Luis Bunuel might well have had the greatest second act of any major filmmaker. The exciting and terrible events of the 20th century shaped his early career, but by the age of fifty it seemed Bunuel would only be remembered as a minor player in the Surrealist movement. Having spent the last fifteen years surviving Franco’s purges and American red-baiters, Bunuel found himself in Mexico City working on the fringes of his adopted country’s film industry. A happy ending didn’t look to be in the cards, but a timely and controversial film about the city’s rotten underbelly put Bunuel back on the world cinema map.
This oldest son of a businessman (who made his fortune selling arms in Cuba) spent a comfortable childhood in the conservative Aragon region of northern Spain. There, Luis attended Jesuit school but after reading Darwin the teenager rejected Catholicism adopted Marx and set his sights on becoming an entomologist. But his father disapproved of such an ungentlemanly vocation, so Bunuel enrolled in the school of engineering at the University of Madrid. There, he would befriend the poet Federico Garcia Lorca and the fledgling artist Salvador Dalí forming an exciting bond which would lead him astray from his dull studies. But like many artists and intellectuals of their generation, the men would soon flee their native country for the City of Lights.
Upon arriving in Paris in 1925, Bunuel had no plans to pursue a specific vocation. He hobnobbed with Spanish ex-pats at trendy Latin Quarter and Montparnasse cafes and penned film reviews for local newspapers to make ends meet and carve out a niche in the burgeoning artistic community. Inspired by the visionary films of Fritz Lang and the perverse writings of the Marquis de Sade, Bunuel struck up a friendship with director Jean Epstein for whom he did small acting roles, wrote and assisted in his sinister take on Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher.
Finally, ready to shock the world, Bunuel summonsed old friend Dali from Barcelona to help him create Un chien andalou, the anarchic short which proved to be the generation’s signature surrealist manifesto. Featuring such visually striking and unnerving scenes of ants crawling out of a hole in a man’s hand and a barber’s splicing of a human eyeball, the sixteen-minute film is a merry assault on the senses and Judeo-Christian morality. Bunuel and Dali construct their piece as a disjointed fable, where time and space have no bearing, and use suggestive and blatant imagery to shock and outrage. Catholicism, the mores of the bourgeoisie and American genre cinema are among the many institutions sent up with gruesome violence and outrageous humor.
The selfish and irrational protagonists (Simone Mareuil and Pierre Batcheff) are typical Bunuel lovers; only a freak of nature (a sandstorm) ultimately stands the way of their weird passion. Owing to the film’s brevity, light satirical touch and startling originality it became a big and fashionable hit among critics and intellectuals. Perhaps thinking he let his audiences slip off the hook too easily in Un Chien Andalou, Bunuel prepared an onslaught that would offend conservative and liberal sensitivities alike.
Bunuel and Dali had a falling out during the early stages of L’age D’or. With little input from his former friend Bunuel completed the scenario and took over production. Inevitably, this second masterwork from the surrealist workshop had little of Dali’s whimsy but a whole lot of Bunuel attitude. It also had a story…of sorts. During a dedication to a band of deceased Mallorcan priests a congregation becomes outraged by a young couple making love in the mud. The man (Gaston Modot) is led away by gendarmes and the woman (Lya Lys) is returned to her upper class home in the country.
After being hounded by dogs, harassed by the cops and beguiled by the essence of his lover, Modot informs his captors he is actually an ambassador sent to spread goodwill across the Republic. The confused cops let Modot escape and he makes his way to Lys’ country house where her parents are holding an exclusive party. Modot crashes the party, smacks Lys’ mother in the face and takes the delighted girl to the garden where they engage in a fetishistic love ritual. Modot’s ecstasy is interrupted by the appearance of an elderly conductor (Duchange) with a headache. Lys takes pity on the old man and begins to make out with him driving the enraged Modot to perform his final cleansing act.
Bunuel bookends this peculiar narrative with an ancient documentary about the predatory behavior of scorpions and a recreation of Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom with a Christ-like figure playing the Marquis’ fabled monster, The Duke of Blangis (Lionel Salem). Bearing a keen resemblance to his director, Modot plays Bunuel’s alter ego with fire and panache. Anyone or anything that stands in his way will suffer a kick to the torso or a smack in the kisser. No damsel in distress, Lys exhibits a mind of her own by rebelling against her hypocritical parents then rejecting the dashing Modot for a decrepit suitor. This “L’amour fou” is, perhaps, the major theme in Bunuel’s films and would be explored in greater depth in such films as El, The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, Belle de jour and Tristana.
An equal opportunity offender, L’age d’or bashed Catholicism, unthinking cops, the uncaring bourgeoisie and any authoritative figure who pledged to keep the rabble in line. Unlike its comparatively benign predecessor, Bunuel’s outrageous film infuriated the Far Right and ruffled the feathers of Parisian tastemakers prompting the police to shut the film down in many city theatres. Bunuel was said to have been delighted by the adverse reaction and while the bad publicity made his name mud in Paris it opened doors in Hollywood, of all places.
On the strength of Lya Lys performance in L’age d’or Bunuel was offered a contract to join her at MGM. Wary of being trapped in the studio system with an interminable contract Bunuel renegotiated his deal to make him something of a glorified observer who would overlook Spanish language versions of current MGM hits. According to Bunuel his abrasive personality led to dismissal and a return ticket to Paris. Turned off by the snobbery of the Surrealist movement, Bunuel relocated to Madrid where he got a job as a dubbing supervisor for the local Paramount Studios.
After years of inactivity as a filmmaker, good fortune finally smiled upon Bunuel when a friend donated his lottery winnings to finance a documentary about the inhabitants of Las Hurdes, a criminally poor mountain community near the Portugal border. Though the region was within shouting distance of a prosperous community and a two hour drive from the glories of Salamanca, the citizens of Las Hurdes lived in poverty and squalor. Owing to the rocky landscape efforts at farming yielded pitiful crops, so the locals were left to eat scraps, indulge in petty crime, and pursue incestuous endeavors. Bunuel, assistant directors Rafael Sanchez Ventura and Pierre Unik and cinematographer Eli Lotar captured this grim existence in a classic, non-patronizing manner.
The power of the bleak imagery in Las Hurdes (Land without Bread) was re-enforced in the editing room where Bunuel added an instructive but maddeningly aloof narrative offset by a musical score of Brahms’ austere Fourth Symphony. As a result of these calculated, bizarre post-production choices one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the sheer awfulness of what is playing out on the screen. Needless to say when this incendiary film finally got a general release in 1937 it was quickly banned in his home country.
During the mid-1930s Bunuel kept busy making up films, setting up shop in Madrid as a producer of comedies to be distributed in Spain and throughout South America. Wishing to remain anonymous, he gave directing credit in these films to fledgling filmmakers looking to get a toe-hold in the industry. Bunuel’s little workshop was dissolved in 1936 when Franco’s rebel army lay siege against the Republic beginning the Civil War that would devastate Spain. Bunuel fled to Paris where he helped oversee documentaries being made in support of the Republican government. Two years later Bunuel returned to Hollywood to work on a pair of documentaries about the war, but when Franco declared victory he was out of work once again.
In 1939 Bunuel moved his family to New York City where he made friends with Iris Barry, a British film critic and curator of the film department of the Museum of Modern Art. Barry hired Bunuel to be in charge of a documentary unit that would re-edit and produce propaganda films for the war effort. Bunuel’s term at the museum came to a swift end once the city’s Catholic clergy found out Barry’s esteemed assistant was actually a former Communist. Bunuel returned to L.A. to take a dubbing job at Warner Brothers’, but beyond some story suggestions beyond such films as Robert Florey’s horror classic The Beast with Five Fingers it was not an artistically fruitful period. After Hollywood’s post-war boom faded, Bunuel once again found himself without a job.
Rather than try to find another gig in such an intellectually hostile environment, Bunuel moved to Mexico City where many of his Spanish friends had fled after Franco’s takeover of their homeland. Bunuel felt there were great possibilities in this country which had gone through a recent revolution and artistic renaissance of its own. Mexico’s film industry led by the lyrical collaboration of director Emilio Fernandez and cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa had also begun to soar to new heights.
Looking to get his foot in the door, Bunuel accepted an assignment from producer Oscar Dancigers to direct Gran Casino (aka Tampico) a musical/melodrama about an Argentinian woman (Libertad Lamarque) who takes a job as a singer at a Tampico casino to investigate the disappearance of her rich oil magnate brother. Bunuel directed Gran Casino in a perfunctory manner, only showing interest when making mockery of the overripe singing styles of his stars Jorge Negrete and Lamarque. The film turned out to be a surprising flop at the box office and Bunuel would have to wait two years for his next job.
Popular leading man Fernando Soler came to the rescue by hiring Bunuel to direct his new comedy El gran calavera. Soler plays Ramiro, a rich businessman who goes on an extended bender after the death of his wife. Fearing the despairing man will fritter their fortune away, Ramiro’s good for nothing family puts together a scheme to shock him back to sobriety. When Ramiro learns of their treachery he turns the tables on them by faking his own fall from financial grace and forcing the family into manual labor.
After a hilarious opening sequence which finds the boozy Soler crawling through a twisted pile of humanity El gran calavera evolves into a wry comedy of the classes. The director’s good-natured barbs make fun at both the idle rich and the suspicious poor while subtly leveling the playing field for all concerned. As is so often the case in Bunuel’s Mexican films, once the over-heated dilemmas are resolved the requisite happy endings become absurdly ecstatic—a playful poke at a money-grubbing industry and the middle-brow tastes of his audience. The film’s financial success gave Bunuel the opportunity to shoot a more personal project about the mean streets of his adopted city.
During his years of inactivity in the late 1940s Bunuel took in many of the breathtaking and sundry sites of Mexico City. Appalled by the squalor and the living conditions of the city’s poor, he carved out a scenario for the film that would become Los Olvidados. Dancigers hired Gabriel Figueroa but the esteemed cinematographer balked at the ugly subjects and drab landscapes his director wanted to film. Ultimately Bunuel would get his way and Los Olvidados would become the Surrealist’s harsh answer to the contrived lyricism of the Italian Neo-Realist films.
The action is set in a crowded ghetto of the city where its inhabitants live in makeshift shacks. A gang of children run wild in the streets, stealing from vendors and throwing rocks at defenseless old men. The gang’s leader Pedro (Alfonso Mejia) befriends an Indian boy who has been abandoned by his father until the boy is recruited by a wretched blind musician (Miguel Inclan). The old man uses the boy to shakedown bystanders for money in exchange for shelter and scraps of food.
Meanwhile the gang is infiltrated by Jaibo (Roberto Cabo) an escapee from reform school who impresses them with tales of the underworld. Jaibo takes Pedro under his wing which means he can’t squeal when the older boy beats an informer to death. Pedro brings Jaibo back to his tiny shack and introduces him to his attractive mother (Estela Inda). The lonely woman finds the brawny teenager appealing and goes to bed with him. After being caught stealing Pedro is sent to a reformatory where his violent behavior shocks his guards and the other inmates. Later, the facility’s psychologist sends him on an errand into the city where he meets Jaibo. The older boy kills Pedro and steals the psychologist’s money. The police catch up to Jaibo and shoot him, leaving him to die in agony.
Looking to bring an air of authenticity to Los Olvidados, Bunuel used mostly untrained actors and he was careful not to make the children seem precious. Indeed, these kids are a street smart crew; self-sufficient yet pathetic, as well. Being able to call the shots meant Bunuel could indulge in one his favorite flights of fancy; a psychologically revealing dream sequence. Here, the nearly starving Pedro conjures a vision of his mother trying to seduce him with a giant slab of bloody meat. The boy wakes up to erase the horrific vision from his mind but there will be no escape from the squalor of his existence.
This unrelenting portrait of a neglected people took a drubbing from Mexican critics but it went on to be a surprise hit and won Bunuel the Cannes Film Festival prize for best director. Going from political pariah to darling of the smart set had to have amused the fifty year old Bunuel. But, international acclaim didn’t lead to better projects once he returned to Mexico.
Commercial filmmaking in Mexico adhered to stricter formulas than those being used in Hollywood. The typical Mexican film was a taut (seventy to ninety minutes) melodrama, musical or comedy programmer; shot efficiently (two weeks or less) with little artistic or sociological indulgence. This no-frills approach turned out to be an excellent discipline for a director notorious for stretching budgets to milk the most out of his scenarios. Bunuel preferred melodrama, a controlled yet slightly hysterical genre in which he could hurl devious darts at the middle classes. While Bunuel’s Mexican melodramas tend to get short critical shrift but they are, on the whole, entertaining and many of them rank among his best works.
The blood and thunder theatrics of Susana has left many a filmgoer rubbing their eyes in disbelief, but it was the most ferocious and funny film Bunuel had made since L’Age d’Or. We first see the hysterical Susana (Rosita Quintana) being thrown into a gloomy cell in a house of correction. After being terrified by a hairy spider she pushes the bars out of a window and escapes into the stormy night. She ends up at a ranch where she is taken in by the benevolent Don Guadalupe (Fernando Soler) and his family.
It turns out foxy Susana is quite the nympho and she has little trouble in seducing the ranch foreman, Don Guadalupe and his son. The tight family unit is blown to bits and soon everybody is at each other’s throat threatening bloody murder. Finally, the foreman turns the little home wrecker into the authorities and the family comes to their senses in the wholly unbelievable and completely wonderful epilogue.
Another sexy vamp wreaks havoc in Subida al cielo
when she seduces a young newlywed who only wants to grant his dying mother her last wish. Oliverio (Esteban Marquez) postpones his honeymoon after he learns his family will fritter away his mother’s fortune unless her will is quickly notarized. He embarks upon a two day bus journey through treacherous terrain to get to the notary. Among his neighbors on the bus are a fast-talking politician and the hot to trot Racquel (Lilia Prado). When the bus stalls in a stream Racquel takes Oliverio for a swim and later seduces him. The rowdy caravan makes another unannounced stop at the bus driver’s home to celebrate his mother’s birthday. Too drunk to man the wheel, the driver turns the keys over to Oliverio who drives the bus up a mountain to get the notarization.
Back home, he finds his mother dead but unbeknownst to his siblings he uses her thumb to make her mark on the all-important document. Propriety, progress and politics are all held up to ridicule in the good-natured Subida al cielo, a film whose open-ended style would prove inspiration for the more overtly surreal Illusion Travels by Streetcar.
Streetcar follows the adventures of Godinez (Carlos Navarro) and Tarrajas (Fernando Soto), two mechanics who salvage a streetcar destined for the scrap heap and take it on one last joyride. After trying to save the streetcar from its grim fate, the two men appear on stage in a ribald local production of “Adam and Eve” then go on an all night binge. The booze gives them courage to hijack the streetcar and drive it across the city at the break of dawn.
In the film’s signature scene, the drunken conductors pick up night shift workers from a slaughterhouse, greedy nuns and American tourists who all look upon Godinez and Tarrajas with suspicion since they do not charge fare. After the alcohol wears off the men find it nearly impossible to sneak the bulky streetcar back into the station without being seen. Once again, the campy sex bomb Lilia Prado comes along for the ride in a joyous romp that features Mexico City in all its peculiar glory.
A pet project dating from the early 1930s, Bunuel’s ferocious adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (Cumbres borrascosas) doesn’t get much play these days; a true shame since it captures the mad spirit of the novel better than William Wyler’s 1939 Hollywood classic starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon.
Saddled with the hammy Jorge Mistral as Alejandro-Heathcliff and stiff Irasema Dillan as Catalina-Cathy, Bunuel put the petal to the metal cranking up his trademark “L’amour fou” to levels not seen in his work since L’Age d’Or. Here, the ill-fated lovers are shown to be monsters trashing and insulting any unfortunate relative or suitor standing in their way. Bunuel keeps the tempo at fever pitch culminating in Alejandro’s desperate attempt to crawl into Cathy’s tomb to Raul Lavista’s Wagner-drenched score. It’s crazy, spine-tingling stuff.
The prospect of making Robinson Crusoe, Bunuel’s first color film, wasn’t met with much enthusiasm from the director. He wasn’t a big fan of Defoe’s novel, but he managed to put his unique spin on Crusoe’s lonely plight and near descent into madness. British slave trader Crusoe (Dan O’Herlihy) is left to his own devices when his ship is wrecked on a deserted island in the Caribbean. A dog, cat and parrot are his only companions on the island, but Crusoe combats loneliness by prospecting the terrain, cultivating crops and building a shelter for his little community of animals.
Over time, Crusoe’s mind plays tricks on him and he begins to hallucinate about his disapproving father and women. Despairing of ever leaving the island alive, he sheds his civilized demeanor and becomes a weird, hairy beachcomber. When Crusoe discovers cannibals are practicing rituals on the other side of the island he becomes increasingly paranoid until he saves one of the savages and turns him into a manservant. Crusoe treats his new companion Friday (Jaime Fernandez) cruelly until he’s “civilized” and unlikely to return to his former home. Over the next several years Crusoe tries to make a Christian out of his Godless servant all the while blissfully unaware of the regenerative powers of Friday’s friendship.
Paranoia and mental illness also run rampant in two of Bunuel’s finest and funniest films of this period, El-This Strange Passion and The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz. In El the aristocratic Francisco Galvan de Montemayor (Arturo de Cordova) leads a pure and esthetically-correct existence in his grandfather’s Gaudi-inspired villa. A 40something virgin, Francisco is quick to fire a housemaid for a sexual indiscretion but still maintains a creepy manservant as his lone confidante. While at a church service, Francisco lets his mind and eyes wander over to a dainty pair of feet belonging to the fetching Gloria (Delia Garces), the fiancée to one of his professional friends. At a dinner orchestrated by Francisco, the passionate host sweeps Gloria off her feet and they surprise their friends by getting married.
Francisco’s misplaced jealousy turns the honeymoon into a nightmare for Gloria who can’t get anyone to believe her upright husband is mad. Unable to bear other men looking at his wife, Francisco shuts Gloria up in her room where he seems to have a plan of stitching up her vagina with needle and thread. Finally, when Francisco’s bizarre behavior goes public and he is caught attacking a priest in church he is sent to a Colombian monastery where he hopes to find an elusive peace of mind.
Francisco’s doppelganger, Archibaldo de la Cruz is also a man of means with peculiar habits and fetishes. As a child, Archibaldo is given a music box just at the moment his governess is shot by an unseen revolutionary. As the lilting music plays on, little Archibaldo is consumed an ecstatic vision of blood running down the dead woman’s naked leg. Later we find Archibaldo (Ernesto Alonzo) making what seems to be a healthy transition to adulthood as a celebrated artist.
Repressed demons rear their ugly heads when he purchases his old music box from a second hand shop. Archibaldo is possessed by the urge to kill women but his meticulous attempts to carry out these fantasies are continually thwarted by coincidence and fate. His sexual frustration boils over prompting him to make love to a female mannequin before burning it in his kiln. Apparently cured of his weird obsession, Archibaldo discards the music box and runs off with Lavinia (Miroslava Stern), a free-spirited girl who mocks his rigid religiosity.
Bunuel’s most uncompromised film since Los Olvidados, this charming black comedy marked the end of a surprisingly rich period of creativity for an artist who had fled Hollywood because he found commercial filmmaking too constraining. Bunuel found a home, and mission, in Mexico. With Spain stuck in the doldrums of Franco’s fascist rule and the United States deluded by its American Dream, Bunuel became increasingly stimulated by the brutality and humanity of his adopted country.
A project several years in the making, Nazarin was based on a short novel by one of Bunuel’s favorite authors, Benito Perez Galdos. Adapted to Diaz’ Mexico of 1900, Nazarin opens at the humble abode of Father Nazario (Francisco Rabal) situated above a whorehouse in an otherwise conservative town. He offers solace to the hysterical Beatriz (Marga Lopez), a conflicted middle-class woman who tried to hang herself after her lover Pinto (Noe Murayama) dumps her. Father Nazario then offers shelter to the slovenly Andara (Rita Macedo) a prostitute wanted for killing a rival. News of Nazario’s scandalous behavior reaches the local Bishop who dismisses the Father from his post.
With little more than the clothes on his back, the selfless Nazario sets out to the country where he hopes to do good deeds and spread the word of Christ. When he offers to work for only food at a construction site he is bullied by his co-workers who fear the greedy bosses will cut their wages. Entering another town without shoes and begging for alms, Nazario is recruited by a former parishioner who is convinced this Christ-like priest can perform a miracle and save a sick baby. Nazario is brought to a shack occupied by a flock of crazed women, including Beatriz and Andara, who believe the priest has been sent by God to deliver the child from death. Though Nazario tries to discourage the women from believing in such foolishness their prophecy seems to ring true when the baby makes a miraculous recovery.
As Nazario prepares to leave town he finds he is being followed by Beatriz and Andara. He allows the women to join him only if they obey his wishes and vow to do good deeds. The unholy trio next enters a town ravaged by the plague. After offering his services to the town’s suspicious mayor Nazario is sent to a house where a young woman is dying. She upsets the priest by refusing to repent of her sins and by calling for her husband. The anxious man returns, throws Nazario out of his house then embraces his wife in such a sensual manner it is left to reason he will catch her disease.
Doctors begin to arrive in town, so the disillusioned Nazario takes flight believing he has failed in his mission. He is soon arrested for harboring the fugitive Andara and tormented by the other prisoners during a walk of shame back to his hometown. His faith is further tested by the dissolution of his little flock; Andara is sent to another prison and Beatriz returns to the cruel Pinto. At the end of his tether, the prisoner manages to finds reason for hope when a roadside vendor takes pity on him and offers a pineapple.
A devoted atheist Bunuel was notorious for satirizing the clergy at every opportunity but, here, he has great sympathy for this humble and foolish man of the cloth who can’t understand why his kind words and consul are rebuffed time and again. Greed, selfishness and superstition nearly succeed in destroying Nazario’s belief, but a simple gesture manages to rekindle the flame of his spirit before it blows out forever.
Bunuel’s lone English language project, The Young One (scripted by blacklisted Hugo Butler), takes place on an island set aside as a nature preserve by the U.S. government. The island is inhabited by the game warden Miller (Zachary Scott), his old assistant Pee-Wee and the elderly man’s thirteen-year old daughter Evvie (Key Meersman). After Pee-Wee dies Miller lays down the law to the wild child, suggesting she clean up her act so he can take her to town and find her a new home. He changes his mind after seeing the spruced-up Evvie who has become ripe for the lonely man’s picking.
Meanwhile, Traver (Bernie Hamilton) a black musician from the north has landed his boat on the island trying to evade a band of vigilantes. While Miller is away on the mainland, Traver befriends Evvie and buys a gun and supplies from her. When Miller returns and learns a colored man has taken his gun, he stalks the would-be fugitive and takes a shot at him. Believing Traver dead, Miller returns home and continues his seduction of Evvie.
Traver returns and holds Miller and Evvie hostage while he fixes his boat. Oddly enough, Traver accepts Miller’s offer of work and moves into Evvie’s shack forcing the defenseless girl into the game warden’s house—and consequently his bed. The next day the Reverend Fleetwood (Claudio Brook) is brought to the island by a ferryman Jackson (Crahan Denton) who tells Miller a black musician is wanted in town for the rape of a white woman. While Miller and Jackson set off in pursuit of Traver, the Reverend baptizes Evvie and learns the awful truth about her relationship with Miller. After Miller and Jackson catch Traver the musician plays his trump card. Fearing exposure as a pedofile, Miller loosens Traver’s bonds and after a victorious scrap with Jackson the musician flees the island. Miller patches things up with the wary Reverend by promising to marry the unsuspecting Evvie the next time they go to the mainland.
The Young One seems almost conventional, but this curious film takes a more honest approach to racial relations than most anything being churned out by Hollywood in the years leading up the Civil Rights Act. Miller is a knee-jerk racist but he grudgingly respects Traver’s talent as a musician, his resourcefulness and survival instincts. Had circumstances been different, there is reason to believe the reactionary and the northern Negro might have lived in an uneasy harmony.
Traver, on the other hand, is the anti-Sidney Poitier. He is a red-blooded man who has to fight his own attraction to the budding Evvie while outwitting the men who want to hang him for an offense he did not commit. Taken solely as a study of lost innocence and warped desire The Young One can be seen as a bridge between Los Olvidados and the unsentimental education of a convent student in Bunuel’s next film.
Upon return to his homeland after twenty-five years in exile, Bunuel found Spain’s moribund film industry in the midst of a renaissance. The current films being produced there (biblical and historical epics funded by American money) were not of his taste, so he was amazed to get the green light from Franco’s government to make a project of his choice. Armed with his biggest budget to date Bunuel set up shop outside of Madrid and began work on the film many believe to be his masterpiece, Viridiana.
Just as she is ready to take her vows as a nun, Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) is chastised by the Mother Superior for not visiting her sickly uncle Don Jaime (Fernando Rey) who has footed the bill for her education since she was a child. Resigned, Viridiana goes to Don Jaime’s villa in the country but she upsets her uncle when she is unable to forgive him for his negligence. Fascinated by Virdiana’s austere manner and innocent beauty, Don Jaime likens the young woman to her aunt who died in his arms the night of their wedding. After dressing Viridiana up in his bride’s old wedding gown he proposes to the shocked girl who turns him down flat. Trying to keep her from returning to the convent, Don Jaime drugs Viridiana and informs her he took her innocence while she was asleep. Horrified, she flees her uncle’s home only to be detained at the bus station where she is told Don Jaime has committed suicide.
As a final joke, Don Jaime leaves the villa to both Viridiana and his dissolute son Jorge (Francisco Rabal) who lives in sin with a woman from the city. Believing she is unworthy of taking her vows, Viridiana opens up her side of the big house to the local homeless much to the consternation of the servants and Jorge’s girlfriend. Jorge finds purpose in his aimless life by working the land and trying to win the virtuous Viridiana. Meanwhile, the devout woman organizes the vagrants by giving out tasks around the villa in return for food and shelter. But, behind her back, the motley crew bickers and fight amongst each other leading to a bacchanal in the main house.
Jorge and Viridiana return from the city to find the villa in a shambles. Jorge is assaulted and Viridiana nearly raped when the captive son of Don Jaime talks one of the vagrants into killing her attacker for a large bounty. When order has been restored, Viridiana lets her hair down and enters into a three-handed card game with the leering Jorge, his housemaid and current lover Ramona (Magarita Lozano).
It was no surprise Viridiana outraged the clergy of Spain and Francisco Franco alike, who demanded the film be banned. Yet, it is a tribute to Bunuel that such a revolutionary film could have ever been made in a fascist state. As would become apparent in the director’s later work, the film’s thin plot serves as a tree for Bunuel to hang some very bizarre ornaments. Here, the aristocratic and self-absorbed Fernando Rey (the preferred leading man of Bunuel’s golden years) aims to live out the fetishistic fantasies suggested by the anti-heroes of L’Age d’Or and El but even when he fails he wins by playing a sick posthumous joke on the object of his lust. The ethereal Silvia Pinal becomes the first true Bunuel anti-heroine; a blank slate whose pure as driven snow persona will be savaged time and again.
As we have seen in the past, Bunuel has little use for do-gooders whether they are prospective nuns, well-meaning liberals, or even Jorge, who in his one good deed saves a mongrel dog from its cruel owner. Conversely, Jorge has little use for mankind, especially the vagrants who inhabit his property but he puts up with this insanity to impress Viridiana. When Viridiana’s guests show their true colors and wreck the house in a riotous (and side-splittingly funny) Last Supper, her spirit is broken and unlike Father Nazario she is granted no reprieve and succumbs to the worldly ways of her cousin in-law.
The international successes of Nazarin and Viridiana gave Bunuel artistic freedom for the first time in Mexico and for his next film he would create his most surrealistic vision since his early collaborations with Dali. Inspired by a painting by the baroque Spanish artist Valdes Leal, The Exterminating Angel is almost exclusively set in a city mansion where a group of opera-goers have relocated to drink and socialize after a concert. But even before they settle down for dinner the host Sr. Nobile (Enrique Rambal) is upset to learn most of his help have quit, spooked by something strange going on inside the house.
While upraiding a clumsy waiter his wife Lucia (Lucy Gallardo) hardly notices the bear and flock of sheep in the servants’ quarter. After dinner, the guests relocate to the salon where they are at turns cordial and insulting to one another. The catty conversation comes to a close when the guests grow tired and curl up to sleep unaware they’ve been dealt a cruel fate by an unseen force.
The next morning the Nobiles and the guests find they are unable to leave the salon. This bizarre occurrence brings out the worst in this cultured crowd and over the next two days they succumb to pettiness, panic, hunger and animal lust. A vigil is being kept outside the mansion by a frightened public and the police who don’t dare step onto Nobile property. Finally, one of the guests (Silvia Pinal) has the brainstorm to restage the salon and group’s activity just as it was when it became apparent they couldn’t leave. The crazy scheme works and the guests evacuate the house. Days later, they reunite at their church where, to their horror, they find once again they are unable to leave the premises.
Bunuel’s savage attack on the bourgeoisie makes for a good bit of obscene fun. Couples copulate in the closet, guests are forced to drink water for houseplants and sheep are butchered before the despairing snobs turn to a lowly steward (Claudio Brook) to take charge in finding water and a route for escape.
By 1962 Bunuel’s direction was becoming increasingly seamless and droll. He continued to eschew hiring stars, preferring to use amateurs or second rate actors to assure deadpan performances. In The Exterminating Angel the visual shocks are less disjointed and roll with the flow of the absurd narrative. As the cruel and sublime Viridiana would beget Belle du jour and Tristana, Bunuel’s fantastic new film proved to be a template for the three surrealist comedies that would put a cap on his remarkable career.
Though Bunuel was born in a Catholic home and spent most of his life in religious countries he was a man of science as his interests in Darwin and entomology would enthusiastically suggest. Still, he took his clerical subjects seriously and the philosophical tone of Bunuel’s satires on religion made the ensuing punch-lines all the more devastating. Simon of the Desert (Simon del desierto) is the story of the Fourth century saint who lived on a narrow pillar in a barren desert to be closer to his God.
Looked upon as a holy man and freak by the local populace, serene Simon (Claudio Brook) blesses all God’s creatures, great and small, and even performs miracles to the indifference of the ungrateful few. But, being exposed to the sun, wind and rain for eight years causes Simon to hallucinate during a series of confrontations with the Devil (Silvia Pinal). Satan first appears to him in the guise of a young girl in a sailor’s outfit. Sucking suggestively on a lollipop she exposes her legs and breasts to the bewildered man, who closes his eyes in the hope the tempting apparition will go away.
Bizarre confrontations with the cynical clergy, some disbelieving townsfolk and even a sympathetic dwarf (Jesus Fernandez) chips away at Simon’s psyche and makes him doubt his intentions. Satan soon reappears as the Good Shepard who prepares Simon for a great journey. The Devil whisks him away on a jet plane to a New York City nightclub where a rock and roll band is laying down a maniacal beat. Dressed in groovy ‘60s threads, the dour Simon looks like an elder beatnik set adrift in a bacchanal ready to consume him and the world. As the subject of all this abuse and misery, Simon is noble but a fool, something of a saintly twin to Bunuel’s beloved Don Quixote. The stiff and formal Claudio Brook proved to be a perfect choice to play this simple saint tormented by desire and bewildered by the rottenness of mankind.
One of Bunuel’s more philosophically ambitious works The Milky Way is a picaresque tale of two travelers (Paul Frankeur & Laurent Terzieff) hitching their way across France and Spain (with inexplicable detours to Bethlehem and the chambers of the Marquis de Sade) to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela. Shot in a free-flowing style, the loose narrative follows the poor Pilgrims’ plight as they run up against God-fearing everymen, holy and heretical figures all grappling with the nature of Catholic dogma. Bunuel expertly interweaves the men’s journey through several episodes, ping-ponging from the time of Christ, to the Age of the Enlightenment to the acid-tinged 1960s where minor and major players on history’s stage argue and speculate over the church’s doctrine.
Viridiana marked a turning point for Bunuel who for the rest of the career chose to examine that obscure object of desire; the female of the species. In most of these later films his heroine is an ethereal bird who succumbs to the whims and desires of predatory men, the exception being Diary of a Chambermaid starring the steely Jeanne Moreau as the Parisian servant hired to attend to a dysfunctional family in the country. Based on the Octave Mirbeau novel, Bunuel’s adaptation has little of the lyricism and fanciful Romanticism of Jean Renoir’s take on the same subject manner. Paulette Goddard’s Celestine is conniving but behind her saucy smile lays the promise of great sex. In the Bunuel film it is hard to gauge what the sullen Moreau is thinking.
Celestine is amused by the elderly Monsieur Rabour (Jean Ozenne) and puts up with his fetishistic games. She teases Rabour’s sexually frustrated son in-law Monteil (Michel Piccoli) while obeying the man’s frigid wife (Francoise Lugagne). To the chagrin of the family, the strong-minded maid socializes with their eccentric and annoying neighbor Captain Mauger (Daniel Ivernel). But we only get a real glimpse into Celestine’s perverse psyche in her behavior towards the racist groundskeeper Joseph (George Geret). Tiring of the Rabours and the dullness of country life, Celestine is ready to return to Paris when she learns the little girl she had been mentoring has been raped and murdered.
The police and the community suspect the insatiable Monteil but the maid thinks otherwise. She returns to the farm and sets out to ensnare Joseph, who has already asked Celestine to marry him. She is repulsed yet strangely turned on the by brute, so it comes as a surprise when she double-crosses Joseph by pinning false evidence on him. As fate would have it, Joseph beats the charge and Celestine marries the doting Captain Mauger to become the mistress of her own country home.
Bunuel and his favorite collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere went further in exploring female sexuality in an adaptation of another classic erotic novel Belle de jour. Though neither Bunuel nor screenwriter Carriere were fans of Joseph Kessel‘s book, the story about a young Parisian wife who spends her days turning tricks at an exclusive city whorehouse gave the filmmakers the frame in which to sketch playful and wicked portrait of sexual fantasy. Though the handsome and well to-do Pierre Seinzy (Jean Sorel) truly loves his beautiful wife Severine (Catherine Deneuve) he is disappointed by the lack of affection she shows in bed. But Pierre remains blissfully unaware his lilywhite wife spends much of her hum-drum day indulging in sadomasochistic fantasy.
When Severine learns one of her acquaintances has become a part-time call girl, she secretly enters the house of Madame Anais (Genevieve Page) to while away the afternoon hours turning tricks. After some initial reticence, the newly christened “Belle” becomes a house favorite and finds sexual gratification in giving pleasure to a wide assortment of johns. Pierre is pleased with his wife’s new demeanor but the bizarre dream-like finale leaves us to wonder if their marital bliss will last. Denueve gives an expert performance as the blank-faced beauty who seeks to explore her own self-loathing and peculiar needs in ways unimagined by her bourgeois friends.
Though critics were quick to anoint Belle de jour as a masterpiece, the success of the film surprised the old director who didn’t hold it in such high esteem. Still, Belle de jour remains one of Bunuel’s more entertaining and accessible films and it remains an excellent introduction to the director’s complex and titillating body of work.
Based on another novel by GaldosTristana marked Bunuel’s return to a more classical style and it turned out to be only film he would shoot in Toledo, the dark and mystical town beloved by Greco and the Spanish surrealists. Bunuel had floated the idea of making Tristana some ten years earlier, but when funding proved difficult he moved on. But, having accepted an advance from producers Robert Dorfmann and Juan Estelrich, Bunuel felt obliged to re-commit to the project as soon as he got the ok from Spanish censors.
Set in the Toledo of Bunuel’s youth, Tristana is the story of an orphaned teenage girl sent to live with a well-to-do guardian, who happens to be one her mother’s former lovers. Tristana (Catherine Denueve) is a well-behaved girl but her beauty attracts the unwanted attentions of several local deaf boys, who happen to be among her mentor’s other young wards. Her guardian, the popular yet vain Don Lope (Fernando Rey), has also developed a yen for the blossoming young woman and takes her as a mistress. Not wishing to tie himself down to one woman, the libertine decides to keep their relationship an open one until the handsome young artist Horacio (Franco Nero) makes his feelings known towards Tristana. She has adapted Don Lope’s attitudes towards free love but as her refusal to marry doesn’t cool’s Horacio’s passion she moves in with the artist.
Later, Tristana is diagnosed as having a cancerous leg that must be amputated. Unable to provide for the crippled Tristana, Horacio approves her move back to Don Lope’s house. The old roue is initially delighted to have Tristana return to the fold where he can manipulate her every move, but it soon becomes apparent the tables have turned as his former mistress has grown cynical and he will be the one who sits squarely under her thumb.
Rey is marvelous as the philosophical senorito who, after a lifetime of selfish living, changes his playboy ways. Deneuve brings a new maturity to her acting, allowing her to move away from the trophy-girlfriend roles of the 1960s to play more complex and world-weary women for the rest of her long career. For Bunuel, Tristana was a swansong that took stock of the past and freed him for a burst of spectacular creativity which would be usual enough for a young man, to say nothing of a hard-drinking man who had just passed into his eighth decade.
The films in Bunuel’s final comedic trilogy (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty & That Obscure Object of Desire) perfect the seamless style of The Exterminating Angel and The Milky Way. In these films Bunuel doesn’t seem interested in creating a narrative so much as a series of absurd and often infuriating vignettes that skewer all the usual suspects; the bourgeoisie, the police, the military, the government and of course the clergy. Unlike the early Dali collaborations or even the late Mexican films Bunuel isn’t content in merely shocking or outraging a hip 1970s audience. In these mellow, droll films, Bunuel concocts an everyday world where some very strange things happen. And the effect is mesmerizing.
Bunuel returned to Paris to make his greatest satire of upper-middle class mores, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Co-written by his brilliant collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere, DCB follows the plight of six friends (including Fernando Rey as a drug-running ambassador of a shady South American country and Stephane Audran as a philandering wife) who are continually interrupted whenever they try to get together for a dinner party. The situations grow increasingly absurd and the men begin to have nightmares about their supper dates. Frustrations mount to the point of violence, but it is all water off the back of the placid couples who plod on in their quest for fine dining.
Though virtually any of the vignettes can be singled out as expert examples of comic filmmaking, the standout scenes find Audran and husband Jean-Pierre Cassel ridiculing the local Monsignor (Julien Bertheau) who hopes to be their gardener, Cassel and Paul Frankeur sampling pure heroin from Rey (the unscrupulous villain from the previous year’s The French Connection), and the entire group settling finally down to dinner only to find they are on a stage trying to consume rubber chickens in front of an increasingly hostile audience of theatre-goers.
Bunuel and Carriere’s next project The Phantom of Liberty was conceived as an inside joke between the two men. This film would also be constructed through a series of bizarre vignettes but, mischievous as always, Bunuel decided to cut away from the climax of each scene to pursue a new, equally bewildering thread. Having been compared to the great and grotesque Francisco Goya for so much of his career Bunuel finally acknowledges the artist in the opening sequence set during the Napoleonic Wars in Toledo. Taking a page out of L’Age d’Or, we open with French soldier making an indecent advance to a female cemetery statue only to be slapped down by her stony mate. In a vengeful ploy, recalling Alejandro’s mad desire to wed himself in death to Kathy in Wuthering Heights, the soldier demands the exhumation of the woman’s body and is later shamed to find her angelic corpse remains perfectly intact.
Seizing on inspiration from Discreet Charm, Bunuel goes on to take some more highly amusing swipes at the bourgeoisie. A pervert gives “provocative” photos to a prepubescent girl who passes them onto her outraged parents who in turn fire the girl’s nanny just before their being overcome by lust. Another well to do couple lose sight of their little girl even though she continually makes her presence known to them. She stands by obediently while her parents ridicule the teacher who lost track of her. Later at the police station, she sits for a cop who takes down her description before filing a missing person report. Bunuel saves his funniest salvos for a group of card-playing, booze-drinking clergymen who have the misfortune of bearing witness to the kinky practices of a sadomasochistic couple during a night’s stay at a French B&B.
The merry Surrealist’s swan song The Obscure Object Of Desire is one of six film versions of The Woman And The Puppet, Pierre Louys’ novel of warped passions. Bunuel was said to have preferred Jacques de Baroncelli’s cruel take on the subject (the 1928 silent La femme et le pantin) to Josef von Sternberg’s lush interpretation of the same material (The Devil Is a Woman) and despite the liberties he would take, the story’s original structure remained mostly intact.
While on a train between Seville and Madrid the well to do, middle-aged Mathieu (Fernando Rey), relates a story of woe to his fellow passengers. The source of his torment is the young and beautiful Conchita who is at turns angelic and slutty, much to the consternation of her older beau. The maidenly Conchita (Carole Bouquet) impresses Mathieu with her high-mindedness and virginal attributes. The hot-blooded Conchita (Angela Molina) teases Mathieu with unfulfilled promises of sexual gratification and torments the poor fool by making him watch a handsome young stud make love to her. After being humiliated one too many times, Mathieu makes what he thinks is a final break with the tarty temptress only to crawl back into her web one last, fateful time.
Having had little use for May-December romances in real life, Bunuel punishes alter-ego Fernando Rey for his foolish dalliance by casting two very different but equally tempting women in the role of Conchita. Just as the poor man seems to be making headway with one Conchita, the other appears dashing his hopes to smithereens.
Good-natured and refreshingly adult, That Obscure Object of Desire fulfills the promise of the revolutionary filmmaker from Aragon who was forced to spend over two decades in artistic exile. While many of the paintings, plays and poetry of his fellow Surrealists haven’t stood the test of time, Bunuel’s quirky, mystical and highly idiosyncratic films have never looked better.
Books on Bunuel:
My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Bunuel – Luis Bunuel ***** Wise, dry, and wickedly funny, this could well be the best memoir written by a filmmaker. The “Earthly Delights” chapter is as shocking and amusing as any scene in a Bunuel movie.
Objects of Desire: Conversations with Luis Bunuel – Luis Bunuel, Jose de la Colina, Perez Turrent ****1/2 Fearing Bunuel would never get around to writing his memoirs Colina and Turrent talked their friend and colleague into doing a series of interviews where the reticent filmmaker discusses his art. Prodded by their enthusiasm, Bunuel throws his guard down and becomes at turns mocking and philosophical about his body of work.
Bunuel – John Baxter **** A well-written, authoritative study of the elusive director’s hard road to artistic independence. A perfect bookend to Bunuel’s wonderful autobiography.
Luis Bunuel: A Critical Biography – Francisco Aranda **** Another superb, well- researched and well-structured critical study on the cranky Surrealist by a Spanish journalist who knew him well. Though some of the historical detail is spotty, this book is invaluable if only for the collection of painful memories and conflicting opinions from Bunuel’s friends and contemporaries.
Luis Bunuel – Raymond Durgnat **** The esteemed British critic/historian lends his considerable gifts to what is probably the best single volume analysis of Bunuel’s art.
The World of Luis Bunuel: Essays in Criticism – Joan Mellen (ed) **** A motley collection of fascinating short pieces authored by Pauline Kael, John Simon, Henry Miller (!), Bunuel etc., pretty much covers the gamut of opinion about the iconoclastic filmmaker.
Films by Bunuel:
1928 Un Chien Andalou ****
1929 L’Age d’Or ****
1932 Land Without Bread ****
1937 Centinela alerta! *** (w/Jean Gremillon)
1947 Gran Casino ***
1949 El gran calavera ***1/2
1950 Los Olividados ****1/2
1951 Susana ****
1951 Daughter of Deceit ***1/2
1951 Una mujer sin amor ***1/2
1951 Subida al cielo ****
1952 El bruto ***1/2
1952 The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe ****
1952 El ****
1953 Cumbres borrascosas (Wuthering Heights) ****
1953 Illusion Travels By Streetcar ****
1954 The River and Death ***1/2
1955 The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz ****
1955 Cela s’appelle l’aurore ***1/2
1956 La mort en ce jardin ***1/2
1958 Nazarin ****
1959 La fievre mont a el Pao ***1/2
1960 The Young One ****
1961 Viridiana *****
1962 The Exterminating Angel ****
1964 The Diary of a Chambermaid ****
1965 Simon del desierto (Simon of the Desert) ****1/2
1967 Belle de jour ****
1969 The Milky Way ****
1970 Tristana ****
1972 The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie *****
1974 The Phantom of Liberty ****
1977 That Obscure Object of Desire ****1/2