Luis Buñuel (1900-1983) started his career in the late twenties as an avant-garde enfant terrible, spent the thirties fighting Fascism in his native country, fled to the U.S. after Franco's victory and - not welcome in the U.S. with his "red" background - in the mid-forties ended up in Mexico as a director of commercial films. As these were quite successful, he was allowed to make some serious auteur films as well, enabling him to move back to Europe in the early sixties and there make his greatest films as "old master" of Surrealism.
Buñuel was born in a small town in Spain, which, as he often remarked, was culturally still stuck in the Middle Ages. He studied philosophy in Madrid and became friends with Salvador Dali, Frederico Garcia Lorca and other Spanish intellectuals. At the age of 25, Buñuel went to Paris, where he studied film with Jean Epstein and joined the Surrealist movement.
After that, Buñuel's working life can be divided as follows:
1. The Early Films (1928-1932)
In 1928, Buñuel wrote and shot the surrealist short film An Andalusian Dog with Salvador Dali, in only two weeks. Thanks to its opening sequence, of an eye being sliced by a razor, this became the most famous short film ever made. Two years later, Buñuel directed his first feature, L'Age d'Or, a scathing attack on the Church and hypocrisy, and this, too, became a succès de scandale. His third film was a fake documentary Las Hurdes (''Land Without Bread''), an account of Spanish villagers locked in poverty and ignorance, his last movie until 1946.
2. Film-less Interlude (1934-1946)
In his film-less interim, Buñuel dubbed American movies in Paris and aided the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. After the Fascists' victory, he fled in exile to New York, where he edited documentaries for the Museum of Modern Art.
3. Mexico (1946-1964)
Buñuel moved to Mexico in 1946 (where the film industry was at a high point) and began grinding out pot-boilers that proved so popular he was free to direct an occasional serious movie, starting with the 1950 street-gang drama Los Olvidados. I believe the years in Mexico were certainly not a lost period for Buñuel: after all, he had only experience directing two short films; in Mexico he finally learned the craft of film director. And he made some truly good films here, which are still underrated in his total oeuvre: Los olvidados ("The Young and the Damned," 1950); El ("This Strange Passion," 1953); The Criminal Life of Archibaldo Cruz (Ensayo de un crimen, 1955); Nazarín (1958); The Exterminating Angel (El ángel exterminador, 1962); and Simon of the Desert (Simón del desierto, 1965).
4. The Late Masterful Films (1963-1977)
There were eight of these; the first, Viridiana (1961), was made in Spain (and soon forbidden there for its anti-clericalism), the others from Diary of a Chambermaid (Le Journal d’une femme de chambre, 1963) and Belle de Jour (1967) until his last film That Obscure Object of Desire (Cet obscur objet du désir, 1977) were produced in France. All of these later films were written by Jean-Claude Carriere, who shared Buñuel's conviction that hypocrisy was the most entertaining target. Backed by French producer Serge Silberman, these late films are also the best, as Buñuel was free to indulge his fancies, without having to worry about commercial or narrative requirements.
Buñuel's style is characterized by three elements:
Buñuel was an official member of the Surrealist movement (until he became a Communist in 1932). Early in his career he made the two most authentic surrealist films ever produced, and also his later films are famous for their surreal imagery, such as scenes in which chickens appear in nightmares, women grow beards, and aspiring saints are desired by lascivious women. Even in the many movies he made for hire in his Mexican period, he usually added some of his trademark disturbing images.
2. The Hypocrisy of the Church & Bourgeois Society
His whole career, Buñuel mocked the Roman Catholic Church in particular and organized religion in general for its hypocrisy. The atheistic humanist Buñuel fought a lifelong rebellion against the Catholic Church that had shaped life in his Spanish home village of Calenda with a heavy hand. In L'Âge d'Or, for example, one of the protagonists of the Sade's 120 days of Sodom is portrayed as Jesus; Viridiana culminates in a dinner party that parodies Da Vinci's The Last Supper; and in La Voie Lactée two men travel the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela and meet examples of various Catholic heresies along the way. The Exterminating Angel is a scathing attack on bourgeois values, as are many other films, for example The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.
3. Sexual Fetishes & Thwarted Desire
To Buñuel, sex was "something we take seriously when it involves ourselves and ribald or funny when it involves others," as Roger Ebert phrased it. What is more funny than someone saddled with a fetish that is absurd and not respectable? Or someone who is consumed by desire but can find no satisfaction? In the early L'Âge d'Or and in his last film, Cet obscur objet du désir, and many films in-between, we encounter human beings who crave to fulfill a strong passion, but are unable to do so: the couple in L'Âge d'Or wanting to make love; the servant boy in Tristana, with whom Tristana toys cruelly as he is fascinated by her disability; Mathieu's mad love for the young Conchita, who keeps teasing him, in Cet obscur objet du désir; and, on a non-sexual note, the group of upper class citizens who crave to have dinner together in Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie, etc. Foot fetishes appear frequently in Buñuel's films, from the kissing of the toes of a statue in L'Age d'Or to the foot washing in El or the old man who loves Céléstine's boots in Diary of a Chamber Maid.
Buñuel died in Mexico City in 1983, after having finished his autobiography, Mon Dernier Soupir (My Last Sigh).
- L'Age d'or (The Golden Age, 1930)
Although the earlier Un Chien Andalou starts with a famous sequence in which an eyeball is sliced open in merciless close-up (a scene that still has people fainting), it is only 15 minutes long and therefore L'Age d'Or is Bunuel's first proper feature film. It has also more plot: a man and a woman are passionately in love, but their attempts to consummate that passion are constantly thwarted by the Church and bourgeois society. The feelings of the continually interrupted lovers find an outlet in Bunuelesque fetishism when the woman finally seeks satisfaction by sucking the marble toes of a statue - sex is both terrifying and hilarious. At the premiere in Paris in 1930, the film caused a riot as the outraged audience trashed the theater. Until the early 1980s, the film was banned in many countries.
- Los Olvidados (1950)
Film about juvenile delinquents in the slums of Mexico City, which won Best Director at Cannes, putting Buñuel, who was slaving away making trite films in Mexico, on the map again after his 1930 film L'Age d'Or. Los Olvidados is a tough, unsentimental statement. After all, then and now, it is a fact that poverty, combined with broken families and lack of education, leads to crime. Of course, people also have a choice, although many are stuck so deep in the mud that they have no opportunity to realize that. But even if they do, like the young Pedro, the protagonist of this film, and try to better their life against all odds, the environment can cynically block those chances. Pedro tries to extricate himself from the influence of escaped teen prisoner "El Jaibo," but that is impossible as the older boy blackmails him and even shrewdly shifts the blame for his own crimes on Pedro. Another characteristic of Los Olvidados is, that nobody is "good." At the start of the film, the boys beat up a blind musician and destroy his instruments, so the viewer feels sympathy for the man, but that same musician then shows what a pervert he is by groping a young girl. Although the film superficially resembles the at that time popular Italian Neorealist films, by showing that the poor are capable of evil and are players in the same corrupt societal games, Buñuel has in fact parodied Neorealism with its sentimental view of the poor as goodhearted. He has also included his characteristic surrealist sequences, for example a rooster staring down a blind man. Los Olvidados was a major influence on Truffaut's The 400 Blows, and although less known than his later work, is one of the masterworks of Luis Buñuel.
- El (This Strange Passion) (1953)
A brutal and absurd glimpse at one man's runaway paranoia. It starts on a Bunuelesque fetishistic high-note: while a priest washes and kisses the feet of altar boys in a church ritual, Don Francisco follows the trail of feet with his eyes and comes to rest on the shapely legs of Gloria - like a hunter finding his prey. The rich bachelor Francisco then courts Gloria until she agrees to marry him. He proves a dedicated husband - or rather too dedicated, for already during the honeymoon his passion starts to exhibit the disturbing traits of a jealous maniac. His paranoia escalates until one night he stealthily approaches her with the intent to "sew her up." He also denies her all contact with the outside world. Gloria stays with her mad husband, at least until it really becomes too much, thinking he is suffering more than she is (after all, the Church is responsible for having made him into a pervert) - and anyway, nobody, even her own mother, believes her complaints... A masterpiece of psychosexuality. To Buñuel's great satisfaction, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan would screen the film for his students to demonstrate paranoia.
- Viridiana (1961)
Don Jaime (Fernando Rey) invites his niece, Viridiana (Silvia Pinal), to stay with him before she takes her vows as a nun, but the old lecher then attempts to use her for his necrophiliac desires - he wants to have sex with her in the clothes of his deceased wife. When his desires are thwarted and the Don next commits suicide, Viridiana inherits the estate. A true Christian, she sees her new wealth as a great opportunity to practice charity and invites all beggars and outcasts of the area to come, be fed by her and live in her house. Of course they repay her with ingratitude, cruelty and greed. The film ends with a big dinner party, where the poor enjoy a wild feast during Viridiana's absence, imitating Da Vinci's The Last Supper, a parody enacted to the ethereal strains of Handel's Messiah. As the film also contains the above mentioned necrophilia and mockery of Christian charity, the Vatican denounced the film as blasphemy and it was immediately forbidden in Spain - despite winning the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. A delicious, darkly humorous story about different kinds of corruption.
- The Exterminating Angel (El ángel exterminador, 1962)
While in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, made ten years later, a group of upper middle class friends is repeatedly unable to have dinner together, here a group of socialites have enjoyed a lavish dinner, but are then unable to leave the mansion where the party took place. An unseen force keeps them inexplicably inside, as in an extravagant prison, and they have to spend the night together in the living room. The group futilely tries to figure out ways of escape. The film's absurd situations and surreal images attack ritualistic habits and bourgeois culture. The vast, magnificent salon gradually descends into sordid squalor. A black comedy filled with anti-bourgeois and anti-clerical sentiments, but also a dreamlike story where the surrealism of Buñuel is manifested in all its fantastic wealth. And it is of course more than just class criticism of the bourgeoisie: the film is in fact symbolic of the powerlessness of the human race as a whole.
- Diary of a Chambermaid ("Le journal d'une femme de chambre") (1964)
As I have written elsewhere on this blog, Buñuel based this film on Mirbeau's fin-de-siecle, satirical novel, but changed the story into a strong anti-fascist statement, by updating the setting from the late 19th century to the 1930s. Céléstine (Jeanne Moreau) becomes a chambermaid in the country estate of the Monteil family. She soon discovers that indulgence in the sexual frustrations/obsessions of her male employers may help advance her social and financial status. The lecherous head of the household not only hunts game but also women (he has impregnated the previous chambermaid), and his miserly frigid wife indulges her pent-up frustrations by tormenting her chambermaids. The grandfather is a shoe fetishist who dies embracing one of Célestine's boots. There is also the mystery of the murder of a young girl, of which the suspicion falls on the brutish gamekeeper and handyman of the family, Joseph, who is also a fervent Fascist. Nouvelle Vague icon Jeanne Moreau as Célestine gives a great performance: she is impeccably stylish and composedly serene, as well as wholly inscrutable - her face is a true enigma. Although more straightforward and lacking the surrealistic teases of Bunuel's later films, the director takes care to include his usual pokes at erotic repression and religious oppression, and satirize the strange ways of the bourgeoisie who live behind a facade of respectability while secretly indulging their lower instincts.
- Belle de Jour (1967)
Belle de Jour is Catherine Deneuve at her classic best: beautiful, elegant, ice-cold - and lustful. She plays an upper-class Parisian housewife, Séverine. Frigid towards her husband, she secretly entertains kinky bondage fantasies... To make these more concrete, she starts secretly spending her idle afternoons working in a boutique bordello. That, by the way, is also what the film title refers to: "Belle de Jour" is a "day-lily" that blooms only during the day, but the same French term can also refer to a prostitute whose trade is conducted during the daytime. So while remaining chaste in her marriage, in the afternoons Séverine satisfies the weird fetishes of the men that visit her high-class brothel. Her clients include a fat industrialist, a professor who dresses in role playing costumes and then abuses her, and a duke who likes to enact a mourning scene in a coffin. But she also meets a mean-looking, young gangster whose cruelty and ugliness rather please her - but when he falls in love with her and starts stalking her, things go horribly wrong... As is usually the case with Buñuel, this surreal, erotic tale forms a gentle criticism of the mores of decaying upper-class society. Deneuve is the ideal actress for this intricate study of female psychology. Despite that the character she plays revels in debauched desires, she retains a cool, inscrutable dignity, clad as she is in the chicest Yves Saint Laurent finery. This is the best and most iconic film Buñuel ever made. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1967. See my detailed review.
- Tristana (1970)
A wonderful but perverse film about power over others. Tristana (Catherine Deneuve) is a young woman, who when her mother dies, is entrusted to the care of her elderly uncle Don Lope (Fernando Rey) who lives in the beautiful city of Toledo. The innocent and naive Tristana, wholly in the power of her lecherous uncle, soon ends up in his bed. In the daytime, she is a virtual prisoner in his house. Still, she manages to meet a handsome young painter and elope with him. Two years later, ill, she unexpectedly returns to her uncle's house. But now - although she looses a leg to her illness - she turns the tables on the aging Don and forces him to marry her, after which Tristana mainly uses her position as mistress of the house to humiliate Don Lope. Eventually, winner takes all it seems - but in the process, Tristana has lost her soul and she has become as jaded as Don Lope was. As is usual, this Bunuel film is full of explicit Freudian images. Every scene is packed with visual interest. It also provides an interesting picture of catholic Spain and the hypocrisy rampant in such an ultra-conservative society as well as the marginal position of women in it - of course seen through the anti-clerical and anti-bourgeois eyes of the film maker. But above all, the most wonderful thing in the film is the transformation Catherine Deneuve undergoes from uptight virgin with her hair in braids to the bitchy and mean one-legged woman at the end. A most difficult role that is performed in a fascinating way. See my detailed review.
- The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie ("Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie," 1972)
Vintage Buñuel. A great comedy about a group of six upper middle class friends - very bourgeois - (Fernando Rey, Delphine Seyrig, Stephanie Audran, etc.) who repeatedly try to have a meal together but who find their plans each time interrupted and crossed by bizarre events. Dinner is the central social ritual of the middle classes, a way of displaying wealth and good manners - but here turned on its head. The participants never get what they want, they can never fulfill their desire for a good meal in a nice, sociable and cultivated environment. It doesn't help that the cast is suave and beautiful, superbly dressed in a suitably old-fashioned style. At the same time, the various interruptions reveal the secrets that lurk beneath the surface of the decaying European bourgeoisie: adultery, drug dealing, cheating, military coups, perversion and sheer boredom. The "discreet charm" of the title of course refers to their polite handling of their sense of futility and dismay - although gradually panic takes over. The film also contains some of the best Surrealist dream sequences Buñuel ever shot. In fact, reality and illusion soon blur into one, with delicious comic results. And we have the director's usual barb aimed at the Church in the person of a bishop whose fetish is to dress up as a gardener and work as a servant in the gardens of the wealthy.
- That Obscure Object of Desire ("Cet obscur objet du desir") (1977)
- Another film about thwarted desire, this time of a sexual nature. The elderly gentleman Mathieu (Fernando Rey) is madly in love with the young Conchita. Although she willfully attracts him, the next moment she tends to push him back even harder. As if she is two different persons, something Buñuel has underlined by having Conchita in the “attracting mode” played by the Spanish dancer Angelina Molina and in the “push-back mode” by French actress Carole Bouquet.
- Conchita doesn't want Mathieu to have power over her; and Mathieu doesn't want her to have power over him, so he doesn't offer marriage. Their relationship is stuck in the same unholy groove, except that it escalates. Mathieu tries to kiss her, but she flees; he helps her poor mother financially, but Conchita doesn't want to be bought; he tries to make love to her, but discovers she is wearing a chastity belt; he follows her to Spain where she is dancing in a cafe, only to find out she is stripping for tourists; and after he buys her a house she locks him out and under his eyes embraces a young man. But each time she coyly comes back and smooths his ruffled feathers with her charms...
- This is the 30th and last film made by Luis Buñuel, and it has been called a summing-up of his work: respectable (or even pompous) middle class characters plagued by strong and sometimes peculiar erotic desires, and therefore revealed as ultimately weak and funny.
- Read my detailed review.
References: The Rough Guide to Film (Penguin Group, 2007); Have You Seen...? by David Thomson (Penguin Books, 2008). IMDB, The Criterion Collection, Slant Magazine, Roger Ebert, Senses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal. Photos linked from Wikipedia. This series covers two blogs, Japan Navigator for Japanese directors and Splendid Labyrinths for non-Japanese directors.
1. Jean Renoir 2. Kenji Mizoguchi 3. Luis Buñuel 4. Yasujiro Ozu 5. Max Ophüls 6. Akira Kurosawa 7. Luchino Visconti 8. Mikio Naruse 9. Michelangelo Antonioni 10. Orson Welles
(to be continued)