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 whohave condescended to adopt film as their means ofexpression. According to that approach, we mayassess him as a Spaniard, as a surrealist, and as alifelong antagonist of the bourgeoisie. All thosestrains persisted in Bunuel's films and they repayclose attention. But it seems to me an error tothink that Bunuel—often working quickly—wascasual about the medium. On the contrary, Ibelieve that he is one of the greatest of directorssimply because of the expressive mastery of hisfilms.

      There is an approach that sees no "beauty" in Bunuel, as if so fierce a social critic could have nobusiness with the bourgeois taste for cinematicgrace. But this is to confuse prettiness withbeauty, Lelouch with Renoir. The detachment of Bunuel's camera, the apparent emphasis on theinner potency of an image as distinct from itsform, Raymond Durgnat's point about theamount of three-quarter-length shots, do notdetract from the constant elegance of Bunuel'sfilms. Color and the presence of CatherineDeneuve have helped some people to discern agrowing interest in style on Bunuel's part. Butwhere are the ugly shots in earlier films, whereare there moments when the image is not essential in all its items? Beauty in cinema is theintegrity of meaning and means—not the matching of the two, but a unified conception. Thus UnChien Andalou—and every film after it—is madewith the calm and simplicity that only come whenan artist has understood his or her medium. Thatis why UnChien Andalou is able to make fun ofcontinuity—a bourgeois fetish; why the exactangle and texture of its images haunt the mindlong after analyses of them have been digested.The eye opened to be cut in half is the promptingmirror of our response: nothing is more sensualthan the breasts that dissolve into buttocks; moreenergetic than the pluck of the girl defendingherself with a tennis racket; more tender than thehermaphrodite oblivious of traffic; more atmospheric than the funeral cortege. And long before Warhol's cinema, the lovers in L'Age d'Or engageus in the epic awkwardness that afflicts love.Could a film have been banned so long if itspower was not in the explosive mixture of styleand sense? Could Bunuel have kept himself fromdirecting for so long if he did not view themedium serenely? Could assigned projects makeso little difference to the art of a director if thatart was not within his images? Could anyone sosustain an inquiry into imaginative life and anunaffected account of externals if he was not agreat filmmaker?

      There is some use in trying to correct theimpressions that Bunuel's social criticism is deeplyhostile to people, that he is antagonistic to popularcinema, that he worked in a vacuum unaffected byother films. To take the last point, he delights inthe presence of Fernando Rey as a "connection"in Discreet Charm, just as his use of DelphineSeyrig, Stephane Audran, and Jean-Pierre Cassel cannot be evaded as a wicked if gentle reproof ofthe 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 intothinking that Bunuel believed in reality. That waylies 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 couldnot have had a better arena than commercial cinema. The stylist Bunuel never forgets us sitting in the dark, hanging on the brightness. How couldthe 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 hisrefugee 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 littleintent on showing off style, and as much a victimof the joke he tells.

    • Belle de Jour 40th Anniversary DVD


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