L'Age d'Or (1931)

Genres - Avant-garde / Experimental  |   Sub-Genres - Surrealist Film, Religious Comedy, Satire  |   Run Time - 63 min.  |   Countries - France   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by David Lewis

L'Âge d'Or was director Luis Buñuel's first feature, and was produced by the Vicomte Charles de Noailles, wealthy friend to the surrealist group. It was intended as a satire on the European bourgeoisie, and while de Noailles could have easily included himself among their number, he secretly detested them. In a sense, L'Âge d'Or is as much de Noailles' statement as it is Buñuel's. The satire is so pointed that it borders on outright comedy, and in 1933 de Noailles and Buñuel did re-edit the film down into a two-reel comedy entitled In the Icy Wastes of Dialectical Materialism, which was distributed to left-wing theaters in Eastern Europe and Russia. Sadly, this short version has not survived. Anti-Semitic right-wingers staged a riot at the Paris premiere of L'Âge d'Or, thinking Buñuel was Jewish. While their own organization, the League of Patriots, condemned the riot, the action did open a dialogue among French conservatives that L'Âge d'Or was too anti-clerical, and the paper Le Figaro began to pressure the censorship board to withdraw the film's certificate. It did so on December 1, 1930.

Only three prints of the film were struck initially, and two of these were seized by authorities and destroyed. The Vicomte de Noailles hid the negatives of L'Âge d'Or in a Paris bookshop of which he was part-owner. In 1933, a few more prints were struck, and one of these was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York that same year. Buñuel claimed the notoriety of L'Âge d'Or made it difficult for him to work in the 1930s and '40s. It certainly cost Buñuel his job as a director of Spanish-language documentaries at the Museum of Modern Art in 1945, as Cardinal Spelman of New York branded Buñuel as an "antichrist" and put pressure on MOMA to fire him. Although Salvador Dali is credited as co-scenarist of L'Âge d'Or, he had practically nothing to do with the film's creation and wasn't present for the shooting. Nonetheless, after the cause célèbre surrounding the film got underway, Dali traveled to Rome in order to beg forgiveness from the pope himself. When de Noailles died during the Second World War, L'Âge d'Or was "orphaned" and could only be obtained through MOMA or the Cinemathèque Française.

In the years after 1933, both institutions would show their prints once in awhile, and it was seen at the New York Film Festival in the 1960s. Ultimately, it wasn't censorship that kept L'Âge d'Or out of circulation so much as a lack of prints and proper distribution, which was not obtained until 1979. By that time, the Paris ban was long null and void. Now that it has been generally available for awhile, it is easy to see that L'Âge d'Or is technically the most accomplished of the early surrealist films. It has nothing of the brutish intensity of Un Chien Andalou, nor the strange, otherworldliness of Le Sang d'un Poète. But it is by far the most successful of the de Noailles films in terms of progressing from scene to scene in an illogical/logical surrealist dream state, and the impact of the satire can be felt in comedies made 40 to 50 years down the line, particularly in the work of Monty Python's Flying Circus. While the beginning and end sequences of L'Âge d'Or may feel slow, the main part of the film has lost little of its power, and is still highly amusing and mildly shocking, even today.