Director: Luis Buñuel

by | Apr 20, 2020 | 0 comments

An examination into the legendary director’s surrealist evolution.

It is hard to pin down the characteristics and details of the surrealists of the 1920s, since they themselves sought to evade the acts of definition and categorization – even if that itself is setting characteristic details. Their art sought to express a deluge of feelings and dreamlike visions as well as to prompt reactions, confusion, and thought from their respective audience. With the medium of film coming into its own in the late 1920s, it would seem ideal for the surrealists to exploit it for their own artistic purposes, and such was the case with Luis Buñuel. However, his trajectory as a filmmaker and artist will find him swinging from a pendulum to find a distinctive voice to make his own.

Spanish filmmaker Buñuel first started his foray into film with his compatriot painter Salvador Dali. The two Spaniards wrote the script for Un Chien Andalou (1929), the short film that caused a wave of scandal and appreciation around the Western world. The short film was an explosive look at the greed and lust of human beings, especially prevalent when seen through the male character in the film, who seeks to fondle and molest the female on screen. We would see in Un Chien Andalou the first indication of cynicism of humanity from Buñuel. Despite a lot of the film seeming nonsensical, one can pinpoint meaning and symbolisms by the simple emotions and thoughts that such images procure in the viewer, that was certainly how the film was meant to be conceived. Thus, the scene with the male character dragging two grand pianos, with dead donkeys, and stringed priests along, symbolize a heavy burden of the classical aspects of humanity that Buñuel might have felt; the classical structure of arts, the agricultural traditions, and organized religion. In the end, the film doesn’t have a structure, as it flashes feelings that allow the viewer to grasp a certain frustration and anger from the young Buñuel psyche.

The Spanish director and Dali subsequently went on to make their first feature film with L’Age D’Or (1930), thanks to the patron-funding from the de Noallies siblings. This film caused even more furor, causing cinemas to stop showing it after vandalizations on their premises. This, however, could not have pleased Buñuel and Dali more, as their idea of provocation was taken even more seriously than they themselves may have expected. The feature film touched on some of the same issues as Un Chien Andalou, if only in a more paused and feature-length way. The same lustful male is seen, as he sees the female body everywhere, and will stop at nothing to get to it, be it pushing a blind man in front of a car, kicking a puppy, or slapping an old lady. The mentions of religion are also to be found in L’Age d’Or, although much more boldly portrayed in this film as the epilogue shows the raping of young women at a castle, and a Jesus Christ-like figure emerging first, and later killing off one of the women as she stumbles out of the front-door bleeding. No doubt, that this religious portrayal was the more scandalous aspect of the film, even more than the lustful aspects. But it is the novelty of commenting on social class that makes L’Age d’Or significant in the context of Buñuel’s self-discovery, as it will start an exploration of wealth that will pursue the director further in his cinematic career. His showcase of how the peasant boy is shot by his own father, and the wealthy party at a mansion simply peeks out and returns to their drinks, could not be a more cynical approach to the issues of class. And it is in the immunity that our male protagonist receives, by showing his noble title to police, or in his disregard of a minister’s (who later shoots himself) feelings, that exemplify the lost morals of such a class. This theme is furthered in Buñuel’s next film, Land Without Bread (1933) which would be the first without Dali, due to a reported falling out.

Land Without Bread continued Buñuel’s cynical theme of humanity, by taking a look at the very real sufferings from the Spanish people of Las Hurdes – one of the poorest regions in the country and Europe. Buñuel seemed to become bolder as he juxtaposed the genre of documentary in Land Without Bread with the supposed ridicule and incongruity of surrealism. While the current version of the short documentary has an attached narration, at the point of its release it was Buñuel himself who would be performing the narration live in the theater. Such an act was not only economical for the Spanish Republic-sanctioned film, but also broke into the conventions of sound cinema of having a packaged show with a one way interaction. The narration and visual images of the film together clash with the supposed casualness of the audible words and the horrors and sufferings seen on screen. The film, no doubt commented on the pity-porn that many documentaries were beginning to exemplify, and Buñuel thus sought to comment on the wealthy classes as they went to see the “show” of how the poor people lived. It is the contrast of such horrid images with the casualness of the narrative language that make any interest and intrigue feel guilty in the eyes of the viewer. Buñuel had caught the eye of many in both Europe and in Hollywood, but his directing career would be put on a standstill due to the bureaucracy involved, the bad word put in Hollywood by Dali himself, and most importantly the breakout of the Spanish Civil War in 1936.

Buñuel had been working on the studio side of filmmaking at this point, having become disillusioned with the surrealists, as he was finding their evolution straying from what he had considered surrealism to be. This switch into the capitalistic side of filmmaking would seem shocking, and yet the financial sustainability of the director had to be taken into account as well. Buñuel supervised productions in Spain as well as in the US, where a temporary contract with MGM allowed him to see the underbelly of Hollywood for a couple of months. However, not being able to find a foothold in the United States, Buñuel looked for luck further south in Mexico, working again at studios, but slowly creeping towards the director’s chair. He finally was given a chance, but on two films he had little creative control over: El Gran Casino (1947) and La Gran Calavera (1949), which were so genre-driven, they practically directed themselves. It was in Buñuel’s Los Olvidados (1951) that he was finally able to find his footing and voice again, but it was a very different tone and structure than his first three official films had been.

Los Olvidados takes a much more traditional tone to its storytelling that the early surrealist pictures. However, there is a slight tinge that Buñuel is able to keep when regards to dream sequences, as well maintaining his ever-lasting cynicism. The film takes a look at the abandoned and vagabond generation of children in Mexico City (although they could easily be from any metropolis in the world), and how their lack of nurture and desperation for identity and connection is completely brushed aside and leads them to their inevitable doom. Los Olvidados picked up in the analysis of class struggles that Buñuel had begun to explore in Europe, by looking at a similar complete desperation and hopelessness of poor children, similar to the images of Land Without Bread. The film launched Buñuel back into the international stage, making the rounds at Cannes and finding critical praise in Europe as much as the United States. His subsequent films dove further into the mystique and clash of realism with his surrealist past. His Nazarin (1959) might be the more balanced of his films in having a seemingly picaresque road-narrative about a priest looking to be good, but it is still imbued with vague spiritual aspects, delving deeper into another big aspect of Buñuel’s cinematic focus: religion.

Having grown up in Spain, where the Catholic Church’s hold on education and moralistic life was strong, especially under the Primo de Rivera dictatorship of the 1920s, Buñuel was heavily exposed to the workings and reputation of Christianity. From Un Chien Andalou to the aforementioned Nazarin and beyond, Buñuel will continue to have his Catholic upbringing haunt him in the peripheries of his stories (and sometimes blatantly portrayed on screen). In Un Chien Andalou, we saw priests being dragged along with the grand pianos and dead donkeys as the guilt and burdens of the male protagonist; in Nazarin the eponymous main character is a Spanish priest in Mexico. Nazarin may be the more fascinating insight into Buñuel’s look at religion, as he genuinely sees his main character as a good man, whose moral rectitude comes from his blind belief in the moralistic codes of his religion. The colonialist backdrop of a Spanish missionary in Mexico also might indicate the perspective of seeing an exception of good in a reputationally foul characterization. However, one mustn’t discount Buñuel’s cynicism; while he portrays Nazarin as a virtuous person, he repeatedly shows how his actions have no effect whatsoever around him. In fact, the most impactful moment in the film is when Nazarin converses with a prisoner towards the end, where the criminal states: “you’re for the good side, I’m for the bad side, but we’re both useless.” It’s the first time in the film that we see Nazarin completely at a loss for words and comfort. In the end, Nazarin is forced to accept the charity of others, after seeing that his own belief won’t be enough to get him through his own ordeals. This surrender is not so much a loss of belief and values in the eyes of Buñuel as it is a loss in the structured and defined forms of Catholicism. Even though the good deeds of Nazarin don’t have much of an impact in the world, their recording in film and their molding of optimism in other characters is enough of an effect to ripple goodness into the world. It’s a vaguely hopeful message, and shows that Buñuel doesn’t completely discount certain traits of organized religion.

The surrealist motivations of bringing down the social systems and the “normal” is further explored in Buñuel’s Palme d’Or nominee The Exterminating Angel (1962). The early 60s film takes on a much more metaphorical perspective than Los Olividados and Nazarin, and is more akin to L’Age d’Or and Un Chien Andalou. The film looks at a party amongst wealthy people who somehow are unable to exit the host’s living room. The crowd is subsequently trapped in this room due to some unknown supernatural causes. This leads to their humanity and manners to be slowly stripped down as they become more animalistic and selfish, perhaps revealing their “true” selves. This more supernatural intervention, keeping the guests in one room, might be the most spiritual/surrealist insertion of Buñuel in his films since the 1930s, and it produces a much more politically blatant film than Los Olividados and Nazarin were. The film sees how moral values and formalities are torn down as self-interest becomes more prevalent; how friendships and even marriages are betrayed for feral instincts. Scenes involving characters using valuable china for bathroom uses, or closets to have affairs, showcase this “degradation” more clearly. Even after the “spell” is broken, and the wealthy party is freed, their subsequent entrapment in the church is a further indication of the stagnation that such institutions (the wealthy and religion) bring about on human freedom and development. The message could not be clearer with the last shot of the film which shows sheep being herded into the entrance of the church; one can’t help but be reminding of the allusion Charles Chaplin made by showing people streaming from the subway entrances intercut with shots of sheep in Modern Times (1936). Even the title of the film, The Exterminating Angel might be a connection Buñuel is making to the flip sides of said institutions of wealth and religion; with a divine intervention seeking to knock over all of the “rotten” aspects of humanity. The “extermination” might be that of the morally corrupt and hypocritical classes.

 When Buñuel returned to Europe, he was liberated with slightly higher budgets, allowing him to cast stars and extend his stories to multiple locations as well as insert his surrealist and dream-like sequences with more freedom. This was the case when looking at Belle de Jour (1967), which looked at how a wealthy woman in Paris is intrigued by the night-life and underbelly of Paris regarding prostitution. She begins to work at a brothel and is subsequently addicted as much as disgusted by the experience. The film looks at the similar decomposition of the wealthy and formal classes, but in a much more sympathetic tone to these characters; whereas in The Exterminating Angel they were blatantly ridiculed. The protagonist, Severine, is shown to be completely naïve about the struggles of the lower classes, and her trials of fire towards her discovery are seen as painful and scary from her perspective. However, Buñuel hasn’t shrugged off his idea of a darkness imbued in all human beings, and from the very first scene he shows the dark and masochistic fantasies that Severine has: of being whipped in a forest, or at a lunch cheating with her husband’s friend literally under the table. By the end of the film the collection of realities and fantasies begin to blend together, adding the distinct taste of surrealism to the film and leading the viewer to question what is real.

However, the deeper question that Buñuel seems to ask in all of these films, is not whether certain things are real or not, but rather if it matters at all? In a way, Buñuel is dealing with human emotions, much like how surrealist artists sought to portray their raw feelings on canvas, rock, or celluloid. As such, Buñuel and his cynicism play out in the form of fantasies, dreams, and visions of his characters, leading to a creation of a cinematic world where emotions trump the importance of the physical world. In that sense, Belle de Jour shows us how the evolution of Buñuel from blatant visual surrealist, to a supposedly more “conventional” director is really an adaptation into a more impactful language to get his messages of morality and cynicism across.

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