1900-1983                    Film director


L u i s   B u ñ u e l


    b. Luis Buñuel Portolés Calanda, Spain

      There has always been a temptation to view Bunuel as one of the few towering artists who have condescended to adopt film as their means of expression. According to that approach, we may assess him as a Spaniard, as a surrealist, and as a lifelong antagonist of the bourgeoisie. All those strains persisted in Bunuel's films and they repay close attention. But it seems to me an error to think that Bunuel—often working quickly—was casual about the medium. On the contrary, I believe that he is one of the greatest of directors simply because of the expressive mastery of his films.

      There is an approach that sees no "beauty" in Bunuel, as if so fierce a social critic could have no business with the bourgeois taste for cinematic grace. But this is to confuse prettiness with beauty, Lelouch with Renoir. The detachment of Bunuel's camera, the apparent emphasis on the inner potency of an image as distinct from its form, Raymond Durgnat's point about the amount of three-quarter-length shots, do not detract from the constant elegance of Bunuel's films. Color and the presence of Catherine Deneuve have helped some people to discern a growing interest in style on Bunuel's part. But where are the ugly shots in earlier films, where are there moments when the image is not essential in all its items? Beauty in cinema is the integrity of meaning and means—not the matching of the two, but a unified conception. Thus Un Chien Andalou—and every film after it—is made with the calm and simplicity that only come when an artist has understood his or her medium. That is why Un Chien Andalou is able to make fun of continuity—a bourgeois fetish; why the exact angle and texture of its images haunt the mind long after analyses of them have been digested. The eye opened to be cut in half is the prompting mirror of our response: nothing is more sensual than the breasts that dissolve into buttocks; more energetic than the pluck of the girl defending herself with a tennis racket; more tender than the hermaphrodite oblivious of traffic; more atmospheric than the funeral cortege. And long before Warhol's cinema, the lovers in L'Age d'Or engage us in the epic awkwardness that afflicts love. Could a film have been banned so long if its power was not in the explosive mixture of style and sense? Could Bunuel have kept himself from directing for so long if he did not view the medium serenely? Could assigned projects make so little difference to the art of a director if that art was not within his images? Could anyone so sustain an inquiry into imaginative life and an unaffected account of externals if he was not a great filmmaker?

      There is some use in trying to correct the impressions that Bunuel's social criticism is deeply hostile to people, that he is antagonistic to popular cinema, that he worked in a vacuum unaffected by other films. To take the last point, he delights in the presence of Fernando Rey as a "connection" in Discreet Charm, just as his use of Delphine Seyrig, Stephane Audran, and Jean-Pierre Cassel cannot be evaded as a wicked if gentle reproof of the modishness in the work of Resnais and the vastly overrated and poor man's Hitchcock, Chabrol. Again, when a disembodied hand advances on one of the marooned guests in The Exterminating Angel, that is not just a "Bunuel hand"—the means of touch and emblem of sexuality—but a recollection of The Beast with Five Fingers (47, Robert Florey) a Warners film made at the time when Bunuel was in charge of dubbing their films into Spanish. Earlier, in 1935, he had worked for Warners and may have been so impressed by the melting waxworks in The Mystery of the Wax Museum (33, Michael Curtiz), that something remained for Archibaldo de la Cruz. Those are some small, ill-buried links. What is more worthy of research is the way, over the years, Renoir and Bunuel exchanged ideas, actors, and images.

      The sooner one allows that the interruption of bourgeois ceremonies and affairs in L'Age d'Or, Exterminating Angel, and Discreet Charm is of a kind with that in La Regle du feu, the sooner one sees that Bunuel is a comic director and that his reputed savagery is only a consistent view of the neurotic frailty with which we lead our lives. It is too easy to call El, Archibaldo, or Belle de Jour black comedies. How much more useful to see that, as with Renoir, Bunuel allows himself no villains, no unflawed heroes, but claims that everyone is on a level—as witness the austere distance that his camera keeps—similarly engaged to address fantasy and reality. Even the more overtly harsh pictures—Los Olvidados, Nazarin, and Viridiana—in which Spanish anticlericalism asserts itself as Bunuel's one artistic overemphasis, the social criticism does not disparage one person more than another. Rather, it shows that we live imaginary lives in which we hold varying symbolic reference for different people. In Bunuel's films, all men are facets of the libido, all women resemblances of love: remember that in Un Chien Andalou several parts were played by thr same actor and actress.

      The "realism" of his films—whether the squalor of Los Olvidados, the table settings of Discreet Charm, Crusoe's island, or that reluctance to use a subjective camera should not mislead us into thinking that Bunuel believed in reality. That way lies the trap of claiming him as an anarchist, communist, anti-Catholic director. On the contrary, he is ideally suited to popular cinema and the emphasis it puts on dreams, identification, and the manifestation of fantasy. Surrealist manifestos could not have had a better arena than commercial cinema. The stylist Bunuel never forgets us sitting in the dark, hanging on the brightness. How could the power of the "cut" be better demonstrated than in Un Chien Andalou's opening? See how clearly L'Age d'Or describes the essential overlap of documentary and fantasy as scorpions and man illuminate one another. Recollect how far Archilbaldo de la Cruz is a fantasist, trying to convert plastic imagination into flesh. What better demonstration is there of the comparison of watching film and dreaming than the sequence, some twenty-five minutes into Exterminating Angel, when the anxious guests settle down to sleep, perchance to dream? Its sheer photographic feeling of slumber is one of the most sensuous moments in cinema. And what is Belle de Jour but a bourgeoise who indulges her daydreams and thereby reveals the way our open eyes are clouded by feelings?

      To conclude, I think Bunuel emerged from his refugee career fascinated by cinema. Belle de Jour, Discreet Charm, and the supreme Obscure Object of Desire are in love with the medium, still surrealist, still Spanish, but tolerant of human weakness. Is there a film with such sly charm as Discreet Charm? Or an occupation more bourgeois and contradictory than that of a film director? Bunuel does not savage us. He says that we are like scorpions and like sheep, fluctuating, desperate creatures, as likely to build a maze round our hearts as to obey them, but dreadfully funny. He is as intent on comedy as Kafka was, as little intent on showing off style, and as much a victim of the joke he tells.

    • Belle de Jour 40th Anniversary DVD


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