The attraction of the abyss
Slicing across the twin histories of cinema and surrealism, two significant forms of artistic expression in the modern age, is the figure of Luis Bunuel. Born into the ‘closed and isolated society’ of the Spanish town of Calanda at the turn of the century, Bunuel has influenced both like few others. This brutish looking man, from a well-to-do bourgeois family, brought an element of the medieval to the rapidly changing face of modernity, drawing a razor across it and leaving a lasting mark. Bunuel proved to be so far ahead of his time that he had already punched Salvador Dali in the face long before the thought had occurred to most people.
… religion, eroticism, violence, death, insects, repetition, discontiguity, discontinuity and repetition.
It is often said of Bunuel that he was a Surrealist first and a Spaniard second, but he was largely unaware of and uninterested in Surrealism during his early years in Paris, the city of his conception. He had previously seen FW Murnau’s DESTINY and had decided that he wanted to make films. In 1929, he and his long-time friend from Madrid’s Residencia, Salvador Dali, decided to turn a series of dreams they’d had into the infamous ‘call to murder,’ UN CHIEN ANDALOU. In Dali’s words ‘a fraternal collaboration’ between the two men and Jose Bello, UN CHIEN ANDALOU establishes several key tropes that would appear throughout Bunuel’s film career: religion, eroticism, violence, death, insects, repetition, discontiguity, discontinuity and repetition. Bunuel was disappointed by the response of a bourgeois audience who, instead of being repulsed or incited to violence, reacted with delight.
No such disappointment for L’AGE D’OR (1930). Bunuel’s excoriating second work juxtaposes filmic elements and a dislocated soundtrack to attack everything underpinning ‘civilisation’ – to ‘rape clear consciences’. Its violent disregard for bourgeois values is clear: a man shoots his child for a minor slight; Christ is compared to the Marquis De Sade; lovers cry out in rapture ‘What Joy, for the murder of our children!’. It closes with a crucifix decorated in women’s scalps. Days after its premiere, the French right wing group League of Patriots disrupted the film, throwing ink at the screen and then destroying the numerous Surrealist works of art on display in the foyer of Le Studio 28. L’AGE D’OR was withdrawn from the public for the next 40 years.
The Spanish Civil War claimed the lives of many Spanish artists, Bunuel’s friend and contempary Federico Garcia Lorca among them. Bunuel, a committed Republican, had previously contributed the social documentary LAS HURDES (Land without Bread), but typically his ethnographic approach to his subjects and audience, together with his natural anarchic sensibility make this far from typical of the genre. A natural predecessor to his 1950 UNESCO registered film LOS OLVIDADOS, LAS HURDES is a propaganda film about an area of Spain so backwards it doesn’t have bread. The malnourished and shoeless children are, however, still taught algebra. This subversive ‘surrealist documentary’ renders its audience complicit and caught in that moral condescension in which Bunuel liked to trap his viewers. Its litany of tragic events, dispassionately described, were also influenced by Bunuel’s mendacity and mischief – a goat apparently falls to its death from a mountain, although we see the telltale signs of a gun having been fired – by Bunuel himself. In the next scene a donkey is stung to death by bees, arranged again by Bunuel, who had smeared the beast in honey.
LOS OLVIDADOS was made during Bunuel’s time in Mexico and in it he shattered the assembled national myths of his new adopted homeland. Redolent of many of the post-war social realism films, Bunuel’s film lacks an overarching and clear morality. The perceptive blind beggar, the film’s moral anchor, is also lascivious and violent; the young boy Pedro’s mother is both Jezebel and harridan. The film is punctured by a beautiful but terrifying Bunuelian dream sequence, in which Pedro’s mother, spectral and suddenly loving, offers her hungry child a slab of bloodied, raw meat.
Bunuel distanced himself from the culture of Mexico during his time there, producing some of the country’s best films, but holding it at arm’s length. ‘If I ever disappear, don’t look for me there’ he told his friends. He had broken glass embedded into the walls of his house to keep thieves out. His talent was tempered to fit with the Mexican studio system, but this also gave his films a focus in their perversity and subversive nature.
His films about sexual desire bear the mark of a man who was glad to be freed from it in his later years. In what some have perceived to be a film where Bunuel is the ‘he’ of the title, EL (1953) presages much of what is to be found in Hitchcock’s VERTIGO. This is Bunuel, however, and incorporated into this tale of obsessive, destructive love are foot fetishism, an attempt to stab the eye out of a peeping tom and a lover who tries to sew up his wife’s vagina to keep her chaste. The morality is, however, ambiguous. In his twin obsessions, that of his wife’s supposed indiscretions and the lawsuit he is pursuing to win back some lost real estate, his sense of injustice isn’t just born of his paranoid state. There is much truth in his accusations.
“love is a secret ceremony to be celebrated underground.”
Bunuel applies his interest in entomology to the world of human relationships. Nature is beautiful and cruel, and that applies to us too. It is also absurd and ridiculous. He once claimed that on screen kisses disgusted him, that “love is a secret ceremony to be celebrated underground.” Don Luis abhorred the idea of ‘a ridiculous old Don Juan’ – a 50 year old man that makes a fool of himself by running after younger women.
This Don Juan, often in the guise of Spanish actor and Bunuel regular Fernando Rey, was the subject of many of the collaborations that saw the end of his Mexican exile and his return to mainland Europe. In VIRIDIANA, TRISTANA, BELLE DE JOUR and later, THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE, Bunuel places the viewer in the role of the voyeur and then renders them self-conscious of that very fact – forced to watch the gradual disintegration and dissection of a woman’s dignity and personality.
Bunuel is described by friends as loyal, chaste and affectionate to his wife, Jeanne, yet her memoirs of their relationship MUJER SIN PIANO (A Woman without a Piano) contain traces of his possessiveness and his attempts to constrain her and keep her on a leash. He frustrated her attempts to learn to play the piano, even selling the one she owned in a bet with friends of which she had no knowledge.
VIRIDIANA (1961 ) brought Bunuel the chance to prove his greatness to the world and also to prove a point in his former homeland. That he did. The film won the Palme D’ Or at that year’s Cannes, accepted by the Minister for Film of a fascist Spain, and was also banned in his homeland, General Franco objecting to Bunuel’s recreation of the Last Supper with a rabble of drunken and scabrous beggars – this even before the film’s conclusion, a final breaking of Viridiana’s spirit, by her cousin, in an implied ménage a trois with his put upon housemaid.
That sacrilegious impulse is irrepressible in Bunuel. In all his films, but particularly VIRIDIANA, THE MILKY WAY and PHANTOM OF LIBERTY, piety is seldom rewarded, often scorned. Religious symbols are fetishised or scandalised. Pilgrims travel in vain, heretics seem to be more fun. He was against the dogma of the church, but considered his criticism affectionate. But this sceptical amusement was justified. In recounting the miracle of Calanda to a French Dominican, in which a man’s leg grows back after being amputated, the monk incredulously replied, ‘You do lay it on a bit thick, don’t you?’
His greatest contempt seems reserved for the values of the Bourgeoisie, of which he classed himself a member. Their virtuous and high-minded interference in the lives of those less fortunate are frustrated in buckets of piss and shit, in blood, pain and folly. Viridiana’s idealistic attempts to bring piety to a group of beggars ends, as it would if you invited a donkey into your home, in them resorting to their true, baser natures. Animal nature is often placed out of context in his films, into the civilised world, as is seen in THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL where a bear and some sheep inexplicably roam the house. The bourgeoisie are exposed as employing rituals to fill the hollowness in their lives. In THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL Bunuel intended to show that the repetitiveness of this life can be confining, but it can also be liberating.
THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE sees Bunuel bring together many threads from his career. The film obfuscates intentionally. It confuses genres, it conflates reality with dream and dream with the dream of the dreamer’s dream. It leaves conversations… or interrupted. Sense is obscured, meaning is murdered. It is an unflinching attack on the social class which Bunuel despised as much as he embodied – its disembowelling of bourgeois lives, their lazy national stereotypes, empty rituals and patronising attitudes to those around them, are all for the delayed gratification of its audience. Food is prepared but rarely consumed. Something always gets in the way. Drugs and alcohol, however, are.
This withholding of all that the petty middle-classes desire, their manners, their significance, their nourishment is part of the genius of Bunuel. That he dresses up in a charming comedy of manners and spoon feeds it back to French cineastes only confirms this so. Bunuel presents in his film his view of the human condition as duplicitous. A priest is also a pervert, a father a murderer, a saint a sinner, a lover a tormenter. We are all hypocrites. It is in our nature. Bunuel understood this.
THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD.
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