One thing was clear at the end of the Luis Bunuel retrospective at the Ciné Lumiere, organised by the Institute Cervantes and the Institut Francais: his work has lost none of its relevance. Bunuel’s films are a unique legacy from one of the greatest artists to emerge amidst the revolutionary beginning of the 20th century. In a world of depoliticised arts and relentless globalisation, his films continue to demand attention.
That’s not to say, however, that Bunuel was ever pretentious or overly intellectual. His rural upbringing informed his imagination as did his sense of humour and obsessions. He never intended his films to mean anything but what you see on the screen, and this directness are part of the reason that they are so engaging.
The mini-retrospective opened with a new copy of the Surrealist classic Un Chien Andalou/An Andalucian Dog (1928). The new print, recently restored by the Filmoteca Espanola, gives audiences a chance to see the collaboration with Salvador Dali as Bunuel intended it to be screened and it recreates a synchronicity which had been lost for technical and commercial reasons – it’s always good to remember that, despite now its being part of the canon of modern art, Un Chien Andalou was shot as a ‘home video’. This new copy is indeed better. The black and white is less contrasty and the clearer visibility of details makes a surprising difference. Despite the artistic success it enjoyed at the time, followed by the controversy caused by L’Age D’Or (1930), political and economic circumstances meant that he would only start making feature films again in Mexico in the 1940s.
Bunuel’s extended sojourn in Mexico – the result of his anti-Franco stance and a gradual disenchantment with the US, exacerbated in no small way by the probability of his being hauled before the HUAC – produced an eclectic body of work that enabled him to refine his skills as a director. Starting out with a mediocre musical, it was not long before he returned to making films with his own particular brand of humour and social comment. Although Los Olvidados (1950) may be his most renowned film from this period, there were many other films that gave an indication of the brilliant collection of films that he would produce in the last decade of his career.
Anyone looking for the antecedents of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie need look no further than The Exterminating Angel (1962), an hilarious and frequently blistering attack on middle class mores and attitudes. Whereas Fernando Rey and his guests find themselves on a road to nowhere, the guests in Bunuel’s earlier film are first confined to a small number of rooms in their host’s palatial residence, before escaping only to find themselves trapped in a church.
In this society, where etiquette supersedes humanity, the guests are victims of their own social embarrassment; caught up in the repetition of the ritualistic acts that define their elitist world. As their frustration with their inability to escape increases, their more primal, instinctual responses take over. And it is these feelings that finally liberate them. Once free, they chose to forget their experience resulting, once again, in their entrapment. Aside from a wonderful double-take at the beginning of the film, where the guests arrive twice, Bunuel plays his action straight, allowing the characters’ various insecurities to slowly unveil themselves before the camera, rather than looking for them. This combination of bizarre drama filmed in a conventional manner accentuates the film’s surreality.
That screening was coupled with a film that is almost unanimously considered Bunuel’s masterpiece, Viridiana. It was the first film Bunuel made in Spain after an exile of 25 years and the Spanish government probably regretted it as Bunuel returned in fine satirical form. Sprinkled with trademark surrealist touches, it tells the story of a young nun (Viridiana, played by Silvia Pinal) who receives an invitation from her rich uncle (Fernando Rey, a Bunuel regular) to spend a few days at his mansion before joining the convent. She reluctantly accepts the invitation only to be ‘corrupted’ by a man who sees in her the image of his deceased wife. He dies, and she sets up a Christian shelter for the homeless with her cousin.
Bunuel uses the film to construct a biting allegory of fascist Spain and here he flexes his iconoclastic muscles relentlessly – the film was blacklisted by the Vatican and its cult status guaranteed. Viridiana features the famous beggar’s banquet scene and the closing scene is object of much speculation. Bunuel produced two earlier films that also displayed surrealist elements, albeit presented within a more conventional narrative.
El (1952) initially appears as a simple tale of jealousy between a young woman and her elder, embittered husband. Rather than stay with an age-old tale of male insecurity, Bunuel ups the ante, moving the film into the central character’s psyche, finally displaying his complete mental breakdown, as his jealousy undermines his entire view of the world. The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz(1955) tells the tale of a man who, from his earliest memories, believes he his a serial killer. Through a series of unfortunate encounters, his involvement in someone’s life has led, albeit indirectly, to their death. Only when he confesses his crimes is he finally made aware of his innocence and is finally able to continue with his life. Both films display Bunuel’s fascination with masculinity and its construction within contemporary society. And like The Exterminating Angel, they display Bunuel’s ability to draw comedy from any situation.
As his reputation as a film auteur grew in the early sixties (when he too was in his early sixties) he started making his ‘French films’. One of those included in the retrospective was Diary of a Chambermaid (1964). It features one of his favourite actors, Michel Piccoli, and Jeanne Moreau stars as the Parisian maid who goes to work for a family of eccentrics in the countryside. Not an instantly ‘recognisable’ Bunuel film (if there is such a thing), it resembles a comical farce, but never fully develops into either that or complete disruption which towards the end of the film proves slightly frustrating. It is a film that belongs in a transitional phase of his career and as such, it doesn’t have the same impact as his best. It boasts some wonderful scenes, though, and Moreau is a joy to watch.
Three years later he would regain critical and popular acclaim with Belle de Jour (1967) which inaugurates the final and perhaps richest cycle of his long career when he produced some of his most radical films in terms of form and content.
The protagonists of The Milky Way (1969), Pierre (Paul Frankeur) and Jean (Laurent Terzieff), travel from France to the Spanish church town of Santiago de Compostela. As they walk, hitch lifts, and spirit themselves towards their destination, Bunuel conjures up period and fantasy scenes to make ironic comments on religion (especially the Catholic Church) and society. The Milky Way displays the wandering approach to storytelling that Bunuel would maintain throughout his later films, a casual disregard for classical structure in favour of a sketch-like accumulation of absurd moments. It’s an intermittently fun film, but the diversions remain frustratingly separate from the more conventional ‘journey’ narrative, rather than adding to it.
There are no such problems in The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie (1972), which is possibly one of the most entertaining – and tantalising – films ever made. The six central characters meet for a series of swanky dinners, only to have their attempts at eating repeatedly interrupted. Bunuel’s direction can initially seem ugly, random, and ignorant of style, but actually it’s refreshing to watch films which don’t fetishise their own imagery or conform to predictable templates. The framing seizes on the direct point of the shot, and Bunuel does great things with the zoom lens in this film; his style is unshowy and understated without feeling the need to be aggressively ‘anti-style’. The acting is also excellent – especially from Fernando Rey, Stephane Audran, Delphine Seyrig and Jean-Pierre Cassel.
Although many of Bunuel’s films seem to have too many ideas and subtleties to take in on a first viewing, an advantage of seeing films in a festival, close together, is that they have a cumulative effect – something very helpful when one is faced with The Phantom of Liberty (1974). Once again we are taken on a disorienting tour of absurd incidents – the most famous being the scene in which a group of people sit round a table on lavatories, and have to get up one at a time to eat in a small, separate bathroom.
More striking is the sequence where a seemingly unassuming businessman turns into a sniper and shoots random pedestrians dead on the streets of Paris. It’s difficult, now, to watch this and not think of September 11th, and the Washington D.C. snipers – the idea that terror in big cities comes arbitrarily from above. Back in 1974 Bunuel’s vision might have been even more unexpected. The results are disconcertingly mixed, but when it hits its target…
Bunuel surely didn’t – couldn’t – plan it this way, but it’s a happy state of affairs that his last film, Cet obscur objet du desir/That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), is the most satisfying of his later period. Structurally it is very easy to follow: the wealthy and bored Mathieu (Fernando Rey) tells his story to a train carriage of interested passengers: how he fell for the young maid Conchita and pursued her over a series of meetings fraught with monumental sexual frustration, she refusing to sleep with him until he has won her fairly and squarely.
The flashback structure allows for all extraneous detail to be discarded, and what we have is a delightful essay on desire, sexual politics, and, again, the crippling idleness of the wealthy. Bunuel’s stroke of genius in this film is, of course, the fact that Conchita is played by not one actress but two – Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina. Bunuel said that he distributed the scenes to the two actresses at random, but however truthful that claim is, their alternating appearances combine to create a portrait of an ‘object of desire’, always unknowable, present but unpredictable, endlessly enticing. Not unlike like Bunuel himself.
The films reviewed were part of the season ‘Twenty Years without Bunuel’ (23-30 May) at the Ciné Lumiere.