[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]
Buñuel doesn’t try very hard to allay suspicions that the visible fetishistic oddments so abundant in his films are simply the byproducts of any number of peculiar fantasies and “private” obsessions in which the director is indulging himself to the exclusion of almost everyone else. But however much he may be indulging his own peculiarities, his films tend to absorb this “private” imagery in ways which hint at the liberating power of obsession itself. Buñuel’s famous foot fetishism, abundantly evoked in Viridiana, is an unusually good example. To insist on seeing people in terms of their feet is rather like insisting on showing that they have sexual organs, yet without limiting the recognitions to the specific contexts of sexual desire and sexual satisfaction. A foot, as an image, is more neutral than a penis, yet it has the advantage of being the most completely terrestrial part of the body, and a part that has an odd (literally plodding) beauty of its own, unencumbered by any exalted artistic tradition. Most picture-takers concentrate on people’s heads; after all, that is the end of the body that “identifies” a person and contains his “intelligence.” The feet, by contrast, are mute, dumb, and anonymous. A very large part of human experience partakes of these same qualities—something Buñuel not only recognizes but pays tribute as well, by watching quietly and by directing us to watch too.
Similarly, one of the elusive but recurring facets of Buñuel’s work is its unbelligerently sympathetic interest in “perverse” sexuality. In Buñuel, sexuality and perversion, pleasure and violence, are inextricably intertwined. In Él Francisco’s foot fetishism encompasses both his religious duties and his sexual preferences: the ceremonial washing of feet and the systematic watching of feet prove to be interchangeable facets of the same undefinable personality. Likewise, “good” actions mingle with bad results in Nazario’s pilgrimage to nowhere (Nazarin). What conventional Western thought tries to compartmentalize, Buñuel tries to fuse. The rational European insists on the opposition of good and evil; Buñuel insists on their interrelation and interdependence. It is in this same vein that the portrait of Don Jaime in Viridiana emerges as one of the most unusual creations of an unusual career. In one sense, Don Jaime has all the makings of an outlandish melodramatic villain: he is preoccupied with a little girl, he models his dead wife’s wedding clothes for his own pleasure, he wants to marry a novice because she resembles the deceased, and he drugs the lookalike and makes an attempt at taking his pleasure on her unconscious form. That all of this comes from an otherwise well-to-do sort of character makes for an easy, giggly kind of comedy—but Buñuel’s directorial response to these events is quite something else again. The interest in the little girl may be “odd,” yet it seems positive for the most part: the girl’s innocent wisdom and the mutuality of the friendship suggest that no harm is coming of the situation. More pointedly, the “drag” scene with its absurd masturbatory transvestitism is in one sense a wickedly ironic travesty played our in the pious aura created by the religious music on the don’s Victrola; yet when the don stands before the mirror looking down at the corset around his midriff and then looks with forlorn complicity into his own eyes’ reflection, one’s entire response to the scene must be reorganized. That scene begins with one of the smooth camera movements that mark Buñuel’s more recent films and ends with Viridiana’s somnambulist episode and the don’s prediction of his own death. Along the way, we come to see that Don Jaime’s sexual deviancy is a sign not so much of corruption as of a consuming and nearly unbearable longing for beauties and satisfactions which his day-to-day existence has not permitted him to know. We come also to see that Buñuel’s choice of ostensibly ironic materials is radically transformed by a revolutionary sense of compassion. Under what would seem to be the worst of circumstances, Buñuel discovers a man possessed of both powerful aspirations and surprisingly durable dignity.
As such, he is a cousin to the less sympathetic Francisco of Él, whose absurdly systematic jealousy emerges finally not as a pointless, wasteful aberration but as the work of a man passionately absorbed in the desire to see his childish preconceptions borne out in his adult experience in sex and business alike. Both men, in turn, are related to Sévérine, the title character of Belle de jour, who is no less involved in a drama of wish and misfortune. Some critics have insisted that Buñuel’s work is a continuous stream of tacit but potent activity in the surrealist manner, and the thread outlined above seems to support that notion. The surrealist is an adventurer in consciousness who has the courage of his yearnings, however bizarre and cataclysmic, however inexplicable and “mad,” and has confidence in the absolute validity of the search and research. The surreality of his wildest dreams may well be the ultimate source of the monumentally placid tolerance with which Buñuel confronts the most outlandish affronts to the conventional sensibility time and again. It would seem that he shares in the need to deliver that affront to the conventional values, but refuses to allow that the affront by itself is sufficient cause for excitement.
Partly as a result of this attitude, the aftermath of Don Jaime’s suicide gives rise to one of the most moving moments in any Buñuel film. Immediately after we discover that the Don has hanged himself with the jump rope that he had given the little girl, there comes a scene in which the little girl is scolded for using that same rope. But she refuses to submit to any charge of disrespect for the dead. She replies that Don Jaime liked to watch her skip rope; then the camera moves in and repeats the shot that first introduced Don Jaime: a medium closeup of the little girl’s feet in their scuffed shoes and floppy stockings skipping gracelessly over the rope. The shot is held longer this time and, as its sheer duration extends well beyond that needed for mere narrative information, we become aware of the jumping as a kind of ritual celebration. Under Buñuel’s eye, it is a tribute to a dead man and it honors his point of view by sharing it.
If much of this seems by the way in terms of Viridiana, it is deliberately so on my part. This film is one of the most popular in the Buñuel canon, but that popularity may well rest on rather limited responses that could use some jarring. To be sure, the failure of Viridiana’s experiment and the parable of the cart-dogs episode link the film with some of the more agonizing paradoxes of the modern social conscience: the anarchy of the “underprivileged,” the brutality of the privileged, the futility of idealism, an inexhaustible flow of abuses. But while the film does echo the relentlessly paradoxical social analyses of Los olvidados, its total shape is quite different. In Los olvidados Buñuel systematically cut off every standard approach to “social progress”; in Viridiana, he goes beyond the public dilemma to concentrate on the plight of the individual who rejects social activity as an avenue for personal satisfaction and fulfillment. Don Jaime is a thwarted humanitarian and Viridiana soon becomes separated from her institutional role of sister of Christ. Both essay radical personal projects outside the laws of society as such, and one ends by destroying himself while the other capitulates to the encroachment of the modern age which may well be the new terms for the old dilemma. The implacable social dilemma gives wav to the monstrous spiritual dilemma which emerges with or without the social problem.
Here too, Buñuel’s peculiar imagery tends to complicate, infinitely, one’s response to the action. In Buñuel, ethical conflicts often provide the initial animus of the drama, but the drama itself gravitates toward terms which are beyond good and evil. Just as the pathos of Don Jaime’s bearing overturns the standard responses to sexual deviancy, so Buñuel transforms the “issues” his films touch on. When Jorge leads Ramona offscreen for a tumble in the attic, the camera moves quietly off in the opposite direction and we subsequently see a cat pouncing on a rat. At that particular time, the cat’s pounce seems to draw a rather invidious analogy with the nearby sexual event. Yet, later on, Ramona in no ways seems a “victim”—indeed, when she exultantly rubs her cheek against Jorge’s freshly washed hand, it is she who is catlike. Jorge in turn hardly seems victimized by the relationship and so one is again forced to reassess the original image. The cat pouncing on its prey may be, in this light, a kind of metaphor for the sex act; after all, bloodletting and sexual rapture coincide in several Buñuel films, and the erotic fixation of Don Jaime himself is grounded in the fusion of the moment of death and the moment of erotic expectation. Or it may be that the implied analogy cohabits with a straightforward juxtaposition of two kinds of physical instincts in action: here is this attic and here inside it are two of nature’s couples going about nature’s business in the usual ways.
Finally, there is the beggars’ banquet with its Last Supper reference and its joyous “inversion” of the Hallelujah Chorus. Buñuel makes no attempt to justify or excuse the beggars’ appropriation of the household dining facilities, but while the banquet is in progress the ribald mood is not interrupted by any signs that it is wrong for these people to enjoy themselves in the process. Still, when one of the more revered beggars opines that “sinning is good for the soul,” he gets a custard pie in the face: in one of the most bizarrely eclectic moments of film history, the doctrine of the Fortunate Fall is answered with a jape from the world of Laurel and Hardy. In the midst of this there is the travesty Last Supper “photo” which is irreverent by itself but far richer than that for coming between a shot of the blind beggar (Christ in the parody photo) while a cock crows and a shot of the female “photographer” lifting her skirts to all at the table. The blind rising of the cock and the wholesale raising of the skirt convert the parody prelude to crucifixion into a rowdy invitation to screw. The blind beggar ends up getting cuckolded instead of crucified in what may be yet another violent sexual analogy, but in any event this sequence too becomes a double-edged blade: as in Subida al cielo, Él, Nazarin and La Voie lactée, sexuality may counteract elements of religion, yet it can emerge as a religious force in its own right.
And it is at this point that the ultimate beauty of Buñuel’s work resides. His movies insist on the insolubility of human dilemmas in the conventional (and rational) terms that merely reinforce the difficulties. And what he offers us is not an “alternative solution” but a series of occasions through which the dilemma-solution mental set may be overthrown altogether. To become absorbed in and by Buñuel’s work is not to find life simpler and more comprehensible, but rather more complex and more entangled, which is to say richer and fuller. Even when its characters reach a dead end, and even when Buñuel closes off all the familiar entrances and exits, a Buñuel film often leaves one with a refurbished sense of wonder at the variety and possibilities of living with one’s feet on the earth.
Spain, 1961. Direction: Luis Buñuel. Screenplay: Buñuel and Julio Alejandro. Cinematography: José A. Agayo. Art direction: Francisco Canet. Editing: Pedro del Rey. Music: Handel. (90 minutes)
The Players: Silvia Pinal, Fernando Rey, Francisco Rabal, Margarita Lozano, Victoria Zinny, Teresa Rabal, Joaquin Roa, Luis Heredia, José Manuel Martin, Lola Gaos, Juan Gardia Tiendra, Maruju Isbert, Joaquin Mayol, Palmira Guerra, Sergio Mendizabal, Milagros Tomas, Alicia Jorge Barriga.
Copyright © 1975 Peter Hogue