Luis Bunuel as an Exquisitely Sarcastic Critic of Human Civilization

Our morality… exalted passion, hoaxes, insults, malevolent laughter, the attraction of the abyss.
Luis Bunuel

“Age of Gold” is a militantly provocative film against the fatherland, religion, the bourgeoisie, chastity, sexual repression, and the family…
Roman Gubern

When the war broke out in 1936, a right-wing armed group went to Ramon Acin’s house. He escaped, but the fascists got his wife and threatened to shoot her unless Ramon returned. Ramon came back the next day. Both of them were shot.
Luis Bunuel

I have always been amazed at that photo of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostella, where church dignitaries and generals perform the fascist salute. God and the fatherland, side by side. They only gave us repression and blood.
Luis Bunuel

We now have enough nuclear bombs not only to destroy all life on the planet but also to blow the planet itself, empty and cold, out of its orbit altogether and into the immensity of the cosmic void. I find that possibility magnificent, and in fact I’m tempted to shout bravo, because from now on there can be no doubt that science is our enemy. She flatters our desires for omnipotence – desires that lead inevitably to our destruction.
Luis Bunuel, “My last Sigh”, Vintage Books, 1984, p. 251
Luis Bunuel’s “The Golden Age” (1930)

Bunuel’s parody on erotic passion and amorous bliss

Violin thrown away and kicked by pedestrians of modern Rome is symbol of cultural renaissance (I mean – cultural decline) emphasized by Bunuel as an essential feature of our civilization. Similar motif was used by Michelangelo Antonioni (in order to characterize the post-WWII mass cultural society) in his “Blow-up” (1966) where the pop-singer is kicking and breaking the guitar under applauds of the public. What is the psycho-cultural difference between violin and guitar? Is violin a symbol of the melody, while guitar – of accompaniment? Is violin a signifier of human soul, while guitar – of its environment? Is it possible to say that violin is more “spiritual” than guitar? Is the omnipresence of guitar in today’s pop-music symptomatic of degradation from the benign individualism of the artist to his/her conformist appeal to the (undifferentiated) public?

Human proclivity for rivalry, competition, fight and hate is represented by Bunuel in this shot as a fight between scorpions trying to intimidate and kill one another by their magnificent venomous tails.

Bunuel emphasizes the similarities between scorpion’s pincers and human hands.

Majorcan bishops appeared on the land of future Rome with the agenda to bless this land (to charm it into becoming the abode of Christian civilization).

By spiritual magic the bishops made the local (pre-Italian) aborigines unable to defend their land/to resist the intervention of Christian civilization.

Majorcan bishops heroically died while spiritually fertilizing the land of future Rome.

Max Ernst in the role of the leader of local people unable to protect their land because of the power of paralyzing Christian magic

The leader of natives is made senile by Majorcan bishops’ spiritual emanation.

After the establishment of Rome as the capital of the Christian world the immediate object to conquer was a stubborn human need for amorous attachment and sexual love. Bunuel introduces to us the two main protagonists of the film – “the woman and the man of human history” while they, moved by cosmic passion, make love amidst the powers of nature.

Marquise, the father of the film’s heroine, looks alive but the flies are accumulating on his face.

The Marquise’s daughter is obsessively fantasizing about making love with her beloved after their intercourse having been interrupted in the very beginning of civilization. Pay attention to the flush handle behind her. What does it signify?

When the main male character was being escorted to the police station, he imagined his beloved masturbating, whenever on his way he saw ads of female cosmetics or lingerie

The woman of civilization is being hurt by her “natural pleasures

Bunuel constructs a close-up of the film’s heroine in the style of Rene Magritte. Woman looks at the mirror in the same way she looks at men’s gazes at her.

But who is she? – Bunuel rhetorically asks his viewers by this shot. “Through her you can see the clouds. Even mirror cannot reflect her, she is the space framed by flowers and cosmetic fluids.”

To devalue the fixation of the rich on elegant interiors – to underline the inadequacy of their super-human and super-existential pretensions, Bunuel likes to puts cows right in their marital beds.

But, according to Bunuel, the issue is not only the pretentiousness of the rich, but their moral ass-ness – their antidemocratic posture, their insistence on inequality. According to Bunuel, to remind them that their ass is not different from the cow’s, can do good to their morals.

Caress of beloved’s cheek by the beloved’s hand…

… is in reality the caress by the maimed hand that will be disfigured by the coming new war. By inserting the future into the present Bunuel tries to activate the viewers’ thinking about life and show the danger of passively belonging to living.

Hero and heroine become sexually excited.

Hero and heroine are trying to make love but their sexual goal somehow becomes modified.

Bunuel likes to ridicule erotic sophistication.

The death from the war which didn’t start yet intervenes into the present defeating people’s amorous and sexual aspirations.

The boss of the film’s main protagonist disappointed with a fiasco of his career – commits suicide by shooting himself, but his body instead of falling to the floor…

… is falling up to the ceiling, as if on the way to resurrection. Bunuel is prone for sarcasm about people’s megalomania feeding their prejudices and superstitions.

In the apotheosis of the film, Duke de Blangis, after his sadistic orgy with teenage girls, is coming out of his castle looking like Christ – he intentionally makes himself look Christ-like because he wants to convey that he suffers about what’s happened, that he is remorseful, that he is repenting after what he has done.

In this shot we see women’s scalps hanging on the cross, as if “embellishing” it. The vicious Duke tries to represent his sins and crimes as heroic deeds – as punishing young women for being seductresses by their very nature. He, according to Bunuel, represents misogyny (that is latently present in the belief of many Christians and is part of their psychology) as a saintly feeling.


Bunuel precedes his representation of human civilization (where cruelty is almost always masked by idealism, stupidity by dignity, and fear of death by belief in life after it) with a zoological introduction. Scorpionology becomes the essence of anthropology. Montage makes it obvious that scorpions are very proud of their weapons – their striking tails and their pincers that like human hands serve as instruments of aggression and information. Entomological introduction to civilization proves to be relevant.

In Bunuel’s parable of birth of religion-based civilization – civilized life starts when a pre-religious culture is being conquered by religious spirit. Bunuel transforms the historical reports about the birth of Rome into a surrealistic parody on conquest of the native people by the Majorcans (inhabitants of Mediterranean island near Spain) armed not only with weapons and money, but with religious spirit’s magic power.

Theological injection stimulates in us the feeling of our right to invade neighboring lands and other countries in order to enlighten them, to “share with them” what “we” learned from our superior religion. In Bunuel’s film the Majorcan bishops came to the land which will be future Rome to make it receptive for the spiritual emanation. The bishops didn’t come to live, but to heroically die. While they were dying they tried to charm the rocks and the hills with their magic prayers that made the local people ready to conceive spirituality. After that the priests, the militaries and carriers of money (with top hats) came – to live as conquerors and transformers of the pagan land into that of prosperity and immortality and into the image of spiritual greatness.

But people, whom the dying bishops made unable to resist occupation (the sublime sorcery was a part of bishops’ prayers), were just human. Without the artificial support by religious (or ideological) beliefs humans cannot be as aggressive as “holy occupants” who always believe that they have god given right to murder and to destroy in order to rule unconditionally and forever. One of those who were not able to resist and were susceptible to the bishops’ spiritual magic is played by Max Ernst. Bunuel shows the priests, militaries and the wealthy (with weapons and capital) initiating the real: the Christian, Rome, as insects occupying the rocks signifying the pre-Christian urbanism.

After the victory the one thing left to human beings was their amorous/sexual passion. Humanity of humans had retreated from the (now occupied) public space into private realm, where it was still possible to psychologically blast civilization by the sensual implosion of human vitality. The religious psychology views sexually amorous or amorously sexual passion of human beings as a sinful/blasphemous mixture of primordial substances – sexual and aggressive emotions, sperm and feces, ejaculation and urination (Bunuel shows this Christian unconscious in number of shocking images). How the religious, military and financial addicts see amour/sex is the psychological context of how they see the ecumenical civilization. Bunuel shows how passion between a man and a woman becomes the phobic object in the psyche of the Christian conquerors. Violent separation of the anarchic couple making love, and following arrest of the male-the transgressor was the founding heroic deed of a new civilization.

Bunuel quickly transfers us into modern Rome, with the statues of “frozen” heroes of pre-Christian past on the Roman squares on which real human beings look like insects but with much less enthusiastic movements than the first settlers had on the rocky mountains. The primordial man who was making love with the primordial woman, is taken to the police station but on his way there he is gluing to every commercial ad of women’s cosmetics and lingerie – in every woman on the ad he sees his beloved indulging in auto-erotic acts.

We see her looking in the mirror that doesn’t reflect her (does she exist at all?) – may be, she is a landscape, not a human being? Her father, the Marquise receives guests (the modern Majorcans), while one of the staff members of Marquise’s household just returns from not too successful haunting. When his little son disappointed with the fact that father didn’t bring any game, behaves not too respectfully, the father loses temper and shoots his son dead. Bunuel here emphasizes people’s tendency to be impulsive and act irrationally.

The Marquise and his guests “are shocked” by the “accident” and sincerely fake suffering. Civilized life is not easy. You have to attack other countries, to rule with iron fists your colonies, to kill, pillage and exploit, but simultaneously, civilized people also need to feel yourself as compassionate and morally sensitive (to keep their civilized self-image intact). So, they kill and torture but they also really suffer, and some of them very passionately and sincerely. Their morality is, indeed, “civilized” – it co-exists with their immorality. The necessity to be polite and keep up the decorum is so burdensome that one awkward gesture of an interlocutor can seem as an intended disrespect and can easily make them furious. Civilized life is full of accidents.

Finally our primordial lovers reunite! While making love (even frustrated sexual desire is full of optimism and ability to try again and again) the beloveds are distracted by sexual fantasies which intervene and disrupt their passion. Man’s hand caressing woman’s cheek, becomes maimed by war that didn’t come yet but surely will start soon! Civilized life is always a prelude to war, like “free market” is always a code word for monopoly over free market. Business call from the boss distracts our heroes’ lovemaking, that makes the man furious, but the fury of his boss who is on the verge of losing his career is even more extreme – to the point that he shoots himself but his body falls up to the ceiling instead down to the floor: he is too highly positioned in his eyes (Bunuel’s parody on the idea of resurrection). After the hero’s beloved felt attracted to the paternal figure (the conductor) our hero is so enraged out of jealousy that he throws out from window of his hotel room not only pieces of furniture, the bishop as an item of religious paraphernalia and a giraffe as a signifier of nature, but also pillow-feathers and a Christmas tree as signifiers of human dream to live in physical comfort. His compulsive rage Bunuel compares with sinful/criminal actions of Duke de Blangis in his Chateau de Selliny (the Sadean figure looking as Christ) who after a sadistic orgy with “adolescent girls” all killed by male passion, shows himself to us as tormented by his guilty feelings – by this he tries to prove that he is a Christian deserving immortality for his sincere repentance.

Posted on March 4 –   “Golden Age/L’Age d’Or” (1930) By Luis Bunuel  by Acting-Out Politics