I’ve seen plenty of movies that follow dream logic. Un Chien Andalou, Luis Buñuel’s debut film, has dream rhythm.
The distinction is not only in the complete absence of plot—there are, at best, only recurring characters—but in how the film moves. Conceived and written alongside Salvador Dali, Un Chien Andalou seems to have an unpremeditated impulsiveness to the selection and sequencing of its images. There is zero concern for narrative (it makes David Lynch films feel overplotted) and instead consists of visual bursts that are connected by the thinnest of association. In a few seconds, we go from a close-up of ants crawling out of a hole in the palm of a hand to someone’s hairy armpit to a sea urchin to a severed hand on a sidewalk, all because … well, never mind “because.” It has no place here, just as it has no place in our dreams. (This is why trying to analyze a Buñuel film for “meaning” can be as fruitless as asking a friend to interpret your most recent nightmare.)
This isn’t to say that Un Chien Andalou is random and erratic. In fact, it’s meticulously crafted. Consider the movie’s most infamous sequence, in which a man appears to use a shaving razor to slice a woman’s eyeball. The first shot consists of the man (Buñuel himself) looking up at a glowing full moon. The next image is a close-up of the face of a woman (Simone Mareuil) as a man’s hands hold her face from behind and bring the razor to her eye. Just before he slices, there is a cut to a shot of the moon, where a tendril of of clouds quickly crosses it, in the same direction as the razor would have moved. Finally we get to the movie’s notorious close-up: the actual slicing of the eyeball (supposedly a calf’s eye), which causes goopy liquid to spill out.
It’s the shot of the drifting clouds that mark Un Chien Andalou as a masterpiece. Such a touch elevates shock into art.
The eyeball sequence is horrifying yes, but in an odd way it’s no more troubling than anything else in the 17-minute film. Dreams have a way of equalizing emotions, so that terror can just as easily attach itself to the image of a man wiping off his own mouth (also seen here) as to an act of terrible violence. Un Chien Andalou exists in that numb, nimble space; we never know where we’re going to go next, but because of the movie’s subconscious fluidity, the journey, as we’re undertaking it, always seems to make sense.