Eternal Return of
It is a screen moment so delicious that Pedro Almodóvar could not resist snipping it out and inserting it into the flow of his magisterial Live Flesh (1997).
A spoilt little boy hears from his governess the disquieting tale of a King who, with the aid of a toy – a wind-up musical ballerina doll – can magically vanquish his enemies. The governess is interrupted by sounds of violent fighting in the street, and goes to the window to investigate. Instantly the boy concentrates on the doll, starting up the tinkly music and wishing malign fate upon his innocent governess. A bullet penetrates the window; immediately the woman lays dead, blood running from her neck. As the now seemingly omnipotent boy stares in awe at the exposed black stockings on the corpse’s legs, he confesses (in voice-over) that he felt a “morbid sense of pleasure”.
It is all over in a few, fleeting seconds. But this introduction to Luis Buñuel’s The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955) is indelible in its provocative mixture of elements – sweet music, sudden death, cold eroticism. The scene announces that anything, no matter how strange or crazy, can happen in a narrative, and it also indicates that the logic of events belongs to the realm of wish or dream, a fantasy made real.
And Buñuel, ever the showman, has a final touch up his sleeve – a way to top the topper, as comedians say when they manage to follow a punchline with one more, crowning joke. From this tableau of death and sinister imagination, Buñuel cuts to a nun – obviously none too pleased to be hearing this confession from an adult Archibaldo propped up merrily in his hospital bed. The nun declares that she finds the story “distasteful”, and Archimbaldo is pleased – as pleased, no doubt, as Buñuel himself, who never wasted any opportunity to scandalise the clergy.
Luis Buñuel is a director whose career ended several times, only to re-emerge from the ashes in unusual or spectacular fashion. To students of twentieth-century art movements, he is among the youthful rebels of European Surrealism in the 1920s and '30s, making three classics in quick succession: Un Chien andalou (An Andalusian Dog, 1929), L’Age d’or (The Golden Age, 1930) – both in collaboration with painter Salvador Dalí – and the original mockumentary, Las Hurdes (Land Without Bread, 1932). These films, far from being museum pieces, have lost none of their hallucinatory force.
Then things stalled. Buñuel spent over fifteen years noddling around in Spain and America, tinkering on various projects, but bringing none of his most cherished, dark dreams to the screen. But Mexico offered a new start. Buñuel entered the commercial industry there as a consummate B film professional, churning out in record time all manner of genre pictures: musicals, Westerns, thrillers, melodramas, romances. He was also able to slip in, now and again, a more personal production, like Los Olvidados (The Young and the Damned, 1950) or Nazarin (1959). He even had a shot at a Hollywood-style feature, shot in English and scripted by the McCarthy-blacklisted Hugo Butler – the extremely perverse ‘social drama’ The Young One (1961).
It was during this serendipitous chapter of Buñuel’s working life that – in the droll expression of French critic Jean-André Fieschi – he “dedicated himself to indirections characterised by a persistent deployment of cunning”. In other words, Buñuel became a sly fox, expert at insinuating into even the least promising material his personal viewpoint.
Indeed, Buñuel was perfectly correct when he stated that, although he might have signed “three or four frankly bad films” in his Mexican soujourn, “I never infringed my moral code”. The anger against social oppression, the subversive humour, the taste for amorous revolt: all these hallmarks of his Surrealist youth still burned bright, as they were to do until his death in 1983. The rich episode of ‘Buñuel in Mexico’, gaining more attention in programming events around the world today, touches not only with the historic roots of the Surrealist impulse but also its fertile extension into the disreputable wilds of pop culture.
The Mexican period came to a close with a film recognised as one of Buñuel’s masterpieces, The Exterminating Angel (1962). At that point, Buñuel, born at the dawning of the century, was sixty-two years old – an age when many directors are shutting up shop and figuring out how to parlay their former glory days into an endless string of festival retrospectives, teaching positions at film schools and cultural consultancies.
For Buñuel, however, the glory days were – once more – just beginning. Thanks largely to French producer Serge Silberman, a reinvigorated Buñuel began work on a series of films – including the immortal Belle de jour (1967) starring Catherine Deneuve and the Oscar-winning comedy The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) – that cemented his place in pantheon of great directors, alongside Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock (who was a devoted fan of Buñuel’s work).
Buñuel’s career ended with a final, sly Surrealist joke – That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), in which two actresses play the same role, with some spectators not even noticing – and a splendid autobiography, My Last Sigh (although the less delicate My Last Gasp would be a truer translation of what should be, in English, a much longer book), co-written with the faithful script collaborator of his final, French period, Jean-Claude Carrière.
This elegant autobiographical “confession” by Buñuel – as rigorously crafted as any of his films – revealed, once and for all, the paradoxes of this great artist. A life-long disbeliever, he none the less enjoyed long and fruitful chats with a priest who was one of his closest friends; a poet enraptured by every erotic possibility that can be imagined, he wa a dutifully faithful husband and devoted father. Buñuel cheerfully owned up to these contradictions; one of his proud mottos was “Thank God I’m an atheist”. Indeed, his acknowldegment of the messy complexity of human beings – and his rueful sense that the grand Surrealist code of “mystery” often surrendered itself to rather mundane realities – gives his work its depth and resilience.
Why does Buñuel’s oeuvre endure? In this twenty-first century, when MTV has exhaustively recycled the originally shocking opening of Un Chien andalou – a razor slicing an eyeball – and the arthouse scandals generated by Catherine Breillat (Romance) or Gaspar Noé (Irreversible) go far beyond any sexual scenario that Buñuel ever hinted at, shouldn’t his films today seem quaint, fussy, tame? Nothing could be further from the truth.
Buñuel’s secret is in his style. Another highpoint of his Mexican years, the delectable El (He, 1953), demonstrates this style in its opening, wordless moments (like Lang, Buñuel always liked to begin with a purely visual event, a homage to silent cinema). A baptismal service is taking place in an opulent church; a priest bends low, fastidiously washing and kissing the feet of young boys. The spectacle seems rather charged with unspoken undertones, and this subtext registers on the face of the film’s upright, uptight, middle-aged hero, the “he” of the title.
This man averts his gaze and, as if infected by the perversity in the air, begins studying, one by one, people’s feet and shoes: now we are in the realm of sexual fetishism, and Buñuel was (cinematically speaking) a sublime fetishist. Finally, the man’s look skips back to the best-looking, most alluring set of feet; the image tips up to show a young, demure woman. In this tiny flick of the camera, a story is set in motion, and a sick obsession is sparked. (It would be up to a latter-day post-Surrealist, Chilean-born Valeria Sarmiento, to ingeniously return to the original novel by Mercedes Pinto and remake it with a gender-switch as Elle in 1995.)
The prologue to El is witty and economical. It is also disarmingly direct and simple – no ostenatious visual tricks, no obvious or stereotypical ‘surreal visions’. Just everyday gestures and events, arranged with furious lucidity and penetrating, sarcastic humour. Buñuel was right to claim that his films eschewed symbolism, metaphor or allegory – to him, the whole sorry baggage of overly ‘meaningful’ and self-aggrandising art cinema, which he associated with the “phony Surrealist” Jean Cocteau. Buñuel’s slyness went hand in hand with his classicism, his love of patterns and connections subtly woven, left for the viewer to notice and interpret.
That is why Buñuel’s legacy is today carried aloft by the Cronenberg of A History of Violence (2005) rather than the Lynch of Mulholland Drive (2001), by the quizzical, low-key Surrealism of Chile’s Raúl Ruiz (That Day, 2003) rather than the strenuous sex-and-violence visions of Mexico’s Carlos Reygadas (Battle in Heaven, 2005). Buñuel understood that, in the quest to revolutionise the minds of movie viewers, indirection and understatement were more powerful weapons than shock or awe.
© Adrian Martin July 2007