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From “The Discreet Charm of Luis Buñuel” by Carlos Fuentes
SEEING: In his sixties, Buñuel finally achieved the choice of subject matter, the means, the creative freedom so long denied him. But Buñuel has always proved hardier than the minimal or optimal conditions of production offered him; he constantly remarks that, given a $5-million budget, he would still film a $500,000 movie. An obsessive artist, Buñuel cares about what he wants to say; or rather, what he wants to see. A really important director makes only one film; his work is a sum, a totality of perfectly related parts that illuminate each other. In Buñuel’s films, from Un Chien Andalou to The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, the essential unifying factor is sight. His first image is that of a woman’s eye slit by a razor and throughout the body of his work there is this pervading sense of sight menaced, sight lost as virginity is lost; sight as a wound that will not heal, wounded sight as an interstice through which dreams and desires can flow. Catherine Deneuve’s absent regard in Belle de jour is calculated. She is constantly looking outside the confines of the screen, enlarging the space of the screen, looking at something beyond that isn’t there, that probably connects the two halves of her life.
But Buñuel’s violent aggressions against sight actually force us back to his particular way of seeing. His world is seen first as a grey, hazy, distant jumble of undetermined things; no other director shoots a scene from quite that neutral, passive distance. Then the eye of the camera suddenly picks out an object that has been there all the time, or a revealing gesture, zooms into them, makes them come violently alive before again retiring to the indifferent point of view.
This particular way of seeing, of making the opaque backdrop shine instantly by selecting an object or gesture, assures the freedom and fluid elegance of a Buñuel film. Sight determines montage; what is seen flows into what is unseen. The camera fixes on a woman’s ankle or the buzzing box a Korean takes to a brothel; the woman’s shoes lead to desire or the Korean’s stare to mystery, mystery and desire to dream, dream to a dream within it and the following cut back to everyday normality has already compounded reality with the fabulous; the meanest, most violent or weakest character has achieved a plurality of dimensions that straight realism would never reveal. The brutal gang leader in Los Olvidados is redeemed by his dream of fright and solitude: A black dog silently races down a rainy street at night. And you cannot altogether hate the stupid, avaricious people in The Discreet Charm; their dreams are too funny; they are endowed with a reluctantly charming dimension; they are doomed, yet they survive.
Cruel and destructive: Such were the adjectives reserved for his early films; now they are elegant and comical. Has the dynamite-flinging miner of Asturias, as Henry Miller called him, mellowed so much? On the contrary: I believe his technique has simply become more finely honed, his sense of inclusiveness through sight wider. More things are seen, understood, laughed at and perhaps forgiven. Besides, the author is debating himself. Is that a Buñuel stand-in who drones in The Milky Way: “My hatred towards science and technology will surely drive me back to the despicable belief in God”?
Sight connects. Buñuel has filmed the story of the first capitalist hero, Robinson Crusoe, and Crusoe is saved from loneliness by his slave, but the price he must pay is fraternity, seeing Friday as a human being. He has also filmed the story of Robinson’s descendants in The Discreet Charm, and these greedy, deceptive people can only flee their overpopulated, polluted, promiscuous island into the comic loneliness of their dreams. Sight and survival, desires and dreams, seeing others in order to see oneself. This parabola of sight is essential to Buñuel’s art. Nazarin will not see God unless he sees his fellow men; Viridiana will not see herself unless she sees outside herself and accepts the world. The characters in The Discreet Charm can never see themselves or others. They may be funny, but they are already in hell. Elegant humor only cloaks despair.
So in Buñuel sight determines content or, rather, content is a way of looking, content is sight at all possible levels. And this multitude of levels—social, political, psychological, historical, esthetic, philosophic, is not predetermined, but flows from vision. His constant tension is between obsessive opposites: pilgrimage and confinement, solitude and fraternity, sight and blindness, social rules and personal cravings, rational conduct and oneiric behavior. His intimate legacies, often conflicting, are always there: Spain, Catholicism, surrealism, left anarchism. But, above all, what is always present is the liberating thrust that could only come from such a blend of heritages. Certainly no other filmmaker could have so gracefully and violently humanized and brought into the fold of freedom, rebellion and understanding so many figures, so many passions, so many desires that the conventional code judges as monstrous, criminal and worthy of persecution and, even, extermination. The poor are not forcibly good and the rich are not forcibly evil; Buñuel incriminates all social orders while liberating our awareness of the outcast, the deformed, the maimed, the necrophiles, the lesbians, the homosexuals, the fetishists, the incestuous, the whorish, the cruel children, the madmen, the poets, the forbidden dreamers. He never exploits this marginality, because he makes it central to his vision. He has set the highest standards for true cinematic freedom.
And finally, this respect for freedom of his characters is translated into respect for the freedom of his audience. As they end, his films remain open, the spectator remains free. A flock of sheep enters the church of The Exterminating Angel as civil strife explodes in the streets. An empty carriage rolls down a wooded lane while the horses’ bells jingle in Belle de jour. Nazarin accepts a gift of a pineapple from a humble woman as the drums of Calanda start pounding and the whole structure of the priest’s mind turns and opens toward the future. Viridiana sits down and plays cards with her cousin and the cook as they listen to rock recordings. A bell with the face of her victim and victimizer telescopes Tristana back to the very beginning of her story. The mad husband in El zigzags his way down a monastery garden where he thinks he has achieved peace of mind. The six listless characters in The Discreet Charm, driven by an irrational urge, trudge down an unending highway.
If the end in a Buñuel film can mean exactly the contrary, the beginnings of his films can be terrifying. L’Age d’Or starts with a scorpion and that scorpion, encircled by fire, is committing suicide with its own poisonous tail. It is the center of a flaming eye. Buñuel has written: “The camera is the eye of the marvelous. When the eye of the cinema really sees, the whole world goes up in flames.”
DYING: We walk in silence down a wintry Parisian boulevard. Buñuel is a friend, a warm, humorous, magnificent friend, and one can be with him without having to say anything.
We reach his hotel and go up to his room. He always reserves the same one; the windows open on the black and grey tombstones, the naked trees of the Montparnasse cemetery. It has rained all day, but at this hour of the afternoon a very pure, diaphanous light seems to drip from the fast moving clouds. Buñuel starts packing for the flight back to Mexico City.
Every now and then, he gazes at the trees and murmurs: “I’m not afraid of death. I’m afraid of dying alone in a hotel room, with my bags open and a shooting script on the night table. I must know whose fingers will close my eyes.”
Formerly Mexico's Ambassador to France, Carlos Fuentes is a world-renowned novelist, critic, and playwright. Excerpted from “The Discreet Charm of Luis Buñuel,” originally published in The New York Times Magazine, March 11, 1973. ©1973 by The New York Times Company. Reprinted by permission of the author.