You almost have to be pretentious nowadays to remember Luis Buñuel.
Born in Spain in 1900, culturally educated in France as a young man, he made films in both languages -- and inflamed people (via subtitles) in many more. His canon includes the art-film classics Los Olvidados, Viridiana, Belle de Jour, The Exterminating Angel and The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie. His most famous aphorism, "Thank God I'm an atheist," is one that he claims to have uttered by accident and that he later grew tired of hearing.
But it all began, in virtual silence, with two landmark Surrealist works, both made in collaboration with Salvador Dali, who ended his friendship with Buñuel over the latter.
Un Chien Andalou (1929), or "An Andalusian Dog," introduces ideas that Buñuel would pursue for half a century. It has no dialogue and only a few title cards to mark time, with music from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde added by Buñuel 30 years later. Just 16 minutes long, it opens with a scene that still shocks and repels even after the bloodbath of our modern cinema: A man -- it's Buñuel, his own famous watery peepers glimpsed in the shadows -- sharpens a straight razor and slices open a woman's eye, which pours forth its vitreous humor.
Then comes a series of scenes and images that riff on bitter love and cruel, cruel death -- a car plows down an epicene woman, one man murders another, the tide buries two lovers in the sand, like mannequins in the rubble of an earthquake. What can you make of the moment when a woman's armpit hair magically seals a man's mouth? Or of ants eating through a hand? Or of the cold caress of bare buttocks and breasts? It's a Surrealist assault on the rules of society, and it reminds us that we're a horrifying, sanguinary, risible culture -- not at all how we see ourselves.
L'Age d'or (1930), or "The Age of Gold," is somewhat more accessible at an hour in length, but no less weird. Buñuel first treats us to an informative lesson on scorpions (his metaphor for humanity), then cuts to a pack of mumbling mitered bishops on the rocks (he loathed organized religion). A woman's orgasmic wails interrupt a solemn ceremony. A man punts a little white dog. A cow reposes on an aristocrat's bed and gets shooed away. A child becomes a marksman's skeet. A woman sucks the toe of a stone statue. Jesus survives an orgy. And all the while, the A-list party thrown by the Marquis of X goes on and on and on.
One can't overemphasize the significance of these historic films, just as one can barely explain what they mean. They challenged their contemporaries with a cutting critique of bourgeois indifference and hegemony which -- in the dangerous and increasingly less civilized 21st century -- seems to cast Buñuel as the moral Nostradamus of world cinema. In French, occasionally with subtitles.