Browse Tag

Luis Bunuel

Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie)

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

“Sometimes dreams are really…”

One way or another, all the really big guys make movies about themselves making movies. Luis Buñuel may be caught most conspicuously doing so at the beginning of his career, in Un Chien andalou, and at what must be temporarily accounted the end of his career, Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie, until Le Fantôme de la Liberté gets here or until Buñuel really does stop making films, as he’s been threatening to do for about a decade now. Unlike most of its sophomoric contemporaries, Un Chien andalou operates as a most lucid disquisition on a kind of formal logic peculiarly available to the cinema. The recurrent patterns of diagonal design (the pattern in Buñuel’s tie, the lines on the lid of the cyclist’s box and the wrapping paper inside) and diagonal movement (the stropping of the razor, the woman’s arrangement of untenanted garments on the bed) attest to the possibility of formal integrity without reference to any conventional, mundane logic. The succession of visually similar forms (a hole in the hand, a tuft of underarm hair, a sea urchin, a head glimpsed in a god’s-eye-view iris-shot) provides its own poetic justification, and a sinister shot-pairing (clouds cut across moon, razor cuts across eye) testifies to the power of editorial progression! A woman “hears” and reacts to the approach of a cyclist whose only sensory signal has been to enter and pass out of a right-angle frame of a street scene disposed between two shots of her looking at a book in a room somewhere: shot juxtaposition creates its own acceptable narrative logic. And that room she sits in, having been established in a conventional full shot at the beginning, can be broken up by camera angling and restructured by montage so that its window looks down on both a city street and a desolate beach, and its door opens on a stairway, the seashore, or the mirror duplication of the selfsame room, depending on where the narrative chooses to go next. Truly, Buñuel opens not only the girl’s but also his and our eyes to a new kind of vision.

Keep Reading

Belle de jour

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

Belle de jour is a circular film, curving its way surely and urbanely through fantasy, memory, and whatever reality one can distill from Buñuel’s surrealist solution. Probably the first bone of contention among critics of the film is how much reality, how much fantasy, and where each sector is located in this suave Buñuelian landscape. Depending on the reading, Catherine Deneuve’s Séverine/Belle de jour may have fantasized the whole of the film with no anchors in reality, she may be engaged in an act of exorcism which finally leads her to a kind of normality, or she may have ultimately ruptured the fragile barriers between her conscious life and the world that shapes itself out of the darkness behind her brain. Whether Buñuel is hypnotist or mesmerizer is moot; whether he has plunged his heroine into the darkness of insanity or caused a sunrise, a coming to terms with reality, is also open to question. Considering the bland banality of Séverine’s “reality,” itself a kind of madness which Buñuel has never ceased to send up with a discreet but nonetheless devastating charm, can acceptance of such a life be considered enlightenment? Her fantasies may be kinky but they’re certainly more fun, more richly devised and experienced, than anything that home, hearth, and hubby can provide. Perhaps what Buñuel has mesmerized Séverine (and us) into is a serenely crazy delight with the complete dissolution of distinctions like reality and fantasy into a rich warm soup blended of both. Buñuel knows what kind of spell movies may cast, and that we as viewers are not unlike Mme. Anaïs’ clients who buy the opportunity to frame and move and light their most private, cherished fantasies. Like Séverine, we turn from the peephole and exclaim in righteous disgust, “How can anyone sink so low!,” a half-smile of perverse fascination playing about our lips. We should not feel diminished for all that, for Buñuel’s discreet and amiable charm is all-encompassing; he subjects no one’s fetish to contempt, only to the goodnatured amusement of an old roué who is surprised by nothing, but is endlessly delighted with the conventions of bourgeois perversity. Consequently, we do not move from scene to scene in Belle de jour impelled by a sense of urgency that Séverine “get well” or go crazy with a vengeance; rather, we are satisfied with permission to participate in the picaresque sexual adventures she either fantasizes or realizes in her pilgrimage from neurotic innocence through exotic sin to that ambiguous endgame played within her mind.

Keep Reading

Viridiana

[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.

Keep Reading

Tristana

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

The camera trucks slowly left, unobtrusively, almost cautiously, as if to move out of Tristana’s way as she and Saturna approach the group of boys. It cranes above the soccer skirmish to view the scene from a dominating remove, observing the ritual conflict—a game like any other, designed to formalize the release of aggressions. Handheld, the camera mingles abruptly with running feet, tangles with the action. Then it isolates the spontaneous but intentional violation of the rules and its unregenerate perpetrator. And finally, the camera seeks out and frames Tristana and Saturno as they share a wordless but evocative moment of mutual appreciation.

Keep Reading

Subida al cielo (Mexican Busride)

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

Even though it may initially seem one of the least impressive of Buñuel’s works, Subida al cielo (American title: Mexican Busride) is more than a footnote to his career. The story itself is simple and obvious enough. Oliviero, a young man in a relatively primitive village which has no church, gets married, but his honeymoon is interrupted when he must travel to a distant town to arrange his dying mother’s financial affairs for her. The journey itself has frequent interruptions, including the seduction of Oliviero by the flamboyantly sexual Raquel—who is not his new bride—but he eventually saves his mother’s money from his conniving brothers and returns to begin his honeymoon voyage once again.

Keep Reading

Un Chien andalou, L’Age d’or, Las Hurdes, Los olvidados

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

Paris, 1929: the height of the surrealist and the Dada boom. Two young Spaniards decide to submit a film to the reigning lions of the movement, who had their doubts about the viability of cinema to their poetics. Others had already worked in the vein—notably Jean Epstein and René Clair in his amiable mystification Entr’acte—but no one had yet created a serious masterpiece, major or minor. The Spaniards, in order to gain the approval of their masters, wanted to make an incomprehensible film, one that would carry out the surrealist precepts of “poetry freed from the ballast of reason and tradition,” as Buñuel himself put it. Down the drain with centuries of rational and logical notions of narrative order; to become free, cinema must purify itself of the past. To accomplish that goal, Buñuel and Dalí shot the film together, then Buñuel took over and began the laborious cutting process. They showed the workprint over and over, trying to exorcise any intrusion of narrative coherence or conventional sense. Whenever somebody would say to them, “Oh yeah, I get it,” they would whip out their cutting shears until eventually they satisfied themselves, as they said at the time, that “NOTHING in this film means ANYTHING.” The first public showing was a tumultuous one, accompanied by a destroyed screen and a smelly battle in the theater between partisans and vegetable-throwing detractors.

Un Chien andalou

One could call the result the first great anti-narrative film in the history of cinema. Clair’s Entr’acte of five years earlier doesn’t qualify because it is a non-narrative picture, one that doesn’t care very much about the Western narrative tradition and the expectations it creates in audiences. It takes a goodnatured spoofing attitude toward storytelling, but does not mount a compulsive reactionary rejection of traditional narrative methods. Un Chien andalou, on the other hand, is militantly, vehemently, and very consciously directed against received ideas of storytelling, and its very anti-narrative attitude is surely the most important component of its lasting fame and continuing success with film audiences around the world.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot more to the film than its narrative distinction. That extra something, however, is available almost exclusively to Buñuel fans, the people who have seen enough of his films to know what his interests and preoccupations are. Only they can really see this film not so much as a shocker that succeeds principally on its narrative mechanics, but rather as a perverse sort of preview trailer for all of Buñuel’s subsequent creative corpus—a trailer not in narrative terms, but rather in imagistic ones; in the terms that set Buñuel so far and so distinctly apart from every other director in the world.

Keep Reading

Buñuel scenes

By Carlos Fuentes, selected and translated by Ken Eisler

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

In Mexico

…Buñuel is of medium height, round-shouldered, powerful (an amateur boxer, military service in Spain; he also enjoys disguising himself as Guardia Civil, but with Garcia Lorca he used to disguise himself as a nun, both of them shaved very close, very powdered, and mount the Madrid trams at their busiest hours, jostling coquettishly with the male passengers, flirting with grimaces, winking at them, collective panic). Winking? Buñuel? No. A gaze unfathomable, fixed, infinitely remote, transformed only by the big infant’s grin and robust guffaw of a perpetually youthful man. He knows how to laugh until the tears come. An ingenuous-appearing humor, a series of practical jokes and remembered gags, put into action or previsualized. Spain, Mexico, and surrealism, a triple-whammy black humor.

I completely lack a conceptual memory. For me, only visual memory exists. For Simon of the Desert I settled myself into the National Library of Paris for several months, I read everything that had been written on the life of the medieval anchorites, including Latin folios. I looked into what the stylites ate, prayed, wore, everything. Useless. Culture contributed nothing. The movie is a series of visual and verbal gags.

Keep Reading

The Wilderness Years: Buñuel in the Fifties

‘Death in the Garden’

Between his revolutionary debut with the triple threat of Un chien andalou (1929), L’âge d’or (1930), and Land Without Bread (1933) and leaping back into international attention with Viridiana (1961), which won the Palm d’Or and was denounced by the Vatican, Luis Buñuel spent over a decade making movies in the Mexican film industry.

He directed close to twenty films there, mostly commercial comedies and melodramas with a few personal projects in between, and for a long time that period was considered his years in the wilderness. While films like Los Olvidados (1950), The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955) and Nazarin (1959), which foreground the satirical swipes at religion and sex and social mores, have always been championed, most of the other films of that period remained overlooked for years. In part because they were harder to see but also because Buñuel’s presence was much less pronounced. He had to slip in his sensibility.

Two of those films stand out in particular: Robinson Crusoe (1954), an English-language production from an ambitious Mexican producer looking to break into the international market, and Death in the Garden (1956), a French language coproduction shot in Mexico with French stars.

Continue reading at Keyframe

DVD/Blu-ray: ‘Belle de Jour’

“I’d like everything to be perfect,” moons young husband Pierre (Jean Sorel) to his beautiful wife Séverine (Catherine Deneuve), trotting down a country road in a horse-drawn carriage in the opening of Belle de Jour. “If only you weren’t so cold.” Her apology doesn’t merely fall on deaf ears, it inflames him to sadistic sexual retribution, like something out of a Victorian melodrama by way of the Marquis de Sade. She’s hauled out of the carriage by the two drivers, dragged through the woods, bound and gagged, stripped and whipped, and finally ravished by the servants, at which point her expression changes from the wide-eyed stage terror of innocence abused to the surrender to physical ecstasy.

Catherine Deneuve: Blossoming on the afternoon shift

“What are you thinking about, Séverine?,” asks the same voice, now offscreen and, in a sense, in another movie. “I was thinking about you,” she answers with a sweet but aloof smile, sitting in bed in their city apartment like a porcelain princess while her doting husband readies himself for bed. But the spell is broken and the reverie over. The fantasies of her imagination do not cross over into her real life, where she sleeps alone in a single bed by her choice, the frigid wife of the opening seconds once again. He inches in for a romantic overture and she once again rebuffs him. A year after marriage, she’s still unable to give herself to her husband, a cultured, proper virgin with lurid sexual fantasies behind her physical coldness.

Luis Bunuel’s cheerfully brazen satire of sexual repression, social decorum, and erotic fantasies is in the running for Bunuel’s kinkiest film, and that’s saying a lot. You could say that Belle de Jour stars two Catherine Deneuves: the dreamy, romantic young innocent of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and the uptight, anxious sexual repressive of Repulsion (1965). Buñuel didn’t cast the actress — she was pushed on the director by the producers, Raymond and Robert Hakim, and Deneuve had the impression that he took her with some reluctance — but he uses that cool, aloof Deneuve quality as a defining quality of Séverine, the beautiful young wife of a gallant but often absent (emotionally as well as physically) husband. On the surface she’s the picture-perfect bourgeois wife of a respected young surgeon with an almost reflexive disapproval of every break with respectability and dignity she sees or hears about, especially when it comes to Pierre’s friend Henri Husson (Michel Piccoli), a “rich and bored” provocateur and gleeful chauvinist who doesn’t let Séverine’s disdain prevent him from constantly propositioning her. Yet she escapes her own resistance to physical contact with her husband through similar fantasies and finally follows them to a real-life Paris bordello hidden away in an urban apartment, where she signs up for an afternoon shift (thus her working name: Belle de Jour).

Continue reading on Turner Classic Movies

The “Commercial” Life of Luis Bunuel

[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]

One tends to think of Luis Buñuel’s “early” career in terms of long desert spaces between highly personal landmarks: almost two decades of relative anonymity between the collaboration with DalíUn Chien andalou (1929) and L’Age d’ôr (1930)—and the explosive resurfacing occasioned by Los olvidados (1950), and then a decade of ostensibly “commercial” filmmaking between Los olvidados and Viridiana (1961), which in turn initiated a period of big and small masterpieces extending to the present. As a new biography by Francisco Aranda makes evident, Buñuel was much more involved in film in the Thirties and Forties than has generally been recognized; and, as retrospective tributes and newly available 16mm prints show, Buñuel’s “commercial” work is much more interesting than disparaging remarks about the director’s “Mexican period” would lead us to believe. One might go even further: some of Buñuel’s lesser-known Fifties films are so good that they may alter our sense not only of Buñuel but of film in the Fifties as well.

Of the movies the director made between Los olvidados and Viridiana, perhaps only Nazarín (1958) has any great currency. But at least half a dozen titles from the period, many of them out of circulation until recently, are of special importance. Subida al cielo (1951) and Él (1953), two films which have been generally available, rank as small masterpieces—the one a devastatingly surreal B picture*, the other a superbly succinct psychological study which has something of the seductiveness and sting of Belle de Jour (1967). Susana (1951), Abismos de pasión (1954), and Robinson Crusoe (1953) are literary adaptations of considerable interest. A number of “commercial” films from just before and after Los olvidadosGran Casino (1947), El gran calavera (1949), La hija del engaño (1950), Ilusion viaia en tranvia (1953), and El rio y la Muerte (1954) rate as appealing minor works. But three others—Ensayo de un crimen (1955), La Mort en ce jardin (1956), and The Young One (1960)—deserve to be known by more than Buñuel aficionados alone. All three reflect a radical filmmaker’s approach to a conservative, conformist age, and all three are among Buñuel’s wisest and most engaging films.

* * *

Georges Marchal and Simone Signoret: 'Death in the Garden'

La Mort en ce jardin (Death In the Garden) is an “ambitious” film whose best moments prove more interesting than its plot—perhaps deliberately so. One senses Buñuel is wary of letting the film’s journey (through a dictatorship and a jungle) become too much of an easily interpretable allegory. Buñuel’s cinema is consistently and rigorously opposed to easy, readymade answers, and La Mort reflects this through a group of characters who constantly keep us off balance, and through a series of small digressions from a deceptively linear plot. The film is a sort of pilgrims’ progress, but one which is more intent on moral distinctions than on clearcut moral lessons. Anti-Catholicism and anti-imperialism both loom large, and Buñuel links them quite directly with each other. But the film’s major insights have more to do with the nature, extent and price of individual freedom. All of the characters, including an unusual missionary priest, Father Lizzardi (played by Michel Piccoli), are individualists and entrepreneurs of one sort or another. The story’s movement reveals their discovery and/or neglect of the connections each has with his fellows.

Four characters have special importance in the film’s South American setting. Castin (Charles Vanel), an aging diamond-miner, dreams of returning with his daughter (Michèle Girardon) to France and opening a restaurant. He also wants to marry Djin (Simone Signoret), a prostitute who is interested in his money but not in him. Lizzardi preaches acquiescence when the workers plan an armed rebellion against the government’s nationalization of the diamond mines. Chark (Georges Marachal), a lone wolf adventurer, disdains the government and the rebellion; but when he is arrested for freelance diamond smuggling and thereby mixed up in the general police-state brouhaha, he escapes and temporarily fights alongside the rebel leaders with a vengeance. When all of these people are thrust together in flight, he becomes their guiding light—in a way which encompasses both the conventions of the adventure film and the idiom of Buñuel’s cinema. Chark, in fact, is unique in that respect: no other Buñuel film I know of has a figure who is so commanding without being corrupt at the same time. Buñuel is not a director whom we think of as a creator of heroes, but Chark’s independence, ferocity, and lack of sentiment bring him closer to the conventional hero than is usually permitted in Buñuel’s more personal movies.

Keep Reading

Getting What You Need: Changing Surrealist Vision in Luis Bunuel’s “Un Chien Andalou,” “Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie,” and “That Obscure Object Of Desire”

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

by Julie Ahrens

Seeing ants crawl from a hole in a man’s hand, we don’t need to ask, “Is it a dream or is it real?” It’s surreal. That one creepy, iconic image is the essence of surrealism.

In 1928 Luis Buñuel, the man with the razor, opened his viewers’ eyes to middle-class amorality, complacency and sexual frustration with his first film, Un Chien Andalou. This film, made at the height of the Surrealist movement in France with Salvador Dalí­, is representative of surrealism in its overt use of dreamlike images – and ants – presented without rational order or meaning. Born out of 19th-century Romanticism and influenced by Freud’s investigations into subconscious mental processes, the images of surrealist art were intended to pass directly from the subconscious mind of the artist to that of the viewer with a minimum of logical reasoning. Un Chien Andalou consists wholly of bizarre, unreal images, and the viewer is continually aware of being suspended in a dream landscape.

The man with the razor: "Un Chien Andalou"
The man with the razor: "Un Chien Andalou"

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Buñuel’s 1972 attack on the inane privileged classes, does not appear as purely surrealistic as his first film. Here Buñuel divides the world into the “reality” of six friends’ attempt to have dinner together, and the twisted tales of dreams and dreams-within-dreams that interrupt and underlie their outward social niceties. Although we are not quite able to distinguish where it lies, we know there is a dividing line between the dream and the reality in The Discreet Charm. This barrier is crossed every time a character begins a story of a dream he has had, or is suddenly awakened to reveal that a preceding sequence was actually a dream. Buñuel punctuates the outwardly placid, yet inwardly violent, bourgeois aims with timeless shots of the group walking along a road. At first there seem to be clear divisions between fantasy and reality, yet it finally becomes apparent that it is impossible to distinguish between the two.

Keep Reading