[The following is a translation of Luc Moullet’s short monograph Luis Buñuel (1957), the fifth volume in the series Les Grands Créateurs du Cinéma, published bimonthly by the Club du Livre de Cinéma in Brussels. I’m extremely grateful to Samuel Bréan for finding me a copy of this rare volume.]

 

Contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality; it is only in so far as something has a contradiction within it that it moves, has an urge and activity.

– Hegel

In our time, in our era of blockbusters and epic films, Luis Buñuel’s work and career stand out. While the vast majority of important filmmakers choose to marry art and commerce, with varying degrees of success, Buñuel confines himself to low-budget ventures, just like Roberto Rossellini. He thus enjoys a great deal of freedom: producers’ interference is limited to the choice of subject, which is generally very banal, and to the development of the script. The filmmaker imposes the expression of a highly distinct personality on such weak material. El río y la muerte (The River and the Death) was completed in fourteen days; technically it is superior to many French films, and in terms of quality, it has nothing to envy most of Buñuel’s great works. Like a novelist, the maker of L’Âge d’Or and El (This Strange Passion) works for his own pleasure; that is why the most mediocre of his offspring, the most industrial of his films, still bear his mark. This is a kind of miracle that cinema is not familiar with.

 

The Surrealist Experiment

One of the main constants in Buñuel’s work has often been explained using his Spanish origin. I’m referring to his taste for cruelty and violence, which also throw light on the inclinations of his personality. He was born at the dawn of this century, on 22 February 1900, in a small town in Aragon, Calanda, located on the edge of the famous Sierra de Teruel. After spending ten years at a Jesuit school, he left his provincial bourgeois parents for the University of Madrid, where he studied science, particularly neurology: physiological phenomena had always captivated him, as had the life of animals. But the Castilian capital attracted him towards less studious pursuits. He enjoyed idleness and led a merry and dissipated life. This is how he became friends with two of the greatest creators of twentieth-century Spain, Federico García Lorca, the poet, and Salvador Dali, the painter, who were then young unruly students. Buñuel’s films retain some of Lorca’s tragic lyricism and, above all, Dalí’s phantasmagoria.

Un Chien Andalou (1929)

Our young man was soon to be found in Paris, where he worked as a scientific attaché. But he was interested in many other things. Dali, who lived on the banks of the Seine, introduced him to the Surrealist Movement, in which Buñuel discovered an equivalent to his taste for the unusual. Cinema seemed to him to be the best means of expression, one that allows one to show the most amazing aspects of reality. After a first script, written from a surrealist perspective, which he could never shoot for lack of means, he took technical lessons, a trial run for Un Chien Andalou (1928). This small, fifteen-minute silent film made a great impression at the time and is still the biggest hit at film clubs today. The story, written by Dali and Buñuel, doesn’t follow any logical rule; underlying the main plot, a love story, are a series of extraordinary visuals of the purest surrealist tradition: the enormous living room piano stained with the blood of rotting donkeys, to which two seminarians are attached. The virtuosity, the unbridled inventiveness belonged as much to Buñuel as to Dali. And yet the director parted ways with his friend, whom he accused of seeking scandal for the sake of scandal. The next film, L’Âge d’Or (1930), which Buñuel made for a patron, continued the experiments of Un Chien Andalou while respecting factual logic more closely. This time, the scandal was huge: the precision and realism highlighted the filmmaker’s multiple attacks on society and religion, which he said impeded the power of love. Buñuel went from surrealism to documentary with Land Without Bread (1932), a poignant account of the region in Spain called Las Hurdes, one of the most backward and poorest parts of Europe after the Grésivaudan, Slovakia and Haute-Provence. Buñuel went ahead with the same talent, the same critical eye towards modern civilisation, whose most ignoble aspects he unveiled. At first sight, the rigour and honesty of the work contrasted with the fanatic Manichaeism of L’Âge d’Or: but in many beautiful visuals (the donkey devoured by flies, the portrait of idiots), there is that astonishing sensitivity partly inherited from his contact with surrealism.

But the time of patrons and small productions that one could finance oneself was soon over. For fifteen years, Luis Buñuel worked in cinema without making any films. This period of silence was important in its own right: faced with life and its difficulties, the maker of Land Without Bread evolved markedly; with maturity, he moved from revolt to reflection. That is how he was able to resume a body of work that was thought to be prematurely finished: recent films such as Los Olvidados or El are even considered to be of a much higher quality than those of the surrealist period. In charge of dubbing films in Paris, Madrid — where he moved on to production — and Hollywood, a bureaucrat, then a speaker in the United States, Buñuel finally left Los Angeles in 1947 for Mexico City with a very ambitious project in the bag: The House of Bernarda Alba, based on Lorca’s play, which he didn’t finally shoot.

 

Buñuel, the Man from Mexico

Just after settling in the Mexican capital, where he would remain for good, Buñuel looked for a producer; he found one, Oscar Dancigers, whom he befriended. But before directing projects closest to his heart, he had to pass the test of commerce: Gran Casino, a musical, and El Gran Calavera, a romantic comedy, were commissioned films that disgusted their maker. But he managed to make a social film about juvenile delinquency in Mexico City, Los Olvidados, a bitter, cruel, but also poetic work, which tells the tragic story of two urchins from the slums, corrupted by poverty and social injustice. They steal, kill and finally die an atrocious death. Presented at Cannes in 1951, despite the prudish hesitations of the Mexican government, Los Olvidados surprised viewers with its power and violence. Luis Buñuel regained the prominence that he had enjoyed among cultured European public in the early days of the talkies: he received an award for direction as well as a special tribute to his entire body of work. Sixteen other international awards corroborated the admiration of the Cannes jury. But the votes were more for the social testimony, a secondary part of the film, than for the essential element: the profound link between poetic surrealism and implacable realism. We know little about the commercial movies that followed Los Olvidados, Tampico, The Daughter of Deceit, The Son of Destiny, A Woman Without Love; Pedro and Juan, based on Maupassant, tells the story of two rival brothers [1]; Susana (1951), however, had a very limited screening in France and was distributed by Columbia in Belgium. This melodrama shows us the slow decline of a family of rich peasants after they give shelter to Susana, a real femme fatale. With her sensual presence, she sows discord in the family and makes the men lose their respect for social and moral laws. Luis Buñuel is very fond of Mexican Bus Ride (1951) because it expresses indefinable feelings and presents an unexpected appearance of everyday life. The subject is lightweight: on his wedding day, a young man has to travel one hundred kilometres from his small village to fetch a notary to draw up his dying mother’s will: his picturesque journey by bus forms the crux of the film. The simplicity and novelty of Mexican Bus Ride earned it the Avant-Garde Prize. Another minor but very curious film is The Brute (1952), a social melodrama that however avoids the pitfalls of revolutionary conformism: a brutish but good-hearted boy loves the daughter of a tenant of his boss, a rich real estate owner. But on the advice of his employer, he kills the father of his beloved. He finally dies, a victim of his lady boss’s savage love. Purely from a stylistic point of view. The Brute, thanks to the breath of freedom that permeates it, is perhaps the most striking film Buñuel has given us, the best being indisputably El (1952). Completely unnoticed at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival, this exceptional work went on to enjoy unprecedented critical success, unleashing passions and arousing quarrels. Today, almost everyone in the press recognises the superiority of El over Buñuel’s other films. It is about one of Mexico City’s leading citizens, Francisco Galvan, a devout Christian who tortures his young wife and becomes a perverse megalomaniac at the edge of madness when his wife abandons him. The complexity of the actions, the personalities and the characters make this modern tragedy one of the most remarkable psychological films ever made.

Los Olvidados (1950)

It may be surprising that Buñuel then chose to adapt Robinson Crusoe for the screen. But Defoe’s novel allowed him to develop one of his favourite themes, the loneliness of a man deprived of all society, of all female company. Rather than a film for children, Robinson Crusoe is a kind of troubled meditation on the fate of man and the meaning of his existence. Working with colour for the first time, the maker of Los Olvidados proved himself to be a man of taste in some all-too-rare moments; but it would be in vain to look for the dramatic force, concision and novelty of El here. Another adaptation of a great classic of English literature was Wuthering Heights (Cumbres Borrascosas. 1953). To our knowledge, this is Buñuel’s only complete failure: no verve, no romanticism, a few beautiful visuals at best. It is an opportunistic and insincere film: Buñuel had wanted to adapt Emily Bronte’s novel in the thirties, but the project fell through. And twenty years later, he decided to make his film as he would have in the good old days of the surrealists, to whom he pays a posthumous tribute here. But this pilgrimage to his roots went against the grain of Buñuel’s own evolution, who had long since moved beyond the stage of naive and passionate surrealism; it is understandable that he considered Wuthering Heights to be the worst of his films (cf. Les Lettres Françaises, interview with Luis Buñuel). Illusion Travels by Streetcar (La ilusión viaja en tranvía. 1953) is a bland little work, which is worth mostly for two original and rather disturbing scenes, the one in which the passengers of the tramway run into a massive meat market, and the one in which the filmmaker expresses his irony towards Old Testament dogmas. On the other hand, the next two films are much more important. El río y la muerte (The River and Death, 1954) describes the familiar attitude of Mexican peasants towards death: it is part of their lives: far from complaining about it, they accept it and even celebrate its arrival. There is also a phenomenon of great substance in this film, the opposition between the frustrated young farmer, who is not afraid to die, and the young intellectual who has returned from university and is afraid of risking his life, even to save his honour. The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1954) has been shown very little, either in America or in Europe. It is, however, an important film. Under the guise of a British-style comedy, Buñuel created a new configuration of El. The hero is again a leading light of Mexican society who has difficulties in his relationship with women. Every time he intends to kill one of them, she dies in an accident he is not at all responsible for. The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz takes us to the heart of Buñuel’s anxieties and preoccupations; it is a work that deserves to be studied very closely and which goes beyond the somewhat worn-out contours of British humour (cf. Kind Hearts and Coronets).

Appointed a juror at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival, Buñuel found many admirers in France, among critics as much as producers and technicians. He was thus able to make two films for Parisian firms. That Is the Dawn and Death in the Garden cannot compare with the best of his Mexican work; nevertheless, they are highly instructive. Perhaps the conditions under which they were written and shot explain their semi-failure: in Mexico, Buñuel was able to do what he wanted with a commissioned subject; in France, he chose his subject freely, but was then overwhelmed by the clan of belated surrealists, whose milieu influenced him in a bad way. While, in Mexico City, he was compelled to shoot within a few weeks under conditions close to amateur cinema, which facilitated inspiration, the French production system obliged him, on the contrary, to direct professional actors for three months, which bored him greatly. That Is the Dawn is a kind of socio-surrealist film: a decent man, a doctor by profession, wavers between his wife, and the milieu of the inhuman rich landlords she represents, and his mistress who sympathises with the little people. The moral Manichaeism is irritating, but the direction contradicts it; certain details, notably the play of objects and the presence of animals, suggest another, more subtle film. The pale direction of actors clearly shows that Luis Buñuel did not believe in his puppets, that he maintained a critical attitude towards the myths of anti-conformism [2]. An adventure tale in the Mexican jungles, Death in the Garden features several people from opposite backgrounds, a priest, an adventurer, a prostitute and a senile old Frenchman, isolated from the rest of the world, and describes their conflicts and respective evolutions. The film, which was a failure in terms of quality, was also a relative failure in commercial terms: Buñuel’s recent French period is probably his least successful.

Buñuel’s body of work is one and indivisible; there is no break between his films of the 1930s and those of the last decade. It is rather an evolution, a completion. It may be interesting to carry out a general study of the recurring elements in the director’s work, noting, if necessary, the rather slight differences that can be noticed from one work to another.

 

Buñuel, the Man

To those who know Luis Buñuel, his work seems to contradict his personality. A home-loving member of the Mexican bourgeois and a family man, he has little in common with his heroes, most of whom are abnormal, asocial and perversely criminal. He is a man who hesitates to kill a fly (cf. the letter to Films in Review), but who carefully depicts the most atrocious and violent spectacles (cf. the sliced eye of Un Chien Andalou, the stonings and strangulations of Los Olvidados, the broken skull of the boss in The Brute), the darkest underside of human conscience (the sadomasochism of the main character in El). This dissonance between the creator and his work is reminiscent of Corneille. It explains Buñuel’s detachment and lucidity in the face of his heroes’ actions. Well known for his kindness and modesty, Luis Buñuel does not seek out the exceptional or the horrible to satisfy his hidden urges, as some people insist. His violence is more in keeping with sincerity and frankness than with a pathological desire: it is the normal expression of a simple man, who does not like detours or embellishments. Gruff, massive and of a piece, Buñuel is the same when he talks to you and when he analyses the behaviour of his characters.

 

A Certain Quality of Realism

Comparing the scripts of Buñuel’s films and the principles of their direction, one discovers certain recurring features, certain peculiar traits, which are subordinated to a more general notion: Buñuel wants to be a realist first and foremost, and all the effects of his films are aimed only at a greater realism.

But he doesn’t contemplate the truth of things with the same eye as a De Sica or a Visconti: the depiction of the world as it is requires the help of imagination rather than some “camera eye.” Now, Buñuel notices aspects of everyday reality that the common mind would describe as implausible, unrealistic. He explains it himself: “I saw things that moved me and I wanted to transpose them onto the screen, but always with this kind of love that I have for the instinctive and the irrational that can appear in everything. I have always been attracted by the unknown and the strange that fascinate me without any apparent reason… For example (in Los Olvidados), when El Jaibo goes to fight and kill the other boy, the camera movement shows the carcass of a large eleven-storey building under construction in the distance, and I would have liked to put a 100-piece orchestra on it. We would have seen it just in passing, vaguely.” (Cahiers du cinéma, issue no. 36).

In most of Buñuel’s films, one is unable to discern a purpose, to find a centre of interest. It is as if the filmmaker was trying to concretize the impression of strangeness that can seize us at every contact with the outside world. In their construction, his first two films already announced this search for the essence of life, which Buñuel would continue and deepen while staying within the confines of commercial cinema. Reality will emerge of its own accord without the intervention of preconceived notions (technical artifice, refusal of the notions of time and space, of gravity and causality), which restrict it to its pale reflection.

Robinson Crusoe (1954)

By drawing the bulk of its substance from everyday life, from simple and inconsequential facts, Buñuel’s art has adopted a realm of investigation whose contours it would be futile to delimit. Talking about one of his films, he said: “I liked it a lot. I like the moments when nothing happens, the man who says ‘Give me a match.’ I’m very interested in this kind of thing. I’m extremely interested in ‘Give me a match,’ or ‘Do you want to eat?’ or ‘What is the time?’ I made Mexican Bus Ride with that in mind.” (op. cit.). Each of Buñuel’s works abounds in such inflections. And all of them, the turtle that interrupts the two lovers in That Is the Dawn, the strange death of the little girl in Mexican Bus Ride, Francisco Galvan’s hallucinations and his oblique walk at the end of El, all evidence a contradiction, a heterogeneous association, an antithetical reality: the world is an incalculable sum of oppositions and contradictions. It can be seen from a purely technical examination of the films that this conception of things extends to the tiniest areas of direction: Buñuel’s attitude is only occasionally an intellectual one. Most often, it directly expresses his own personality. He does what he likes.

 

Criticism of Religion

The screenplays of Buñuel’s films generally attest to an anti-conformist orientation. It is moreover this facet of his work that has ensured its success.

But unlike other progressive filmmakers, Luis Buñuel doesn’t condemn established dogmas in order to propose others that he believes are more correct: politics and doctrinal disputes hardly seem to interest him. It is significant that the non-conformity of his ideas is reflected as much in the choice of a scene, a detail, in the vagaries of staging as in the progression of the story. Criticism is always at the level of concrete facts, not at the level of abstract theory.

The meaning that can be drawn from this aspect of his work is the discrepancy between things as they are and things as they are wanted to be seen as. All pre-established notions are thrown open to debate, because their simplicity, the very fact that we can understand them, makes it clear that they are opposed to infinite, indecipherable truths. The world cannot be reduced to formulas, which is why Buñuel challenges the structures of religions and governments. He tries to prove the vanity of what he considers to be the constructions of the mind by looking for evidence of their falsity in the material of life. He depicts, and accepts, contradictions that he believes the systems refuse. In this honesty lies the spiritual interest of his films. The march towards truth, even if it opposes the beliefs of Christians to the letter, can only revive their faith, make it purer and also better thought out.

One mustn’t be shocked by the outrages Buñuel commits against ecclesiastical personnel in each of his films. They allow us to better understand the relationship between the divine and the human, between God and the world. The filmmaker seems to argue that the one refutes the other; but this opposition is mostly at the level of physical contrast, which may reveal divine presence just as well. Buñuel is more critical of the signs of religion than of belief itself. Many of his shots juxtapose the basest aspects of reality with indicators of spiritual life: a crucifix adorns the butcher’s shop in The Brute, a new Christ figurine stands under slabs of meat in Illusion Travels by Streetcar, a footbath in the church in El doesn’t fit in well with the spiritual atmosphere. Archibald de la Cruz asks the nun who is treating him if the greatest goal of her life is really to go to heaven. When she answers in the affirmative, he takes out his razor. Frightened, the good sister runs away and… falls into the empty lift shaft. As soon as the imprisoned Suzana begins praying to God, the bars of her jail vanish, and she goes off to commit her demonic deeds. The ambiguity of these scenes invites an atheistic interpretation, but this quickly proves insufficient; genuine understanding here can only be based on the recognition of our incomprehension. It would be pointless to look for Cartesian or Euclidean coordinates in Buñuel’s work.

Cela s’appelle l’aurore (1956)

The same applies to the criticism of society: Buñuel attacks it not so much because it feeds on the misery of the poor, but because it refutes it with its dignified appearance and hypocritical serenity (cf. Los Olvidados. The Brute). Strictly humanitarian intentions are only secondary: they digress from the artist’s mission. What Buñuel accuses is the bad faith of the ruling class and the intellectual and moral comfort of the bourgeoisie (cf. the interview with Buñuel published in Sight and Sound, Winter 1954). The two recent French films, with their freer, more explicit scripts, closely study these contradictions of present-day society. That Is the Dawn extends the problem to a more general level, since it also criticizes the conformism of anti-conformists.

 

Depicting Man as He Is

In his statements. Buñuel often insists on the importance of the purely human character of his films. Linked to his social anti-conformism is a love of the little people and of humanity in general. But this doesn’t ever translate into an excess of good sentiments: Buñuel’s love for his characters is visible not in the glorification of his heroes or the exaltation of their virtues, but in the interest that he shows in them, which is almost always combined with a critical spirit. He is an analyst first and foremost, and refuses to give into emotion or take a stand: “The hero of El is a guy who interests me like a beetle or an anopheles mosquito. I have always been fascinated by insects. There is an entomological side to me (one remembers that he was an excellent student at the College of Sciences in Madrid). The examination of reality interests me a lot.

The strength of his depiction lies in a search for realities that is opposed to any psychological examination: it is very difficult to define the character of his heroes. Is Pedro, The Brute, an infamous murderer or a tender, but simple-minded man? Did Archibald really kill his victims with his evil thoughts, or are the deeds to be explained by chance? Who is Francisco Galvan, the man Buñuel simply calls “El”? Characters are fleshed out at the stage of filmic creation, not at the stage of intellectual composition. Only appearance can tell us about the true being of these enigmatic heroes.

But Buñuel is also a “committed filmmaker.” This is probably the most superficial part of his personality, but it should not be overlooked, as it explains our first impression of his work. He introduces Robinson Crusoe thus: “I made the film as I could. wanting above all to show the solitude of man, the anguish of man in human society… I think that, despite the cuts, the relationship between Robinson and Friday remains quite clear: one between the “superior” Anglo-Saxon race and the “inferior” Negro race. That is to say, at first Robinson is suspicious, drunk on his superiority, but in the end, they reach the great human brotherhood… they find themselves proud as men! I hope that this intention will be felt.” (op. cit.).

But very often, the intentional part of the work yields to the vision of reality: characters become complex. The good guys, the poor people and the exploited workers are no longer entirely likeable: the bad guys, the savage managers and the depraved rich suddenly become more human and are no longer impervious to our compassion. It is very rare to find obviously schematised characters in his work. You would have to look for them in the most intellectual French films: the ridiculous and dignified old couple at the beginning of L’Âge d’Or and the secretary in That Is the Dawn are caricatures that a little moderation and realism would’ve made more striking. Sandro, the little gardener in love (This Is the Dawn), has the director’s sympathies: his character irritates us. But these are exceptions, and they are negligible on the whole, especially since they appear in lesser works.

 

An Ace Screenwriter

El Bruto (1953)

Writing scripts is not a gratifying task for a director. Like most of his colleagues, Buñuel thinks up and writes his own scripts only so that he can do what he wants during shooting. It is a kind of chore for him. Nevertheless, he endeavours to elevate his subject above banality from his first creative effort onwards: rather than remaining the plaything of the dramatic necessities of a plot, he tries to move his film forward through a series of original ideas and personal inflections. The final stage of development consists of organizing this sum of efforts, investing it as far as possible with a certain plausibility. This explains the non-conformist tone and conception of the narrative in almost all his films. While it favours creation at the expense of routine, this system does have its drawbacks: transition scenes without much interest, which link one important sequence to the next, are quite numerous and often very boring. However, the filmmaker is sometimes able to make the most of them with an interesting detail, discovered at the last moment.

Such a construction acts directly on the viewer’s sensibility better than a well-oiled machine. It imposes the feeling of a strange, hard-to-understand universe. Films such as Susana or Illusion Travels by Streetcar operate on the margins of the rest of cinema, not in their good qualities, which are accompanied here by obvious flaws, but in their freedom of presentation, their refusal of an artificial unity of tone.

The dialogue reveals both Buñuel’s anarchist philosophy and a certain desire to typecast the characters: one can see that this is a minor part of his talent, but it must be admitted that if its end goals are limited and somewhat suspect, its manner is rather striking, despite its disdain for elegance and its tendency towards baseness. Buñuel also tries to introduce onomatopoeia into cinema, the repetitions and stammering so pervasive in our everyday speech. He likes utterances that are shocking, either in the meaning of the words themselves or in the way they are expressed: this is the case with a French film like Death in the Garden, where Buñuel didn’t have to fear censorship, which was much less severe than in Mexico.

 

Symbols and Literature

Having come to cinema via intellectual cliques, and not via film set intrigues (he became a professional filmmaker only ten years ago, at the age of forty-seven), he visibly retains the traces of his training: at the time of L’Âge d’Or, he was attached to the purely literary aspects of the image rather than to its cinematographic aspects, his philosophy was revealed rather in the choice of certain actions than in their manner of unfolding. Reducing the work of mise en scène to some beautiful but marginal and decorative flourishes (cf. the use of sound), he was producing a screenwriter’s body of work.

It was only much later that he made use of the charms of cinema to express more clearly what he had to say: that is why the direction of actors in L’Âge d’Or is very mediocre; that of El is consistently experimental, if not always rewarding.

In the first period, symbolism is at the forefront, while in the second, it constantly takes a back seat and is expressed in touches and details of a sharp irony, which connoisseurs sometimes find in the background of a shot, diverting their attention from the essential: the Claudel collection on the commissioner’s table (That Is the Dawn), the many Christian effigies located in the most diverse places (The Brute. Susana, Illusion Travels in Streetcar. Wuthering Heights. Death in the Garden), the door of the office (El) that opens to spill all the dust from the storeroom onto the luxurious living room where the guests are gathered, a scene copied from L’Âge d’Or, the apple that Lilia Prado eats in Mexican Bus Ride etc. But the precise meaning of these different symbols doesn’t constitute the value of these films, contrary to what the young critics of surrealist leaning claim: it serves as a point of reference, but never eats into the domain of mise en scène.

Richness of Style and Importance of Inventiveness

  1. Buñuel seeks simplicity in his découpage; though very precise, its originality doesn’t derive from any school in vogue. For example, he likes to move seamlessly from a tight shot to a wide shot and back again. This system dominates his films and gives them an outmoded look; it may irritate us, but it fully expresses one of the main themes of his work, the strangeness, the incoherence of the world. Similarly, we notice an abuse of insert shots, certain breaks with logic or chronology: in Buñuel’s films, reality does not always coincide with the temporal and spatial limits we associate with it.
  2. His mise en scène captivates the viewer solely with the power of its inventiveness: it is the idea that controls everything. But Buñuel’s imagination doesn’t manifest as much in the direction of actors or the gestures and expressions of his characters as in the dramatic construction of the film. The choice of the setting in which the psychological drama unfolds, of the object or the detail that precipitates the conflict, is as important as the choice of the scene in question. This rather limited manner of invention may be surprising, but its effectiveness can’t be denied. It stands in contrast to the approach of all great directors, who are also the best directors of actors, but it ultimately converges with them in its creative inspiration: it is rooted in a realm “beyond” purely literary invention; far from developing the basic idea of Buñuel the director, Buñuel the writer prolongs it, justifies it sometimes even by contradicting it [3]. His imagination is above all cinematographic.

Susana (1951)

Even in the work of pure directors, we would be hard put to find novelties such as those that abound in a work like El: the stair rod, the typewriter, the train whistling through the night; their dramatic power is incomparable. No one else but Buñuel has discovered these scathing images. It is only natural to offer them for our admiration. Let us mention, along the same lines, the love in the garden in L’Âge d’Or scored to Wagner, the drop of milk on the thigh of an Olvidada, the shoulder of Susana’s blouse, the Mexican Bus Ride to heaven, the way in which the truth is finally ridiculed in Illusion Travels by Streetcar, the ardour of The Brute’s lady boss when she kisses her old husband while thinking of her lover, and in the same film (one of Buñuel’s richest), the cut flowers, offering a prelude to carnage, the love scenes, which move seamlessly from violence to the most tender feelings. El and Archibaldo swarm with ideas; they determine the existence of each scene, carried to the point of paroxysm, and produce a striking effect: the revolver, the bell tower, the castration ceremony, the zigzag walk. Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz is constructed around a handful of objects, a music box, a mannequin, an incinerator, a walking stick and a mosquito. In minor films such as Susana or Illusion Travels in Streetcar, Buñuel, who usually gives his flair free rein, curbs it to become an analyst: and once again, he manages to surprise us by abstaining from all effect. Taking roundabout ways, he arrives at a result quite similar to that of El or The Brute.

  1. It’s the same tendency with actors’ performances. Most of the time. Buñuel only cares about their appearance or their figure. They are too stilted, too cold, their voice remains monotonic. He even went so far as to create certain types of characters around this lack of emotionality, cf. Arturo de Cordova (Francisco Galvan) and Ernesto Alonso (Archibald), who are both excellent in their assuredly authentic dignity. What in any other director would evidence a lack of talent becomes an advantage here: the mediocrity of the actors in That Is the Dawn, inert and clumsy, indicates rather clearly that, in this particular case, the characters have no real existence in the eyes of their creator. Nevertheless, there is a temptation here to take the easy way out, to be lazy [4], which holds our admiration in check. The depiction of the strange, the bizarre and even the subjugation of man by the outside world is all the more convincing because it is the product of a creation. By relying too much on chance happenings and on the inconsistencies of raw reality, Luis Buñuel hasn’t managed to make them vivid and concrete in all his films.
  2. His technique has always been simple and even rudimentary: his vision of the world is not embodied through cut-rate expressionism, baroque framing or suffocating low-angle shots. The power of the visuals comes from what it contains, not from its theoretical meaning. It should, however, be noted that, in El, Gabriel Figueroa was able to compose some beautiful shots with very studied framing, without the film suffering from it. Buñuel’s other regular collaborator. Agustin Gimenez, usually does an excellent job, except for Wuthering Heights, which, like That Is the Dawn (cameraman: Robert Lefebvre), is full of clichés of a belated aestheticism.
  3. Let us underline the role of sets, rich in extravagant furnishings, of sound, with its piercing animal noises, and above all of verbal (Land without Bread) and musical commentary. They reinforce the power of the visuals by serving as a counterpoint: classical music (Wagner, Beethoven, Brahms) in the surrealist films and creaky, old-fashioned sounds in The Brute, Archibaldo and El (cf. the quarry scene).

 

Scope of the Work

La mort en ce jardin (1956)

Despite certain weaknesses, due to negligence or a lack of will rather than to a shortage of talent, Luis Buñuel’s work, beyond its superficial revolts, which seems to satisfy a personal need, retains a certain spiritual significance, which it would be difficult to define. The fact that he progresses through a series of blasphemies should not make us lose sight of the essential. Describing man’s solitude in the universe doesn’t imply a pessimistic attitude: dignity can be asserted even through the many outrages that nature reserves for it. Located as far from pure and simple anarchism as from blissfully hypocritical conformism, the maker of the very ambiguous The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz concurs, by way of surrealism, with the preoccupations of the greatest spiritualist filmmakers and novelists. Profound disagreements between great creators exist only at the level of superficial oppositions; the French critic Eric Rohmer rightly remarked: “Buñuel resembles Hitchcock like the South Pole resembles the North Pole.

It is also necessary to discern the place he occupies in the cultural evolution of our time. This rather special place seems to owe more to the ambitions and promises of his works, very few of which reach the stage of perfection, than to their accomplishment. It is rare for him to take his art, and his way of looking at the world, to the ultimate conclusions they hint at. Perhaps Buñuel owes his subordinate position among the greatest artists of our time to the fact that the very subject matter of his work denies him the lucidity, the full awareness of the means and limits that every creator seeks to have in what he does: his surplus of sensitivity in the face of our world isn’t matched by a surplus critical intelligence. The Kafkaesque character of Buñuel’s world is painted with such sincerity that no element of life can be overlooked. If Buñuel lets his work get out of hand, it is first of all because his southern temperament keeps him from being ascetic, but it is also because his films present a universe that partially excludes the intervention of reason and good taste and which explains this mixture of the best and the worst that Buñuel is unable to keep apart. But his great merit is to be able to go beyond all systems. He transcends Mexican and anarcho-surrealist folklore, the traditions of pessimistic literature and cinema, in order to discover a substance in them that is far more important than what systems, prejudices and theories would let us suppose.

Isolated between two strands of culture, one of which is oriented towards classical and eternal values, the other the product of new tendencies of the twentieth century, Buñuel renews both these currents through an interpenetration that is only possible with a temperament uniquely inclined towards capturing appearances and concrete realities. Intelligence necessarily requires a choice between these two attitudes; thus, in his public life, Buñuel has opted for the new solution of humanism as an end in itself. Let us therefore be grateful to the filmmaker for abandoning the realm of strict reflection to provide us with an endlessly expansive body of work.

 

Footnotes:

[1] [Translator’s note] A few of these details are incorrect. For instance, the purported film Pedro and Juan based on Maupassant is really A Woman Without Love; Tampico is the same as the aforementioned Gran Casino. I’ve retained the errors throughout the text, sometimes translating the titles of non-existent films.

[2] The dreams of Los Olvidados and Mexican Bus Ride, and the contempt for chronology in El may be considered negligible.

[3] [Translator’s note] Moullet may have inadvertently swapped the roles here; I’m retaining the formulation as it is.

[4] Buñuel is the laziest, the least professional of filmmakers; some of the atrocious colours in Robinson Crusoe (there are also some beautiful tints) are due to the fact that, bothered by the heat, he had removed most of the spotlights needed for colour.