the man being escorted by two agents. Separated from his love, he has already demonstrated an angry, aggressive, even violent disposition (kicking a small dog, stepping on an insect). This viciousness is what we all too often resort to when we’ve been denied love. Class antagonism makes scorpions of all of us.

WRD Fairbairn described this splitting of the personality with his replacement of Freud‘s id/ego/superego structure–a structure of pleasure-seeking drives,–with an object-seeking endopsychic structure. Fairbairn’s approximate equivalent to the id is  the Libidinal Ego, linked to an Exciting Object. In the film, we see this configuration whenever the escorted man stops at the sight of advertisements of such things as silk stockings, etc., which remind him of his lover.

Fairbairn replaced Freud’s ego with the Central Ego and Ideal Object: these are respectively represented in the film by the man and his beloved whenever they are together, for they represent an ideal relationship between two people in the real world. 

Fairbairn replaced the superego with something only vaguely similar, the Anti-libidinal Ego (originally, the Internal Saboteur) and its Rejecting Object. This configuration is the internalized part of us that hates and rejects others. We see this aspect of the man whenever he’s violent to others.

WRD Fairbairn, who replaced Freud’s id, ego, and superego with an object-seeking endopsychic personality structure: the Central Ego/Ideal Object, the Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object, and the Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object.

Lavinia Gomez, in An Introduction to Object Relations, explains that the “anti-libidinal ego is the split-off ego fragment that is bonded with the rejecting object. We can think of it as the ‘anti-wanting I’, the aspect of the self that is contemptuous of neediness. Rejection gives rise to unbearable anger, split off from the central self or ego [corresponding roughly to Freud’s ego, as explained above] and disowned by it. Fairbairn originally termed this element the ‘internal saboteur’, indicating that in despising rather than acknowledging our neediness, we ensure that we neither seek nor get what we want. The anti-libidinal ego/rejecting object configuration is the cynical, angry self which is too dangerously hostile for us to acknowledge. When it emerges from repression we may experience it as chaotic rage or hatred, sometimes with persecutory guilt.” (Gomez, p. 63-64)

For Fairbairn, a healthy libido seeks objects (i.e., people other than oneself, the subject), rather than seeking mere pleasure (as Freud had maintained); pleasure-seeking becomes a main pursuit only when there’s been a failure in object relationships. In Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality, Fairbairn elaborates: “…from the point of view of object-relationship psychology, explicit pleasure-seeking represents a deterioration of behaviour…Explicit pleasure-seeking has as its essential aim the relieving of the tension of libidinal need for the mere sake of relieving this tension. Such a process does, of course, occur commonly enough; but, since libidinal need is object-need, simple tension-relieving implies some failure of object-relationships.” (Fairbairn, p. 139-140)

When one cannot enjoy loving relationships with others (i.e., the Central Ego/Ideal Object configuration), one resorts either to mere pleasure-seeking (drugs, alcohol, prostitutes, pornography), a province of the Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object; or one becomes hostile, rejecting, and adversarial, the domain of the Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object.

Back to the movie. As the man is escorted down the street, he is confronted with, and momentarily mesmerized by, a number of advertisements: apart from their reminding him of his girl, they also represent our being manipulated by the allures of commodity fetishism and the media, a tried-and-true tactic used by the ruling classes to hypnotize us, and make us forget about taking our world back for our own rightful use.

The young woman (Lya Lys) the man yearns to be with again.

Erich Fromm once said in To Have Or to Be, “The puzzling question why contemporary human beings love to buy and to consume, and yet are so little attached to what they buy, finds its most significant answer in the marketing character phenomenon. The marketing characters’ lack of attachment also makes them indifferent to things. What matters is perhaps the prestige or the comfort that things give, but things per se have no substance. They are utterly expendable, along with friends or lovers, who are expendable, too, since no deeper tie exists to any of them.” (Fromm, page 34)

Back to the film. In the young woman’s home, she and her mother are planning a large party that evening. Some more incongruous, but explicable (in terms of Freudo-Marxism), things are seen. One of them is a cow on the young woman’s bed, which she shoos away. Apart from the cruel commodification of farm animals (especially in today’s world), we can see in the cow a representation of the Third World proletariat, always seen as animals from the bourgeois and First World perspective. We try to ignore their plight, and put them out of our sight…thus, out of mind. 

Other such odd scenes include, during the party, a large horse-drawn wagon going across a large room filled with guests in tuxedos and evening gowns. Later, a maid screams leaving a fire in the kitchen. The guests show no interest in either of these strange occurrences, which represent how the ruling class refuses to acknowledge the very existence, therefore also the suffering (for existence is suffering, according to the Buddhists), of workers and peasants. The girl’s father has flies on his face: the bourgeois pretend to be above us, but underneath it all, they are filthier than we could ever be.

Back on the streets, the man manages to get rid of the two men escorting him by showing them a document proving he’s a member of ‘the international goodwill society.’ We see a memory of his, when he has been assigned a mission from this society to protect the men, women, and children of his ‘Fatherland.’ He speaks of his mission to the two agents in a visibly insincere tone, as if making fun of the mission; this suggests that this is his False Self, a socially acceptable front he puts on so he can mix in capitalist society…however unwilling he is to do it.

The cow in the young woman’s house.

The insincerity of his commitment to this mission is evident (as it will be again, later) when he hails a taxi near a blind man, leaves the agents, and just before getting into the cab, kicks the blind man. Here we see a fusion of Freud’s moralistic superego, which inspires hypocrisy, with the antisocial nastiness of Fairbairn’s Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object configuration.

The man arrives at the party in a clean, new suit, and he’s delighted to see his love there. The Anti-libidinal Ego in him, however, causes him to be rude to some of the other guests, him brusquely shooing them away or grudgingly tolerating them, as he does her mother, for a while. The ruling classes reject the poor, and they often reject each other, so bad is capitalist alienation in our society.

This alienation extends even to family relationships (recall the quote above, from The Communist Manifesto). Outside the house, we see an armed man and his son, a little boy. At first, they seem affectionate, but then a small prank by the boy provokes his scorpion father to shoot him, to sting him with the phallic rifle. Similarly, back inside the house, one would expect the amorous man to want to get the good graces of the mother of the woman he loves; but a mere spilling of wine on his clothes, from a glass the kind old lady gets for him, provokes his Anti-libidinal Ego to slap her. The scorpion in him strikes again!

Finally, he and the girl go outside to have some time alone together (for they are as antisocial as the scorpions), to get away from all the other pesky guests, who go elsewhere outside to hear an orchestra perform the Liebestod…appropriate music for the two lovers.

‘Tristan,’ as it were, sucking on those clitoral fingers.

Their lovemaking includes sucking on each other’s fingers, which are symbolic of genitalia. Indeed, this scene is like a non-pornographic version of the sixty-nine position. This mutual introjection/projection of digits also suggests their wish to be at one with each other, physically and spiritually. In other words, their desire for each other is much deeper than mere lust. 

Yet again, our twentieth century Tristan and Isolde are frustrated in their efforts to be together when a man comes over and tells ‘Tristan’ he has a telephone call. Annoyed, he leaves her to receive the call. 

Meanwhile, she–her Central Ego being deprived of its Ideal Object–begins fellating the phallic toes of a nearby statue, her Libidinal Ego getting off on an Exciting Object. When we lose human relationships, we’re reduced to using things, including things that have an idealized human form, like the statue, or like objectified pornographic models, who today are photoshopped so consummately, we see no bodily imperfections.

‘Tristan’ is in Anti-libidinal Ego mode again, the dialectical opposite of his lover, and on the phone, he’s being barked at by the Rejecting Object, the man from ‘the international goodwill society.’ He’s angry with ‘Tristan’ for his dereliction of duty, for having neglected his mission to protect the people.

‘Isolde,’ as it were, performing fellatio on a statue’s toes.

When the angry caller, the minister of the interior and head of “the international goodwill society,” is complaining about the deaths of the people, we see an army of people rushing in to a city area and causing the death and destruction. Should we connect this violence with the beggar-soldiers towards the beginning of the film, those weakened men who go off to fight the arriving Majorcan bourgeois? Is this violence, from which ‘Tristan’ was supposed to defend the people, actually a proletarian revolution? Were ‘the people’ actually bourgeois?

As a surrealist film, L’Age d’Or can be considered more dreams projected onto the silver screen, as Un Chien Andalou and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie were. Thus, it can be seen as Freudian wish-fulfillment for Buñuel; and so this violence, which so upsets the bourgeois telephone caller, can represent the insurrection of a strengthened working class, led by a revolutionary vanguard of the kind that defeated the Nazis, rather than the weakened beggar-soldiers from earlier, men who seem more like the anarchists of Catalonia, who weren’t strong enough to fight off Franco’s fascism.

‘Tristan’ no longer wishes to listen to the caller. He yanks the telephone cord off the wall, and so leaves without letting the caller finish the conversation. The screen is black and void for a few seconds, we hear a gunshot; then we see the caller’s shoes on the floor, then his dead body (after having shot himself in the head)…on the ceiling.

As with Hitler’s suicide, this is how those at the top die: never wishing to come down to the level of the people, they destroy themselves, for all they are is a black void of nothingness without the backing of the masses.

The bourgeois at the top ultimately destroy themselves.

‘Tristan’ returns to ‘Isolde,’ and we hear more of the Liebestod. They hold each other, and we can see their love is more than merely physical. Though they’re as bourgeois as all the others at the party, they feel stifled by the capitalist system, too. They don’t want to have to keep maintaining the system; they just want to be together. He shows uncharacteristic tenderness to her, asking if she’s cold; for the moment, he isn’t a scorpion.

They’re now, if only momentarily, in a mentally healthy state. Their Central Egos are enjoying each other’s Ideal Objects, a proper relation with the external world, rather than the unhealthy, inner phantasy world of splitting, the world of the Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object configuration, or that of the Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object.

Though Fairbairn’s reworking of Freud’s id/ego/superego structure wouldn’t come until about twenty years after L’Age d’Or was made, we can still see how Fairbairn’s theories can explain the actions, thoughts, and feelings of the man and woman.

When she speaks of the joy of having murdered their children, and when we see blood all over his face, as he says, “Mon amour,” we can interpret the ‘murdered children’ and blood as their ridding of, and projection of, their bad internal objects, those ‘children’ they created in their minds, which caused the lovers to replace each other with Exciting Objects to suck on the toes of, or Rejecting Objects to do violence to.

Finally reunited with his love, he can release his bad internal objects, symbolized by blood on his face. His wounds are thus, paradoxically, a symbol of his emotional healing.

The conductor of the Liebestod gets a headache and has to stop the performance (understandable: he’s been playing the interminable, syrupy chromaticism of Wagner). Holding his head in agony, he walks out of the performing area, leaves the audience, and finds the garden where the lovers are.

The girl sees the aching old man and feels compassion for him; but this is a misguided pity, for it’s directed at someone she doesn’t know, making her abandon her lover, who should have all of her attention at the moment. Fromm had some relevant points about this kind of situation:

“In this situation there is one other thing we do: we are sentimental. Sentimentality is feeling under the condition of complete detachment...You have feelings, but you do not refer really, concretely to something that is the reality. You are sentimental. Your feelings overflow. They appear somewhere…They are stimulation words, which make you weep, which make you howl, which make you do anything, and yet it is a performance in which the feeling is not really related to something with which you are concerned, but which is an empty thing.” (Fromm, page 31)

The young man, overcome with jealousy at seeing his lover go over to the conductor and kiss him, is furious. He gets up and hits his head on an overhanging flowerpot, making him hold his head in pain as the conductor is. We hear drums playing a military beat in triple time, suggestive of wartime aggression, and expressive of his anger. He leaves the garden, goes into the house and into a bedroom on an upper floor. He grabs random things and throws them out the window: a burning fir tree, a bishop, a plow, the bishop’s staff, a giraffe statue, and pillow feathers.

The jealous lover, his mind in the Anti-libidinal Ego mode, grabs onto a phallic plow, symbolic of the libidinal desire he’s rejecting.

This splitting of the lovers symbolizes the split in the personality when the search for healthy object relations is frustrated. The Central Ego/Ideal Object (‘Tristan’ and ‘Isolde’) configuration gives way to, on the one side, the Libidinal Ego (‘Isolde’) and the Exciting Object (the conductor), and on the other side, the Anti-libidinal Ego (‘Tristan’) and the Rejecting Object (everything he throws out the window, largely phallic symbols–a rejection of his erotic desire to be with her–and symbols of the Church that Buñuel hated so much).

Finally, the last vignette of the film takes us from Rome to Paris, on the last of the 12o Days of Sodom (of which Sade‘s novel, by the way, took place in the Black Forest). We’ve encountered the oppositions between the Libidinal and Anti-libidinal Egos, and between the life (e.g. sex) and death drives (as explored in my two previous Buñuel analyses); now we see these oppositions dialectically fused in the sexual sadism of the four libertines, as graphically depicted in Sade’s most notorious novel.

The duc de Blangis walks out of the Château de Silling (Selliny, as given in the film’s subtitles) on a snowy, wintery day at the end of February. Oddly, his long dark hair and beard, white-robed attire, and ‘pious’ manner make him look like Christ, the dialectical opposite of the sadist of the novel. This is obviously another of Buñuel’s attacks on the hypocrisy and abuses of the Church.

One of the eight female victims of the libertines also emerges from the castle, with blood on her chest (in Sade’s novel, there are eight girls and eight boys as victims, as well as the libertines’ four daughters, who are also sexually abused). Blangis goes back to her, seeming to comfort her (representing the outside display of the Church’s love for its flock), then takes her back inside the castle, the Hell of her torments. We hear her scream (representing the inside, hidden reality of historical Church abuses, including the largely unpunished sexual abuse).

The Duke of Jesus…er, Blangis.

Blangis comes back outside, but now he’s beardless. His beard was a mask of virtue; with it removed, his wickedness is revealed–he has a frown of shame on his face. The loss of his hair also reminds one of Samson‘s lost source of strength; knowledge of the Church’s crimes weakens it. All this time, we’ve heard the banging of military drums, suggestive of war and death…an appropriate juxtaposition with a corrupt Church.

The film ends with the sight of scalps of hair hanging on a cross, blasphemously transforming it into a phallus with symbolic pubic hair. The Church is a stinging, phallic scorpion. The jaunty, merry music heard during this display adds to its absurdity.

Just as Martin Luther advised us to laugh at the devil, Buñuel advises us to laugh at the absurdity of the demonic Church; for there is nothing that makes the Church so angry as when we attack it to its face, and tell it that through dialectical materialism, we are more than a match for it.

How are we more than a match for Church and capitalist authoritarianism? Those scalps, hanging on the cross and blowing in the wind, seem to be those of six of the victims. As the loss of Blangis’s beard suggests a loss of his power, the accumulation of scalp hair, that of his victims, suggests the rise of the oppressed, Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, but in materialist form. We suffer, we rise, then we conquer. The scorpions that stung before will now be stung. The bourgeois will lie dead on the ceiling of their arrogance.

Analysis of ‘Un Chien Andalou’

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.

The man in the nun’s habit, riding a bicycle.

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 androgynous woman, holding the man’s box.

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.

The man (Batcheff) and woman (Mareuil) watch the androgynous woman, 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).

The man attempts to rape the woman while carrying his unconscious ‘baggage,’ if you will.

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)

Two seminarists (Dali on the right) being dragged by the man in his attempt to rape the woman.

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.)

The man, in his nun-habit again, lying in bed.

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.

Pierre Batcheff, the ‘id-man,’ as I’m calling him.

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.

The ouroboros can symbolize the dialectic: the bitten tail is the thesis, the biting head is the negation of that thesis, and the coiled length of the serpent’s body–symbolizing a circular continuum of everything between the extremes of the biting at the top–is the sublation.

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.

The woman and her boyfriend on the beach in the final scene.

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!

The razor rapes her eye, as the passing cloud rapes the moon.

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

‘Heavy Splash,’ a Horror Short Story

[Trigger Warning: some sexual content of a disturbing nature.]

Ayumi Suzuki shouldn’t have been driving. She was about to peak on a combination of ecstasy, ketamine, and acid as she, naked, drove out of the front yard of the country home where the party was still in full swing that summer night. The other partiers, her associates in the porn industry, were too wasted themselves to notice her having sneaked out after a trip to the bathroom…not that they cared. ‘Yummy Sucky’— her stage name—was important to them only insofar as she made money for them. The waves of her thoughts rose and fell like this:

I’ve got to get out of there! I’m just too high. I love to party, but they just don’t know when to stop. All those pills. All that snorting. All that fucking. I’ll die if I keep doing drugs in there. I washed the come off my face and left immediately after. I didn’t even bother to get my clothes. I’m surprised—and lucky—none of Phil’s musclemen stopped me from leaving. I may be naked and stoned, but at least I got away from them. It’s safer to leave now, and to risk it on the road, than to stay, and risk letting them just get crazier and crazier with me, till they kill me. Gotta escape…escape…Drive, drive far away…just keep driving…

She was driving alone down a gravel road lined with trees on both sides. Besides what little light the half moon and stars were giving overhead, her high beams were augmented by the dazzle the drugs were flashing in her eyes.

Are those trees I’m driving past…or are they people, blacks with their hair dyed green? They all look like punk rocker clones of Leon, one of the porno studs who were just fucking me in that bedroom. Man, am I ever stoned!

Her little car was swaying left to right, but mostly staying on the gravel. The tires crushed the bordering grass during the extremes of three sways. Her head was swaying all the more from the mental massage of the high she was now peaking on.

Great party! A way-too-crazy one, but a great one! I’m really fucking high. Now that I’m away from all those fuckers, I can just relax and enjoy my high. Leaving them was kinda like leaving home in Sacramento. I’m so glad I left my parents’ home to live this party life, here in Washington State. I don’t always know which way I’m going, but I’m glad I left that hell of a house back in California last year. Escape…the great escape…I just drove and drove…got far, far away from them…I just kept on driving…

Going through the forest, she took a wrong turn to the right, and then went down an inclining dirt road. She thought she was still on the right path, even though it was a bumpy, downhill one. The descent made her want to slow down, which of course was a good thing. If only she’d been willing to stop.

The road doesn’t seem level anymore. I don’t remember going up or down any hills on the way to Phil’s house. Must be the drugs making me think I’m going downhill.

She was tingling all over from the ecstasy, and the drugs made her vision too blurry to see the difference in roads. The tingles cancelled out the bumpy feel of the road so well that she hadn’t noticed the end of the smoothness beneath her tires, either; the drugs she was on were better than the best of shock absorbers. The darkness of the overhanging trees was beginning to envelope her. There was a small spot of light at the bottom of the incline, where the dirt road was leading to God-knew-what, a kind of light at the end of the tunnel.

Is this a straw I’m looking through, with pure, white cocaine at the bottom, waiting to be sniffed up my lucky nose, or am I driving through a tunnel? Yes, it’s a tunnel! How did I get from the forest to a tunnel? I don’t remember there being a tunnel anywhere on the road from my place to Phil’s house.

Indeed, her high was making her think she was driving through a tunnel at the moment, with a grey glow at the far end. The trees—or the greenish-brown curved tunnel walls, as they looked to her—were rippling like the waves of a serene lake, a peaceful escape from the smut business.

So I’m doing porn now: so what? As a twenty-year-old who didn’t finish college (I’m so glad I dropped out—I’m sick of school!), I didn’t have many other options after running away from home; but even if I had, why should I be ashamed of fucking in front of a camera? I’m freely exploring my sexuality: what’s wrong with a girl doing that? At least I’m not chained to a desk anymore, always pressured to get next-to-perfect grades for my parents. I do whatever I want now. I get high whenever I want. I escaped from home…I just need to escape from the partying and the sex, for a while…Just keep on driving, far, far away…

She drove down to where that light was, and came out from the trees. Dots of blurry light flashed in her eyes: was it the stars, or was it the drugs? Still peaking on her high, every inch of her body sizzling with pleasure, she didn’t notice how the road had ended, and she was now driving slowly on a long wooden pier, one wide and sturdy enough to support the weight of her car, but leading into the middle of a lake—one with as many cans, plastic bags, and chocolate bar wrappers as there were dead fish. For a moment, she stared at the dark spaces between the planks of wood on the pier. The spaces were going straight ahead, in the direction she was driving.

The dirt road looks different. Why are there straight, black lines on the light brown dirt? Are they lines of black cocaine, all chopped up for me to snort on a wooden table? Is there such a thing as black cocaine? I’ll bet black blow gives a freaky buzz. Still, no way! No more drugs for me, thank you. Is that dirt I’m driving on, or is it wood? The sides are black and wavy: where’s the grass? Wait a minute: everything is wavy. Where’s the road?

The car swayed left and right, almost going off the side at one point. To her eyes, that sturdy pier seemed to be as wobbly as the waves of the lake, as did the swaying trees. Everything seemed to be an ocean, as if she were underwater: there was no sense of separation or distinction between her and her environment, or between anything around her…it was almost primordial Chaos, a dark world of death, before the creation of the universe, before the pain of life had even begun, as waste and void as her mind was wasted and void. It was beautiful. Her spirit was about to hover over the face of the waters. No, everything already was water, and she was in it, Ayumi, a drop of water mixed in with her surroundings, indistinct from them.

I’m free now, I’m out of the darkness and into the light: it’s like having found Jesus, and dying with Him on the wooden rood, the Word at the beginning of time; unlike in Mom’s and Dad’s church, those hypocrites and their phoney, conniving pastors. The family preacher never helped me when I complained about Mommy’s and Daddy’s coldness when I was a child, always pushing me to slave away at school, and never letting me have any fun.

Though she was driving slower and slower, she was too stoned to notice how the edge of that pier was getting close.

Well, I’m twenty years old now, and I can go wherever I want, do whatever I want. Neither Mom nor Dad can stop me. No one can stop me. I hate the family’s posing as ‘respectable’ Japanese-Americans, the way they carry on the social lie about us as the good, Christian, Suzuki family, with their religion, a drug for the masses, and my only drug to ease my suffering when I was still living with them. Oh, what bullshit! But I got far, far away from them. I have much better drugs now. I just need a break from Phil and the porn moviemakers, and from the sex, for the moment. I just have to keep driving, driving to safety…

She didn’t even notice herself drive off the end of the pier: it was as if she were going down another dirt road incline. Her car plunged into the lake. The water, fanning out in all directions around the front of her car, was like a great flash of light blinding her. Because everything had been waves in front of her eyes, the sight of undulating water outside her car wasn’t a surprise to her.

Am I being baptized? Yes! I’m being bathed in holiness and redemption.

The car sank diagonally into the water as if it were quicksand, for there was such a mountain of junk dumped into the lake, it managed to slow the car down. The window to her car door, to the left of the driver’s seat, was open by an inch or so. As the dirty water poured through and splashed all over her, she turned her head towards it, letting it splash all over her face. She smirked as she got soaked.

It’s like my last bukkake film. I had so much come all over my face, my mouth, my nose, it was hard to breathe. My director, Phil, got so mad at me for ruining the scene when I asked for help, instead of giggling like the little slut he wanted me to act like. Why couldn’t he just help me? Nobody helped me. I thought I was going to die!

She moved her head back to the front to face the windshield, and took a breath while looking through it. It was so dark out there. She couldn’t see any kind of road. Instead, the outside looked like a forest of giant fungi, dark green mushrooms the size of trees, swaying left to right. She blinked her eyes, still too dazed to be thinking about the water filling up in her car, already a pool with her feet submerged.

What are those orange things floating about? They look like…are they dead fish? No, they can’t be. This is one intense high. Am I no longer driving? Am I dreaming? Am I in an aquarium? I sure am far, far away now. My head is swimming: is my body swimming? What’s with all this water? Why is it so dark outside?

The car thudded against something and stopped moving. Her head jerked forward, almost hitting the dashboard. It was a good thing she had her seatbelt on.

Did I hit something? What is that in front of me?

Some dark, thick mass had bumped against the windshield, cracking the glass slightly. For a second, the thick mass looked like a giant, fidgeting, black octopus, about to wrap its swaying tentacles all over her.

Are those Leon’s hands on my arms? Are we filming another fuck scene? No!

Then she looked again, and saw what looked like a large tree stump. Actually, it was a thick branch, and another, thicker and stronger branch, one parallel to the first, was under the car, holding it in its diagonal position. More dead fish, and the corpses of one or two frogs, were floating by the ajar window, through the top of which the water was pouring in like a waterfall. The water in the car had risen to her knees now.

I’m cold. Now I wish I’d grabbed my dress. Why am I so wet?

She looked to her left, and felt the dirty water splashing on her face again. As it went all over her nose and mouth, she looked out the ajar window and saw a frog’s corpse almost slipping in: its front limbs, having slipped past the glass, were fluttering at her, as if wanting to touch her face. The limbs were inches away from her nose. She could see the frog’s face seeming to stare right into her eyes. She blinked her eyes, and for a second she thought she saw…

Are those my father’s hands reaching out to slap me, the way they did whenever he saw me not studying?

She jerked her head away, shook it for a few seconds, and looked back at the windshield.

No, that can’t be Daddy. I’m far away from him now. This trip is getting just too intense for me. I’m seeing things.

She looked back at the window, blinked and tried to focus. She saw the frog. She sighed with relief, swatted at it to make it float away, and looked back to her front.

I knew it. It wasn’t Daddy. When will that bastard get out of my head? Can’t I just enjoy my high in peace?

The water was a swirling mix of turquoise, brown, orange, and yellow. The face of a large, grey, dead fish approached the windshield, its wide-open mouth kissing the glass. For a second, it looked like a shark about to attack: she saw huge, sharp teeth shining from its widening jaws. She jerked her head, looked again, and saw just the fish. She let out a heavy sigh, and waited for her pounding heart to slow down. As she calmed down, she focused on the waves of pleasure her high’s massage was giving her brain.

Please, no more scary sights. Just let me enjoy my high.

Indeed, her whole body was vibrating, undulating with her high. Had it not been for the scary surroundings, it would have been the best feeling she’d ever had in her life. It was as if she were at one with the water: the boundary between her and her soaking surroundings was as blurred as her vision. It was like death, an annihilation of her ego, but it was also a beautiful oneness. It was peaceful, an end to her suffering. She was one with the waves of the world.

Am I taking a shower? This is like that time three months ago, when we did that film and I fucked that white stud, Jim Johnson, in the shower. I was on really good ecstasy the day we filmed that scene, too, almost as good as the ecstasy I’m on now.

She saw that fish head again, and for a second, it looked like her father’s face. She shook at the sight of it.

Oh! Wait, no, it isn’t Dad yelling at me. That reminds me of when Mom and Dad caught me with a small bag of marijuana in my purse, which my nosy aunt found. I’m so glad I don’t live with my family anymore. I’m safe now, far away from them. It’s good to drive away, to escape from the pain.

The pressure against the windshield caused it to crack into longer crooked lines. The crack was like a giant, emaciated, white spider, wanting to crawl inside the car and onto her face. She thought she saw glowing eyes in the center of the crack, the ‘head’ of the spider.

Ooh! That isn’t a spider, is it? I hate spiders, especially big ones.

Her mind was taken off of the ‘spider’ when a set of six-pack rings, whose plastic had disintegrated somewhat, leaving only two distinct rings, darkened by dirt, slipped through the window crack and landed on her hands. She looked down at them. They looked like grey handcuffs.

Am I doing another bondage film? Phil promised me he’d never make me do that again! Well, he makes a lot of promises he doesn’t keep…bastard. He—Phil Sakamoto—kind of looks like my Dad.

The six-pack rings were washed off her hands by the continuous influx of filthy water, which she was way too stoned to give serious thought to. She looked back down at her hands.

Oh? The handcuffs are gone. Good. Wow, I guess Phil does keep his promises sometimes. Hey, what’s that slapping me?

A few skinny dead black fish slipped through the opening in the side window and slapped against her left cheek as the water continued to pour in. She was up to her waist in water now.

Is that a tree branch in front of me? Where am I? What keeps swatting my left cheek? Something long and black. Is it Leon’s dick slapping my face after I blew him? It sure feels that way. He was doing that at the party tonight, wasn’t he? I hate it when he does that during filming, but when Phil tells us to do a scene a certain way, we have to do as we’re told. I’ll bet Leon likes swatting my face with his cock. Asshole!

The windshield cracked again. That ‘spider’ was growing into a monster, looking like a nuclear mutation. The acid she was peaking on made the ‘spider’ seem to move. For a second or two, the spider seemed to be crawling a bit, then stopping and watching her. Those glowing grey eyes she saw seemed to be staring right into her soul. She jumped at the sight of them, then looked again, and realized the ‘spider’ was just a crack in the glass. The relief wasn’t reassuring, though, for the darkness and freaky visuals were ruining what could have been an amazing buzz.

Oh, shit! I hate spiders. I really didn’t need that hallucination.

The water was up to her belly now. Was she vibrating from her high, or shivering from the cold? The dead black fish were floating in a circle around her, almost touching her skin. She looked down at them, and thought she was wearing some kind of chain around her waist, links of black rotating around her.

Has Phil chained me to a wall? I guess I’m doing a bondage film again, after all. I hate him. What’s that pouring on my head? Is he having someone piss on me again?

She looked back up at the windshield, then back down at her waist. The black fish had floated away.

Oh, wait, I’m not chained up—good. But what’s that smell? Piss? Dead animals? I’m really fuckin’ high, like that time I was snorting cocaine at that other party last week, and I heard Phil and Jim talking about climate change. Jim was warning about the dangers of pollution and shit like that. Phil ignored him, said it’s a liberal myth made up so the government can tax us and interfere with our lives more. I tend to agree with Phil. My dad never believed what the environmentalists say: I hate Phil and Daddy, but I agree with them about that.

Some of the filthy water got in her mouth. She spat it out and coughed.

Did Jim just piss in my mouth?

She looked to her left, but didn’t see Jim’s dick.

No, it isn’t him; but fuck him and his green politics, anyway. Fuck Mother Nature. She’s a whore, like the whore my misfortunes made me into. My mother’s nature was never any kinder to me than Daddy was; she always ignored my childhood need for hugs and love, instead barking at me to finish my homework. Fuck Mother Nature. Fuck everything. We’re all going to die one day, anyway. Death is beautiful. Death is escape. Getting away, far away. Finding peace of mind. We’re all polluted, and we can never un-pollute ourselves. There’s no hope for redemption. Just die, and escape from it all.

The windshield cracked again, making a small hole through which water sprayed like a shower nozzle on her face.

What’s that? More bukkake? Or another shower fuck scene we’re filming? Damn, why am I so wet? This is such good ketamine! It’s as if something terrible is happening to me, but I feel perfectly safe from it. It’s like I’m shielded in armor, or in an electric field of energy, or something. Flashing rays of light are shooting out in all directions around my eyes. Nothing can hurt me, though everything is trying to. I see horrors before my eyes, death everywhere, but a bubble of protection will keep me safe. I’m too high to care, anyway.

The water level was up to her breasts now. Her nipples were freezing and erect.

Am I in a swimming pool? I did a porno shoot in a swimming pool a month ago. I was swimming around, then Leon walked by the poolside naked, his big black dick pointing at me, then I came out of the pool, as naked as he was. Then we fucked. His dick is too big, but I was high on ketamine, so I didn’t feel the pain during the filming. I sure was sore afterwards. Still, I’m not complaining. Fun times!

The water was up to her neck now.

As bad and Phil and his boys get, at least it’s not like life at home in Sacramento, being repressed by my parents after they’d taken me to church services, when the preacher warned of the kind of sins that led to the Great Flood, sinning that Daddy ignored in himself–with his hands on me–even as he punished me for my imperfections, and the pastors ignored my cries for help. Bastards! And when I complained to the preachers about my parents’ strictness, they said that potheads deserve to be treated with strictness! And they all talk of God’s love and forgiveness. Hypocrites, all of them!

The glass of the windshield finally broke. Shattered pieces of glass flew at her face, cutting tiny holes in her cheeks. Tiny pieces of plastic, like scattered rice, but glowing because of the drugs, were flying at her face, too. The tree branch’s jagged front hit her in the face like a fist, giving her a nosebleed. All her blood got diluted in the water that was enveloping her, swirling about her face like fumes from marijuana cigarettes, only they were red.

Who punched me? Was it Daddy, after he caught me in my room smoking pot, the day before I left home? Was it Leon, after I finished blowing him? I remember Phil wanting him to do that, but I refused to let him. Phil is such an asshole sometimes. My jaw gets so sore from blowing Leon’s big cock. Speaking of blow, is this cocaine going up my nose, or is it more bukkake? Sometimes it feels like a glass powder, sometimes it feels like…water…water turned to red wine by Jesus…

She blacked out. Deep black. A far, far away kind of black. It was a bottomless pit of black, like Jonah going into the mouth of the great fish. She phased into unconsciousness, a place where the border between unconsciousness and death was blurred…a peaceful place, beyond the pairs of opposites, those of life and death…shifting back and forth between those opposites…like…waves…

Am I awake? Am I…dreaming? I can’t breathe. The water…is beautiful. Red. Is it wine? Are those…dead, pink fish…floating about me, or are they…severed cocks, Jim’s and Leon’s, after I…bit them off, with their blood…flowing everywhere? I’d sure…like to bite them off. Phil’s, too. I had to…get away from them, far away. Too many drugs, too much fucking, too much sucking, too much partying. It was fun, but it was…dangerous fun. I ran out…of the house, completely naked, with…only my car keys…I had to…get out…of there. I thought I’d…die there.

The line between life and death was, for her, like the surface of the ocean, rippling up and down, up and down…

But out here, dying is better. It’s beautiful…to die. It’s like sleeping. Dreaming. Escaping. No more abuse. No more being…exploited by Phil. No more pain, no more filth…polluting my body. No more drugs…to fuck my head up. If my…body isn’t…getting fucked…my mind is…This is better…Just sleeping, forever. Escaping the world. Getting away…from the filth. The Great Flood, washing away…the sin of the world. With the end…comes a new beginning…a new creation. I’ve found…redemption…through blood…Christ’s blood. Peace. Feeding me…with fish, the Jesus fish. All I’ve…ever wanted…to do…is to get away…to drive away, far away from all the…

Analysis of ‘Caligula’

Introduction

Caligula is an erotic historical drama film made in 1979, based on the rise and fall of Gaius Caesar, and starring Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud, Helen Mirren, Teresa Ann Savoy, Paolo Bonacelli, Guido Mannari (his English dub voice done by Patrick Allen), and John Steiner. It was produced by Bob Guccione for Penthouse magazine, in an attempt to fuse a feature film narrative, with high production values, with the explicit, unsimulated sex scenes of pornographic films.

Gore Vidal produced a screenplay for the film, for which Tinto Brass was the original director, but both of them disowned the film after constant fighting and a falling out. Guccione added hardcore pornographic content, which with the violence of many scenes resulted in a film that created a storm of controversy on its release. Accordingly, the uncut movie was, and still is, banned in many countries.

Here are some quotes from the film:

“I have existed from the morning of the world and I shall exist until the last star falls from the night. Although I have taken the form of Gaius Caligula, I am all men as I am no man, and therefore I am a god.” –Caligula (McDowell)

Caligula: Tell me, how is the emperor?

Nerva (Gielgud): Old, like me.

Caligula: I mean, how is his mood?

Nerva: Like the weather.

Caligula: The weather is good today!

Nerva: Changeable.

*********

Caligula: You are a god, lord.

Tiberius (O’Toole): No I’m not, not even when I am dead.

Caligula: Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar, they are gods.

Tiberius: So say the senate, and so the people prefer to believe. Such myths are useful.

*********

Nerva: For a man to choose the hour of his own death is the closest he will ever come to tricking fate, and fate decrees that when you die, Macro will kill me.

Tiberius: I’ll arrest him and have him executed.

Nerva: You can’t. He controls you. [Looks at Caligula] Anyway, even with Macro dead, how could I go on living with this reptile?

*********

“If only all Rome had just one neck!” –Caligula

“You see how I have exhausted myself to make your wedding holy. My blessings to you both.” –Caligula, after raping Livia and fisting her groom, Proculus

“As if there ever could be an antidote against Caesar!” –Caligula, after having Gemellus arrested for treason (because the boy’s breath smelled of medicine…a poison antidote?)

*********

Caesonia (Mirren): They hate you now.

Caligula: Let them hate me, so long as they fear me.

Caesonia: They are senators and consuls. They are important men.

Caligula: So important that they approve all I do? They must be mad. I don’t know what else to do to provoke them.

Despite Caligula now being a cult classic, as well as the performances of McDowell, O’Toole, Gielgud, and Mirren being praised, it always has been critically derided…which leads me to my next point…

Why Analyze Caligula, of all Films?

Normally, I write up film or literary analyses of classics, or works otherwise considered ‘great’ in some sense. Now, I’m about to analyze something of the (dialectical?) opposite: a film widely considered among the worst ever made.

Why? Have I, like the Gaius Caesar of legend and rumour, flipped my lid? Am I ascribing immortal, divine status to a film generally deemed a monstrous travesty, like the man the movie’s about? I’ll answer the last two questions in reverse order: no, and I certainly hope not.

As for the first question, here is my answer. There’s something about the movie, in spite of (or rather, because of) its many flaws, that makes it a perfect representation of today’s political world.

I’m going beyond the obvious theme of the corruption of power, as well as beyond a rationalization that the pornographic aspects of the film symbolize the obscenity of all this political corruption. My point is that this movie is a sensationalization of the crueller moments of history for the sake of titillation, the same way much of the reporting of current events is meant more to entertain than to inform. These shocks are a distraction from the real evil of class antagonisms, past and present.

You’ve heard of ‘fake news.’ Now, let’s read about fake history.

An Ahistorical Historical Drama

Any serious historian knows that Tiberius and Caligula, as bad and hated as they were during and immediately following their reigns, were nonetheless nowhere near as depraved, perverted, or mad as they are portrayed in the writings of Tacitus and Suetonius, the latter’s Twelve Caesars especially being, in my opinion at least, little more than glorified gossip. So when Guccione (in the documentary ‘Making of Caligula‘) tried to justify the excesses in his film as necessary to give an “historically accurate” portrayal of the wickedness of these two emperors, you know he was being as ignorant as he was being pretentious.

Now, this Penthouse production was of course not the first one to take Tacitus and Suetonius at their word. The author of I, Claudius, Robert Graves, was known for his scholarly but mischievous renderings of historical events; when he wrote the historical novel (and its sequel, Claudius the God), while he tried his best to remain true to the narrative of Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio, he also felt free to invent wherever the historical record was doubtful. The dramatically superb (though low-budget) BBC miniseries of 1976 that was based on his books sometimes played fast and loose with the history in ways that went beyond even Graves’s own indulgences (compare Graves, page 342, to the end of this I, Claudius episode).

Let’s now consider the excesses that Caligula and Tiberius have been accused of. First, the notion that Caligula committed incest with his sisters, especially Drusilla, is highly doubtful. Roman historians often slandered the emperors they hated with claims of sexual perversity or madness.

Young Gaius grew up watching his family members taken from him, one by one: his father, Germanicus, died when Caligula was a boy; his mother, Agrippina, was banished by Tiberius to the island of Pandateria, where she starved herself to death (G.P. Baker, page 277); his brother, Nero, was also banished (to Ponza), and his brother, Drusus, was imprisoned for treason and left there to starve to death, reduced to chewing the stuffing of his bed (Baker, page 276). Gaius’ sisters were all he had left of his immediate family–it’s only natural that he’d have been more than usually close to them, but in the normal, loving sense. Anything beyond such closeness is gossip.

“With his brothers and parents dead, and without a compatible wife, it might be expected that Caligula would have looked for affection from his three sisters. The enormous favours that he heaped on them at the beginning of his reign had a political purpose, but they also suggest considerable affection within the family. It was doubtless this affection that led to the stories of incest with all three sisters. Such reports are to be treated with scepticism. Suetonius claims that Caligula was actually caught with Drusilla when they were staying at Antonia‘s house, but admits that the story was hearsay. Neither Seneca nor Philo, contemporaries of Caligula who both adopt a highly moral tone, make any mention of incest. Also when Tacitus deals with Agrippina‘s incestuous designs on her son, the emperor Nero, he makes no hint of any improper relationship with her brother–although the context was certainly appropriate–and attributes her moral corruption to her association with Lepidus. The charge of incest has been traditionally levelled against despots, from antiquity to Napoleon.” (Barrett, page 85)

Tiberius was accused of being a lecherous old goat of a man, yielding to such vices as child molestation. Again, it’s mere rumour, with Suetonius giving all kinds of salacious details (Suetonius, ‘Tiberius’ 43-45). The fact is, old Tiberius lived out the remainder of his years on the isle of Capri, unmarried (Augustus forced him to divorce his beloved Vipsania to marry Julia [Baker, page 51], from whom he later separated [page 66]) and alone, brooding over his son Drusus‘ murder by two-faced Sejanus (Baker, pages 268-269), among the few people whom Tiberius had once trusted; the emperor even called Sejanus “the partner of my labours” (Tacitus, pages 157-197). He should have been in Rome, managing the affairs of state: what was the old man doing on Capri? Behaving as some lechers do with underage girls in Thailand and Cambodia today?

Was Caligula’s claim to be a god evidence of madness? A man speaking of himself in such a way today would have been such proof, but not so much a king or emperor in the ancient pagan world. It was a fairly common practice to deify ‘good’ emperors, even to have temples dedicated to them when they were alive. (See Barrett, Chapter 9, ‘Divine Honours,’ pages 140-153; in particular, “Among the Romans the distinction between man and god was not a sharp one. While this blurring is usually associated with the phenomenon of emperor worship in the Imperial age, its origins go back to the republic.”–page 140)

What of his making his horse, Incitatus, a senator? Again, a mere legend. If he did so, he may have meant it as one of his many insults to the senate, not out of a mad belief that his horse had a senator’s abilities.

And Caligula’s occasional cross-dressing? Did that indicate madness? Apart from how offensive such a judgement is today in light of the experience of the transgender community, Barrett notes, “Caligula certainly did have a predilection for dressing up, as Alexander, as a triumphator, even as a woman. To dress up as a god was a natural progression. Suetonius mentions his dressing up as gods or goddesses in the general context, not of his religious ideas, but of his exotic costumes, and Dio notes that dressing up as Jupiter was a front adopted to seduce numerous women. Such behaviour was not unique to Caligula.” (Barrett, page 146) Furthermore, Josephus claimed that Caligula’s apparent devotion to the goddess Isis involved dressing up in women’s clothing and a wig…to perform as a priest of Isis (Barrett, page 220).

Then there was Caligula’s bizarre invasion of Britain, apparently to collect seashells. Again, Barrett notes, “This episode has provided much grist for the scholarly mill. Most scholars assume that a real invasion was planned, but cancelled at the last minute. [One scholar suggested]…that the Britons united in the face of attack, while…[another scholar claimed, perhaps] the soldiers were simply afraid to undertake the crossing of the Channel, and that the emperor ordered them to pick up the shells as a form of humiliation, which, to say the least, would have been a courageous gesture on Caligula’s part.” (Barrett, page 135)

Anyway, to make a long story short (if it’s not too late), the corruption in power in ancient imperial Rome wasn’t all that much more shocking than it is today: the rich and powerful oppress and exploit the poor. As Marx said in The Communist Manifesto, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

In today’s world, that class contradiction is between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the oppression being in the form of wage slavery. In the ancient world, class conflict was between masters and their slaves. Though the forms of class war have changed over the centuries, the basic material conditions remain the same: the land-owning rich get away with the enslavement, rape, and murder of the poor. This contradiction must be seen beyond the veil of sensationalism seen in Caligula.

The Beginning of the Movie

It’s ironic that such a sinful film should begin with a quote from The Gospel According to Mark, 8:36: “…what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

We see Caligula and Drusilla (Savoy) openly displaying their incestuous love out in the country, near a shepherd and his sheep. Apart from what I said above, about the dubiousness of the classical sources on this brother/sister relationship, given the particularly strong taboo against incest in the ancient world (consider the Oedipus story, for example), we should find it most unlikely that they would risk revealing their forbidden love to anyone they know fortuitously passing by the scene.

Mixed in with some original music composed by ‘Paul Clemente’ is an excerpt from the Adagio love theme of Spartacus and Phrygia, from Aram Khachaturian‘s Spartacus ballet. This theme is used repeatedly, at sporadic moments, throughout the film. Also featured is the “Montagues and Capulets” (or, alternatively, the “Dance of the Knights“) theme (during the credits), from Sergei Prokofiev‘s Romeo and Juliet ballet.

In all likelihood, these famous themes (from two of the most famous of the Soviet composers, incidentally) were chosen only for the emotional force of the music, and without any thought for their programmatic content. Indeed, that programmatic content seems diametrically (or dialectically?) opposed to the content of the movie’s story. Still, I find it irresistible to find some kind of connection–however consciously unintended, however dialectically antithetical–between the music and the movie.

The Spartacus ballet is about the lawful love between its title character, the once King of Thrace, and his once queen, Phrygia, who have been conquered and enslaved by Crassus. Antithetically, there’s the taboo love between Caligula and Drusilla, he originally being a prince fearful for his life–because of Tiberius’ caprices–then ascending to absolute power. Finally, while at the end of the ballet, Spartacus dies (having tried to free the slaves) and Phrygia mourns him, Drusilla dies and Caligula mourns her (but rather than try to free the slaves, he just insults and offends the other men in power until they get sick of him and kill him).

The “Montagues and Capulets” theme is meant to dramatize the tension and hatred between the two feuding families in Romeo and Juliet, as well as that hate between Caligula and the Roman senate. If, Dear Reader, you’ll indulge and forgive my deforming of the Bard’s immortal opening verses, you’ll see how one can relate the thematic content of the greatest love story with, arguably, one of the most outrageously depicted (if not simply one of the worst) love stories.

“Two classes, both alike in dignity,/In fairest Roma where we lay our scene…” By classes, here I refer to the conflict between the imperial family (i.e., the Julio-Claudian dynasty) and the senatorial class.

Another reading (and another butchering of the Bard, if again you’ll pardon me, Dear Reader) could be, “Two classes, both unlike in dignity,/In fairest Roma where we lay our scene…” By classes, I now refer to the conflict between the masters (i.e., imperial family, consuls, senate, patricians, plebs) and their slaves. This second conflict, often bobbing up to the surface from the hidden depths, is the one I urge you to pay more attention to.

Classes Unlike in Dignity

Just as I argued in my Analysis of The Omen, the violence in Caligula (as well as the sex) can be seen to symbolize the material contradictions between master and slave in the ancient world, contradictions as apparent as those between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat today. The slaves in the film, typically naked, are exploited in sexual situations, beaten, or subjected to other forms of sadism. Caligula is like Salò (in which Paolo Bonacelli also appeared) in this respect, except for the problem of the clashing visions of feuding Guccione, Vidal, and Brass, among so many other obvious issues.

Nakedness for the slaves represents their vulnerability and utter lack of possessions. I recall Act IV, Scene vii of Hamlet, when the Danish prince has returned, surprisingly, from a boat trip to England, and in a letter to his uncle Claudius, Hamlet says he’s “naked.” He doesn’t mean he isn’t wearing any clothes; he means he hurried off the boat without belongings or means, for a pirate ship has attacked his boat, and the pirates are holding him for ransom. (See Crystal and Crystal, page 292)

When Caligula arrives in Capri, we see a row of male slaves with hammers breaking rocks into smaller pieces–these men are all naked. At first glance, we’d assume that seeing all these musclemen frontally nude is just one of many examples of the film’s soft-core, indulgent titillation; but consider what I said above about naked slaves.

This observation is especially true of the naked slaves Tiberius uses as his “speaking statues,” who “do more than speak…they do.” What they “do” is engage in all the acts of debauchery that the classical sources spuriously accuse the emperor of indulging in.

Then, there are Tiberius’ “fishies,” the naked swimmers–with shaved pubes–in his large swimming pool; his “minnows,” as Suetonius claimed the emperor called them, are supposed to be the children he molested. Again, as history, there’s no reason to believe this sexual abuse was true of Tiberius in particular; but in a world where masters could do anything they wanted with their slaves–including getting sexual favours from them and getting away scot-free without even an investigation to be then acquitted of–there is merit in using the myth of Tiberius the pervert in a metaphorical sense.

Classes Alike in Dignity

As the emperor–covered in welts, sores, and scabs from all of the sexually transmitted diseases he’s said to have been covered in (another obvious symbol of his moral corruption–Howard, page 57)–talks with Caligula and corrupts his mind with a tour of his speaking, screwing statues, he warns the prince of the wickedness of the senate. Recall the many treason trials in which Tiberius had men executed on trumped-up charges from Sejanus; this is where the emperor got his cynicism about Roman politics.

Of course, slaves weren’t the only sufferers of the whims of those at the top. Wrongly-convicted senators suffered, as did soldiers (in the film, consider loyal Proculus, or the misfortunes of Roman virtue; also consider the guard Tiberius kills for being suspected of drinking wine while on duty).

Finally, even the men at the top suffer. In the movie, Macro strangles Tiberius in his bed (other versions have the emperor smothered with a pillow by Macro [<<<John Rhys-Davies] or Caligula [<<<John McEnery…at 36:00). Caligula was assassinated in a conspiracy led by Cassius Chaerea (Bonacelli), Claudius was fed poisoned mushrooms by Agrippina, and Nero committed suicide when he fell from power.

The fall from power of those at the top reminds us of Hegel‘s master/slave dialectic. Caligula, with Macro’s help, rose against his master to become the new master, as Spartacus attempted to do. Caligula’s constant provocations of the senate and army represent the power struggle between them and his family, ultimately leading them to kill him, as Spartacus was killed.

My point is that, in spite of the emperor’s ‘absolute’ power, there’s always a dialectical tension between the ruler and the ruled, the latter struggling to be free of the former, and the former struggling to be free of the danger of assassination. Hence, once Caligula becomes emperor, he must be rid of Macro, then Gemellus…even if they don’t actually pose a threat to him, for always is the emperor paranoid.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’. —King Henry IV

(Incidentally, the film’s depiction of Macro decapitated by a kind of giant lawnmower, so to speak, is more fake history: Macro, having been falsely promised the governorship of Egypt, committed suicide after falling out of favour with Caligula. See Graves, page 341.)

Drusilla’s Death, Caligula’s Despair

With Drusilla’s death ends Caligula’s own will to live, so everything he does after his mourning of her is to provoke the wrath of the senate, the army, and the Praetorian Guard in so blatant a way that it must be the expression of a death wish comparable to that of CamusCaligula (“Les hommes meurent et ils ne sont pas heureux.“–Men die and they aren’t happy. [Act I, Scene iv]). His wife, Caesonia (Mirren), warns him not to provoke those powerful men, but her words fall on deaf ears…or rather urge him further.

Devastated by his loss, he disappears from the sight of the Roman nobility, as does the Caligula of Camus’ play (Act I, Scenes i-ii). He wanders among the common people in a blue robe, looking as if he were one of them.

He watches a group of actors putting on a show, standing on a triangle representing the social classes of Rome: the slaves, the people, the army, tribunes, senate, and emperor. None of this display offends Caligula, because he of course benefits from the hierarchy; but when an actress portraying Drusilla mockingly sings of her wish to make love with Caligula, the grieving emperor is infuriated. He shoves the actors off the triangle, making them fall to the ground.

His mingling with the poor, including sharing a jail cell with them (where he meets the ‘giant’ [Osiride Pevarello]), suggests his sympathy for them, but it shouldn’t. As emperor, Caligula only feels antipathy for the other powerful men of Rome, as Tiberius did. Beware of politicians who, however hated they may be by the establishment, only pretend to care for the people.

Fatal Provocations

When Caligula returns and appears before the senate, he begins his fatal string of provocations by declaring himself to be a living god and requiring the unanimous support of the senate, annoying Longinus (Steiner) and Chaerea. His next insult is to make cuckolds of the senators by making whores of their wives.

The soundtrack of the Imperial Bordello, again with naked slaves dancing about, includes an amusingly ironic use of an excerpt from, of all pieces, Prokofiev’s Cinderella ballet! At the moment in the music when the clock strikes midnight, and Cinderella must go home, in the movie we approach the money shot!

I can’t help thinking this choice of music was a private joke of the film’s producers. Hearing music programmatically representing the ending of the traditional girl’s fantasy is juxtaposed with seeing the ending of the prurient man’s fantasy: one of the many ways the ruling class divides us is to promote male and female fantasies that are diametrically opposed to each other.

And just as the slaves and senators’ wives are degraded, so were the Penthouse Pets in the pornographic scenes in the movie. Consider the sad fate of “Anneka Di Lorenzo” (playing Messalina) to see my point. Consider also how Proculus (and the actor who plays him) is degraded: cuckolded before his eyes, then fisted, on his wedding day (in Howard’s novelization, Caligula sodomizes Proculus [pages 154-155]); stripped frontally naked before laughing Messalina and Agrippina (Lori Wagner), then stabbed to death slowly and sadistically; then after he passes out, he’s pissed on and emasculated.

Caligula’s provocations continue with the ‘invasion’ of Britain; he has his soldiers run naked (i.e., he degrades them to slave-like status) into some water and make war…with papyrus. Later, at a banquet, he displays the spoils of his ‘conquest’ of Britain: oysters and pearls placed in naked slave-women’s genitalia are presented by slave men carrying the women.

Caesonia warns Caligula that the “important men” of Rome now hate him; he replies, “Let them hate me–so long as they fear me.” In a provocation comparable to that of Camus‘ Caligula, he confiscates “the entire estates of all those who have failed Rome.”

He then discusses, with Longinus and Chaerea, a conspiracy against him that he’s heard of; he and Caesonia laugh when he brings it up. Caligula finds the notion of a plot against his life amusing because he no longer cares whether he lives or dies. Life is painful, absurd, and meaningless, because happiness–even as lord of the whole world–is impossible to attain. Camus’ Caligula is cruel to everyone for the same reason: even emperors are Spartacus-slaves in life, liberated only by death.

Caesonia still fears for him, and when she sees a bird flying about their bed one night, she screams at the omen–while Caligula looks at it and gives a slight smirk. He’s glad his death is coming soon, for he can then join Drusilla in Tartarus…a happy hell for them, since at least they’ll be able to suffer together.

Finally, Chaerea assassinates the emperor, who defiantly says, “I…live” as Chaerea’s sword cuts into him. He falls down dead, as do Caesonia and their daughter when the latter has her brains dashed on the steps. In death, Caligula is finally happy, as were Cleobis and Biton (Herodotus’ Histories, 1.31), and as Tiberius claimed was the soldier he killed for drinking wine while on duty.

The idea that Longinus and Chaerea choose Claudius (Giancarlo Badessi) to be the next emperor is more fake history, for it was the Praetorian Guard who chose to make him Caesar (as the last man living in the Julio-Claudian dynasty, Claudius as emperor was the only way to avert civil war). Claudius would have Chaerea executed for the killing of not only Caligula, but also Caesonia and the child.

In any case, we see–in replacing Caligula with Claudius–the unchanging reality of the contradiction of master vs. slave. Even if Tiberius and Caligula weren’t the depraved madmen/perverts that Suetonius claims they were, they were still masters oppressing their slaves, as ‘virtuous’ Claudius would also be: this latter evil is the one we should be paying attention to…but we don’t.

Conclusion

My original curiosity in this film (as I suspect is the case with many, if not most, other viewers) came in spite of–or rather, because of–its bad reputation. I had a morbid fascination with the thought…just how bad is this movie? How outrageous is it? How shocking? How disturbing? How revulsive? I sure learned how much. (Furthermore, I’d be dishonest if I were to claim that I had no interest in the sexual content in the movie, having written much erotic fiction myself.)

Having already been familiar with other dramatizations of imperial Rome under the Julio-Claudians (the I, Claudius and A.D.–Anno Domini TV miniseries), as well as writings on that period of history (Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio, and Robert Graves’s Claudius novels), I assumed the depravity of the emperors was true. Then, after reading such writers as G.P. Baker and Anthony A. Barrett, I learned otherwise.

Therefore, I have concluded that if we’re to take a serious look at the wickedness of imperial Rome (and, by extension, of the ancient world in general), the best way to look at it is in the class antagonisms of the time…just as we should focus on the class antagonisms of today. The masters’ brutal exploitation of their slaves is what should be focused on, not dubious reports of sexual perversity or madness in individual emperors.

However virtuous Augustus, Claudius, or Marcus Aurelius may have been in the eyes of their fellow nobiles, and however vile Tiberius, Gaius Caligula, Nero, or Domitian may have been in the ruling class’s opinion, what the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ emperors had in common is far more important than what was different between the two groups.

History would have been kinder to Tiberius–who had been an excellent general, and never wanted to be emperor–had he died around AD 23, for that was before the treason trials. Caligula, far from being the ‘anarchist’ that McDowell portrayed him as, actually strengthened and enlarged the personal power of the emperor, as opposed to the power of such men as those of the senate, directing much attention to construction projects and beginning the building of two aqueducts in Rome.

What must be emphasized is that the ‘bad’ emperors were vilified for injuries to the senate and other powerful men in Rome; both ‘bad’ and ‘good’ emperors kept the practice of slavery going unabated, with at best, only minor reforms to address the issue of the slaves’ oppression. We must learn to ignore the sensationalist narratives, the fake history, and focus on the banal evil that really happened, just as we should turn our heads away from the sensationalist fake news of today (i.e., what naughty things did Trump say last week?) and focus on the real wickedness committed all the time, year after year, regardless of who’s the leader or which political party is in power…a harsh reality that is largely ignored by the mainstream media.

We rightly condemn the Nazis for the roughly 11,000,000 people they murdered, but wrongly forget King Leopold II of Belgium, whose regime was responsible for the killing of up to ten or fifteen million black Congolese. We remember the former killers, because their victims were white; we forget the latter killers, because their victims were black. Similarly, we remember the wickedness of Tiberius and Caligula because their victims were fellow members of the upper classes; we forget the wickedness of all emperors and the other upper classes because their victims were slaves.

The sensationalism of Caligula is tasteless in the extreme, but in a way, appropriately so; for it reminds us of how unhelpful sensationalism and fake news are in understanding the true, everyday, unchanging reality of oppression in the world.

William Howard, “Gore Vidal’s Caligula”, Warner Books, New York, 1979

Robert Graves, I, Claudius, Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1934

Albert Camus, Caligula, suivi de Le malentendu, Editions Gallimard, Paris, 1958

Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, Penguin Classics, London, this translation 1956

Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Penguin Classics, London, translation first published 1957

G.P. Baker, Tiberius Caesar, Emperor of Rome, Cooper Square Press, New York, 1929

Anthony A. Barrett, Caligula, The Corruption of Power, Yale University Press, London, 1989