Luis Buñuel: Eternal Surrealist

Luis Buñuel: Eternal Surrealist

How many times, in cultural history, has surrealism been declared out for the count? For the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, writing in 1929, surveying the surrealist literature of André Breton, Robert Desnos, and Louis Aragon, the glory days of this predominantly French movement—which had started scarcely a decade earlier, in 1917—were pretty much already over. Thirty years after Benjamin’s pronouncement, the troublemakers of the Situationist International, led by Guy Debord, never missed a chance to mock what they perceived as the nearly extinct dinosaur of surrealism, with its aging spokesmen no longer so terribly shocking in their studied provocations. In that same period of the ’50s and well beyond, Salvador Dalí’s clownish embrace of magazine advertising, TV, and general media celebrity hastened the impression, in many people’s minds, that surrealism was a spent force, reduced to a bunch of tired clichés—just another ephemeral art-world or showbiz fad.

But there has always been an unbeatable counterargument to any prognosis of surrealism’s demise, and it can be summed up in a name: Spanish-born Luis Buñuel (1900–1983). From his first short, the classic Un chien andalou (1929), to his final feature, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), Buñuel always stayed true to those primary surrealist principles with which he most identified: a spirit of revolt; the subversive power of passionate love, both romantic and erotic; a belief in the creativity of the unconscious (dreams and fantasies); a pronounced taste for black humor; and, last but never least, an abiding contempt for institutional religion and its representatives. 

Indeed, if there is one motif above all others that characterizes Buñuel’s cinema, it is surely the parade (again, from first film to last) of nuns, priests, and even saints, presented as figures who are variously silly, pompous, repressive, and sinister—sometimes all of those attributes at once.

In any decent reckoning with Buñuel, cinema, and surrealism, we must take into account not only his own dazzling career spanning half a century, but also the profound marks it has left on the sensibility of subsequent major filmmakers. Figures including Pedro Almodóvar, Walerian Borowczyk, David Lynch, Věra Chytilová, David Cronenberg, Jan Švankmajer, Sara Driver, Arturo Ripstein, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jean-Claude Brisseau, and Raúl Ruiz have all absorbed different aspects of the Master and reinterpreted his method in their own fashion.

However, after so many appropriations and recyclings, we may today have a somewhat skewed notion of Buñuel and his art. When we revisit his work, we discover not a torrid, psychedelic, violently disjointed style—the type of thing young art students always imagine surrealism to have been in its anarchic heyday—but the exact opposite: an unnerving calmness, a directness and simplicity in the way he staged the most outrageous situations and spun the most outlandish tales.

“Buñuel meticulously shaped his films as arrows designed to burrow straight into the unconscious of spectators, without undue filters or explanations.”

He aimed, throughout his life, for an ever less adorned manner: little musical underlining (when he does use music, it is always powerful); an extremely controlled direction of actors (he collaborated with many great ones, from Fernando Rey to Catherine Deneuve), with special attention paid to gesture and outward appearance; no facile camera tricks or ostentatious displays of color or design. Buñuel meticulously shaped his films as arrows designed to burrow straight into the unconscious of spectators, without undue filters or explanations.

According to legendary Swiss critic and programmer Freddy Buache (1924–2019), friend of Buñuel and author of an important 1970 book on him: “The true originality of Buñuel’s cinema is that it slips into the mould of the most cliché-ridden type of filmmaking, and then destroys it by bursting out from within.” This was already true even in his wildest days of youth. Un chien andalou and L’âge d’or (1930) are full of provocative, startling images (some of them devised by Dalí) that play simultaneously on the registers of black comedy (dead animals in the former) and scandalous liberation (love scenes in the latter). But Buñuel almost always begins his scenes with a perfectly composed, elegant picture of bourgeois respectability and refinement—which he then proceeds to dismantle. Across his career, the outright iconoclasm of this procedure softens—but, with a supreme sense of perversity, the uncanny sense of something not quite right comes to inhabit every situation at its outset, and in its core.

Buñuel reflected, in the course of a 1965 interview, on the need he felt to evolve beyond that first, openly antagonistic phase of surrealism. The horrors of twentieth-century history had, in his opinion, rendered the art movement’s celebrated shock tactics redundant: “How is it possible to shock after the Nazi mass murders and the atom bombs dropped on Japan?” But he went on to suggest: “One has to modify one’s method of attack, although one’s aims remain essentially the same—for the moral oppression has remained unchanged, it has simply assumed another disguise. What I’m aiming to do in my films is to disturb people and destroy the rules of a kind of conformism that wants everyone to think they are living in the best of all possible worlds.”

L’âge d’or was a movie that in its day—and as movie lore has often recounted—prompted outraged spectators (especially those affiliated with far-right political groups) to riot and tear up the cinema in which it was screening. André Breton, surrealism’s chief spokesperson at the time, celebrated the “violent liberation” that the film heralded, and its ultimate message of “a better life” whose cornerstone is “LOVE” (the capitals are his). But Buñuel, while never becoming disenchanted with such a fine surrealist credo, saw ruefully that this better life never truly came into existence for the majority of people anywhere in the world, despite the best efforts of a few feverishly intoxicated, creative imaginations. The essential stumbling block, he realized, was that deluded fantasy, held by most citizens, of existing “in the best of all possible worlds.” It’s that perception, that internalized ideology, that needed to be eroded by the powers of art—but it could only be done slowly and surely, slyly. So, as his style became more direct, his profound “message” became more indirect—and yet more pervasive in its effect on viewers, a seduction and a slap contained in the same gesture.

Buñuel’s trajectory can seem to us, in retrospect, like a starry one—few filmographies can boast the level of sustained achievement that takes us from the veritable surrealist manifesto of L’âge d’or to the corrosive social satire of Viridiana (1961) and, for his penultimate work, the completely free “sketch comedy” of The Phantom of Liberty (1974). Yet he did not always find it easy to maintain the momentum of this career. Fifteen years separate the disquieting documentary Land Without Bread (1932) from his first assignment in Mexico (where he resettled), Gran Casino. Despite the international triumph in 1950 of Los olivdados, a blending of surrealism with neorealism, Buñuel’s time as a director-for-hire in the Mexican industry cast a shadow of decline over his artistry.

As always, Buñuel was candid about his fortunes and misfortunes. Of the musicals, westerns, thrillers, melodramas, and romances he made during the 1950s, he admitted there were “three or four frankly bad films,” but nonetheless insisted: “I never infringed my moral code.” In retrospect, cinema critics and historians see the output of those years in a more positive light. For what Buñuel learned then was how to bring his surrealist impulses within the limits of traditional genre and narrative.

Throughout the 1950s and into the early ’60s, Buñuel also offers an early example, par excellence, of what we today call the transnational filmmaker. By 1950 he had already accumulated production experiences in Spain, France, Mexico, and even the U.S., squirreled away doing odd jobs in various Hollywood studios. Robinson Crusoe (1954) and Death in the Garden (1956) are both examples of coproduction (of Mexico with, respectively, the U.S. and France), allowing Buñuel to work with actors including Dan O’Herlihy and Simone Signoret—not to mention Michel Piccoli, who would reappear in his later projects. Both these films place their characters in natural surroundings (island, forest) and pitilessly weigh up so-called civilized ethics (in all its racism and paternalism) against fleeting, precarious experiences of freedom and self-knowledge.

The opening years of the 1960s must have been a puzzling time for Buñuel. On the one hand, still based largely in Mexico, he makes two of his greatest masterpieces, Viridiana and The Exterminating Angel (1962). These films have lost none of their explosive energy or dark wit. Viridiana is the most perfect formulation of a story Buñuel loved to often tell: of a deluded person (Silvia Pinal as the titular heroine) who thinks she is propagating “saintly,” Christian goodness, all the while triggering social catastrophe around her, and herself slipping into the darkest, amoral waters. The Exterminating Angel, a project Buñuel had nurtured since the mid ’50s, is a surrealistic mind-game crossed with a situation recalling Jean-Paul Sartre’s hellish No Exit: a large party finds itself inexplicably trapped inside a room, unable to simply walk out.

Yet these films bore little relation to the nouvelle vague in France or other burgeoning “new cinema” movements around the world in that era. Buñuel still had his firm fans (including the great Mexican essayist and poet Octavio Paz) but he was, in a superficial sense at least, no longer “fashionable.” By the time he made his own first fully French production, Diary of a Chambermaid, in 1964 with Piccoli and Jeanne Moreau, he found himself dismissed by the likes of Éric Rohmer in Cahiers du cinéma, painted as an artist who was repetitively and wearily settling old scores from forty years previously. It remains his most underrated film, veritably seething under its placid exterior.

In 1965, the forty-five-minute Simon of the Desert—another of his blasphemous, antireligious comedies, setting the code of ascetic denial against an array of delicious, earthly pleasures—seemed to some at the time like a characteristic postscript to a distinguished career. (Another faithful devotee, Brazilian Glauber Rocha, can be glimpsed among the wild rockers in its final scene.) But, as things happily turned out, Buñuel was on the cusp of a startling renaissance. Partly due to a sympathetic producer (Serge Silberman) and screenwriting collaborator (Jean-Claude Carrière), Buñuel relaunched his career—at the age of sixty-seven!—with Belle de jour (1967). This portrait of a demure housewife (Deneuve) who becomes a high-grade, much sought-after prostitute in the daytime effortlessly blurs the line between fantasy and reality, myth and mundanity. For the subsequent decade, it was one wonderful film after another for Buñuel, made mostly in France—with a crucial trip back to Spain for Tristana (1970), again starring Deneuve, a downbeat, antipatriarchal parable that is, at heart, his angriest and bleakest testament.

In truth, it wasn’t as if Buñuel in the later ’60s had really changed either his style or his content. Just as he remained true to surrealism, he also doggedly stuck to the inspiring, subversive literature he adored in his youth and long planned to adapt: novels by Octave Mirbeau (Diary of a Chambermaid), Benito Pérez Galdós (Tristana), and Pierre Loüys (The Woman and the Puppet, the source for both That Obscure Object of Desire, and Josef von Sternberg’s The Devil Is a Woman in 1935). But, starting with Belle de jour, there was a productive friction between the mannered surfaces of French high society and the filmmaker’s ironic sensibility that generated new sparks—and certainly won him a new, international audience.

The Milky Way (1969)—yet another satirical attack on religion and its myths—announced the tendency, prominent in Buñuel’s final decade of productivity, to use episodic narrative structures. Anecdotes, dreams, and flashbacks are cleverly strung together along some “spine” of a basic situation. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)—in which a bunch of refined characters forever tramp around looking for a good, uninterrupted meal—reverses the shut-in premise of The Exterminating Angel. In either case, the result is the same: a slow descent into uncivilized savagery, a surrender to animalistic drives, a gradual stripping away of every social hypocrisy. And, meanwhile, the wider world is overrun not by righteous revolutionaries but increasingly fanatical, insane, murderous terrorists (and, in this, Buñuel was frighteningly prescient).

The Phantom of Liberty furthered this sardonic operation of de-culturation: in one of its episodes, elegant citizens gather together at a table to defecate, and retire to their atomized bathroom cubicles in order to greedily devour food. That Obscure Object concludes with a mysterious terrorist blast that caps off, with an appropriately apocalyptic flourish, a withering comedy of manners about the non-communication between modern women (the heroine is played—not that every first-time viewer notices this—by two alternating actors, Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina) and old-fashioned men (incarnated once more by Fernando Rey). That was also the end of Buñuel’s screen career. He did nurture subsequent film projects, but decided to concentrate—with Carrière’s close assistance—on the composition of his marvelous autobiography, My Last Sigh (1982). One of its many delights is the revelation of the “ordinary,” even conservative Buñuel—the faithful husband and devoted father, the guy who even enjoys talking to exceptionally smart and enlightened priests—right alongside the forever enraged and passionate surrealist. The line everyone quotes from this book remains its best and greatest paradox: “Still an atheist . . . thank God!”

“Buñuel was a unique mixture of pure artistic intuition and the most skilled filmmaking craft—so skilled that he was able to keep making films well into the 1970s.”

Buñuel was a firm believer in the power of the unconscious mind—Carrière tells the tale of how working in tandem with the director was often a matter of spontaneously exercising the “muscle” of their imaginations—but he disallowed everything that locked unconsciousness down to something systematic and static. Buñuel was a unique mixture of pure artistic intuition and the most skilled filmmaking craft—so skilled that he was able to keep making films well into the 1970s, even as his eyesight was failing him. Buache summed up both Buñuel’s personality and his approach to filmmaking perfectly: “The artist in him cannot be separated from the man. He walks, laughs, and has a drink with friends in just the same way as he conceives a scene, shoots it, and then fits it organically into his storyline.”

He tended to laugh at critical interpretations of his work. Although, as a surrealist, he was no stranger to the Freudian tenets of psychoanalysis, he especially mocked ultra-rational attempts to rigidly decipher the “symbolism” of his images and scenes. Spiders, ants, endless roads, as well as all strange, off-screen sounds of drums, machine gun fire, or buzzing insects . . . these recurrent elements all resonated in the dramatic or comic context Buñuel gave them, but they didn’t “mean” anything exact. As a true and eternal surrealist, Buñuel believed in the poetic—not divine—mystery inherent in all things.

A retrospective of Buñuel’s films is playing on the Criterion Channel through June 30, 2020.

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