(15/02/07) – The Luis Buñuel retrospective at London’s National Film Theatre has highlighted the recent absence from our screens of the director’s work. Once a staple of the rep scene, Buñuel has become an unknown quantity to a new generation of filmgoers. The same could be said of writing on the director. Outside the academic world, the only reading widely available has been Buñuel’s wonderful autobiography, My Last Breath. Even the late Raymond Durgnat’s excellent book-length analysis is out of print. All the more the reason to celebrate Bill Krohn’s Luis Buñuel: The Complete Films.
By any standards, Luis Buñuel led an extraordinary life. He was born into a wealthy bourgeois family; his father made his money importing domestic goods into Cuba and thereafter led a life that required little more than reading the morning paper and socialising at the local gentlemen’s club. It was left to Luis’ mother to bring the young boy up, which she did by lavishing him with affection.
Buñuel’s college years found him surrounded by Spain’s finest literary minds. A close friendship with Lorca resulted in a growing acquaintance with Dalí. Their collaboration on Un Chien Andalou guaranteed Buñuel access to the Surrealist’s inner circle.
Never one to be confine himself to a cultural or political clique, Buñuel forged his own way with his films. The outrage caused by L’Age D’Or was soon followed by the social critique of Las Hurdes and a dressing down by the Spanish government. A brief sojourn in America – cut short by Dali, irreparably damaging their friendship – was followed by two decades in Mexico. Whilst there, he produced an eclectic body of work, ranging from literary adaptations and overwrought melodramas, to screwball comedies and road movies. Littered with surrealist touches, the films showed Buñuel’s growing confidence as a director. Nowhere is this more evident than in Los Olvidados, a powerful account of the lives of street urchins in Mexico City, whose social realism is undercut by florid dream sequences and an array of Buñuelian signifiers.
The sixties saw him return to Spain, only to provoke the anger of Franco and the Catholic church, with Viridiana. After a brief return to Mexico, for the scabrous Simon of the Desert, Buñuel’s career settled in France, where he directed the films he is most popularly associated with. He was in his late sixties and early seventies, but his views on religion, politics, sex and the notion of love were at their most barbed.
Bill Kohn’s book offers an informative overview of each film, with some fine analysis of the Psychoanalytic and Marxist elements that permeate the director’s work. There is as much focus on the little known Mexican films as the later works and for the uninitiated, Kohn has produced and excellent visual key to recurring symbols and motifs.
As has come to be expected of a Taschen publication, the book is beautifully illustrated (sadly, the stills may be the closest many will get to seeing such films as The River and Death, Susana and Daughter of Deceit). Moreover, the text accompanying the images provides detailed information on how or why specific scenes were shot; in some cases, highlighting sequences that were eventually discarded. Throughout the book Krohn has included quotes from the director; invaluable and witty comments, as could be expected from the man who once said, ‘Thank god I’m an atheist’. The book also features a section written by Juan-Luis Buñuel, who discusses working with his father on Viridiana.
A worthy companion piece to the auto-biography My Last Breath, Luis Buñuel: The Complete Films goes some way to re-establishing Buñuel’s place as one of cinema’s greatest filmmakers.
The book Luis Buñuel: The Complete Films is out now. Please follow the links provided to buy a copy and support Kamera by doing so.