A title reads, “Once upon a time…” We see a man (played by the director, Luis Buñuel) sharpening a knife. The film cuts between shots of the blade and the man’s face as he examines it while smoking. He steps onto a balcony, his shadow cast against the window. He looks up to the moon, as clouds approach it. The film cuts to a man (presumably the same man, though in this shot, unlike the others, he wears a tie) opening a woman’s eyelids and approaching it with the razor. The clouds cut across the moon, in a motion similar to that of the blade’s cutting an eye. In the next shot, we indeed see the blade cut what we are meant to believe is the woman’s eye.
A title reads, “Eight years later.” We see a man cycling through the streets. He wears white linen on his head, shoulders, and loins, as well as, hanging from his neck, a rectangular box with black and white diagonal stripes and a keyhole. We cut to an apartment. The same woman as before (who had her eye cut) is sitting reading, apparently unharmed. She looks up, startled by something. She throws her book onto the table, leaving it open on a page showing Johannes Vermeer’s painting The Lacemaker. Sitting by the book is a mouse in a cage. The woman looks out the window to see the cyclist, and responds with successive looks of shock and frustration. From above, we see the cyclist collapse to his side, making no effort to stay upright on his bicycle. The woman mouths what appear to be curses of frustration at him. As the man lies on the street, expressionless, she walks down to meet him. This time, upon seeing him in the street, her expression is of compassion, and she goes to kiss and embrace him. The film dissolves to a shot of the striped box. We see the woman’s hand open it with a key and pull out striped tissue paper. We then find ourselves back in the apartment, where the woman takes a striped tie out of the tissue paper and lays it on a bed, together with the box and the white linens the man had been wearing. She places them as though they were to be worn by someone on the bed. She sits by the bed, observing these items. Suddenly, as though by magic, the tie appears perfectly tied around the collar on the bed. The woman turns around to see the same man examining his hand. The film cuts to his point of view, and we see ants crawling out of a hole in his hand. The woman approaches him, appearing fascinated, and they exchange glances. A shot of the man’s hand, again with the ants, dissolves into a shot of the armpit of a woman lying on a beach, which in turn dissolves into a shot of a sea urchin, which in turn dissolves into a iris shot looking down on someone in the street, poking a severed hand with a stick.
The iris shot opens onto a throng of men in hats encircling the same figure with the stick. Police attempt to hold the men back from the figure—dressed in a gender non-conforming way—who continues to manipulate the hand. The man and woman look down upon the figure from their balcony (the same balcony, it seems, as in the scene with the sliced eyeball). The man is visibly excited by what he sees. Down below, a policeman picks up the severed hand, places it in the box with diagonal stripes, and hands it to the androgynous figure, who embraces it. The crowd disperses, leaving the androgynous figure alone in the street. The figure stares off, blankly, holding the box, as cars pass by, until the figure is hit by one of them. Throughout this scene, the man has been watching the figure anxiously from the window. After the figure is hit by the car, the man turns to the woman, appearing aroused. He corners her and grabs her breasts, which suddenly appear as nude, and then—as the man salivates from his mouth—as nude buttocks. The woman runs away from her assaulter, and he chases her throughout the room. She protects herself with a tennis racquet against the man, who is first frustrated, and then relieved to find two pieces of rope on the floor—only to find as he pulls the pieces that they are attached to two large slabs, two melons, two Marist Brothers, and two grand pianos loaded with the rotting carcasses of two donkeys. The film cuts to the face of one of the donkeys, blood dripping out of its eyes. Throughout the woman appears horrified, hiding her face in the corner of the room. Finally, she escapes out a nearby door, though the man’s hand manages to make it past the door, and she again sees it crawling with ants. As she struggles to close the door against him, she notices across the room the very same man, only this time on the bed wearing the linens, tie, and box she had earlier laid there. As she looks on in confusion, he looks up mischievously, as though having gotten away with something.
A new intertitle now reads, “Around three in the morning.” We see a new man—always from behind, never from the front—approach the apartment door. The sound of his ringing the doorbell is represented visually by two hands shaking a cocktail shaker through holes in the wall. After the woman lets him in, he enters the room and begins yelling commands at the first man, who looks frightened and confused. He then yanks the first man out of bed and tears off his box and linens, which he then throws over the balcony. The first man tries to save the straps he used to wear the box, but the second man notices that and throws them off as well. He then commands the first man to stand in the corner and, despite the latter’s mild protests, hold a crucifix position under the tennis racket (which the woman had previously used to protect herself).
The title now reads, “Sixteen years earlier,” though the figures are in the exact same position as in the previous shot. The new man turns around in slow motion, and we find that he is in fact the very same man as the first. He approaches a school desk littered with ink as well as dirty books and paper. He grabs two books and carries them to his doppelgänger, who is still in the corner. Photographed in slow motion and in soft focus, he shakes his head and turns away from the first man. As the first man casts a look of anger on the second, those same books suddenly become pistols. He calls to the second man, who raises his hands and pleads for his life—again, throughout this he is photographed in slow motion and soft focus—only to be shot several times. As he collapses we find him now in a park, where in his collapse he tremblingly grasps the back of a nude woman wearing pearls, who then vanishes. Several pedestrians in the park approach his body and then examine it, checking for life. They then carry him out of the park. The film returns to the apartment, where the woman passes through a door and stares at a spot on the wall, which we then see is a death’s-head moth. An iris shot closes in on the death’s head, and the film then cuts to the man—again in the apartment—seeming to establish an association between his head and the death’s head on the moth. The man grabs his mouth in horror, and then confidently removes his hand, leaving a mouthless face. The woman is visibly angry with him. Then, where his mouth had been, appears armpit hair, which we understand to be that of the woman, who examines her now-naked armpit in frustration and angrily charges through the door, sticking her tongue out at the man, who still wears her armpit hair in place of his mouth. But the woman passes not to another room, as we would expect, but to a windy beach, where she excitedly embraces a new, handsome man. He shows her his watch (showing the time to be 7:50, and the watch appears to be the same that Buñuel wore in the first scene), which she appears to ignore. As they walk together on the rocks of the beach, they come across the same linens and box with diagonal stripes, only now broken into pieces. The new man kicks away what remains of the box and, after examining the linens, he tosses them away as well.
As the couple disappears along the horizon of the beach, an intertitle reads, “In springtime…” The film’s final shot shows the woman and the first man buried up to their torsos in sand, looking lifeless and in decay.
Note about the film’s music: The original film is silent, and during the film’s first projection Buñuel played records of Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde as well as of Argentine tangos. That music was added to a sound version of the film under Buñuel’s supervision in 1960.