Luis Buñuel: Exuberant Contradictions

Alex Berg
June 30, 2017

“Buñuel nearly always made Buñuel films.”
– Ingmar Bergman

“Buñuel is the bearer, above all else, of poetic consciousness. He knows that aesthetic structure has no need of manifestos, that the power of art does not lie there but in emotional persuasiveness.”
– Andrey Tarkovsky

Luis Buñuel is as old as cinema itself. He was an icon of international filmmaking. He was a Surrealist—privileged, skeptic, atheist, artist, Luddite. He was a virile young man who lived to be 83; he made his first film at the age of 29, and his last at 77. He was famous for his unrelenting distaste for the stuffy upper-class, yet he was born into a life of privilege and wealth. He had a close relationship with his subconscious, but he never sought to analyze himself or his work. “I’ve managed to live my life among multiple contradictions without ever trying to rationalize or resolve them;” he says towards the end of his memoir, My Last Sigh, “they’re part of me, and part of the fundamental ambiguity of all things, which I cherish.” Buñuel thrived, as a man and as an artist, in the worlds of ambiguity and contradiction.

His two most famous films are his debut short film Un Chien Andalou, made in Paris with Salvador Dali in 1929, and 1972’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, a comedic dream-like social critique of the European privileged class. It is rare for any filmmaker to find continued success as a septuagenarian—but there are few precedents that Don Luis did not demolish. When Don Luis was a child, films were seen not as an artform, but as an entertaining novelty for children and the easily-amused. The life he lived, and the work he produced, helped to grow, define, and legitimize filmmaking as art.

“In my own village in Calanda, where I was born on the twenty-second of February, 1900, the Middle Ages lasted until World War I.” He describes his childhood and hometown with ambivalence. At times he seems warm and nostalgic, and other times resentful of the ancient traditions that defined his upbringing. His father was the fourth or fifth richest person in the town, they lived in a large house, and had servants to carry their things, because that was what people of “rank” were expected to do. The reason he was able to satirize the European privileged-class so perfectly throughout his career (not merely in Discreet Charm) was because that was the life he was born into. However, Buñuel was always too much of a rebel to blindly accept the status quo, so he designed his lifestyle so that it flew in the face of convention. He was a surrealist, after all.

The Buñuels were raised religiously, but it was not long before Luis lost his faith, “Reading Darwin’s The Origin of the Species was so dazzling that I lost what little faith I had left (at the same time that I lost my virginity, which went in a Brothel in Saragossa).” Though he considered himself an atheist from that point onward, religion never stopped factoring in his life. His films are rife with Christian imagery and themes, though few of the representations are particularly flattering to the church. This is one of the reasons his work was always controversial. One of his later films, Viridiana, was banned in Italy and in Spain for its apparent sexual impropriety and religious themes. Viridiana was not his last controversy, nor his first.

In fact, the film of his that remains most controversial is his debut, Un Chien Andalou. Made in close collaboration with Salvador Dali while both were still in their late 20’s and mostly living off their parents’ money. Buñuel describes their writing process thusly:

“Our only rule was very simple: No idea or image that lent itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted. We had to open all doors to the irrational and keep only those images that surprised us, without trying to explain why. The amazing thing was that we never had the slightest disagreement; we spent a week of total identification.”

The film was inspired by their dreams. Buñuel dreamt of a cloud cutting the moon like a razor blade cutting an eyeball, and Dali dreamt of a hand crawling with ants. When they successfully translated these dreams into cinematic images, they did so with the intent to shock the audience, “to change the world, to transform life itself.” But they did not expect the world to be ready. During the first screening of the film, Buñuel stood behind the projector with rocks in his pockets, expecting to use them in self-defense when the audience became riotous. He was disappointed to discover the film was well-received by critics and the audience. (One person in the audience happened to be Pablo Picasso, who Buñuel had a passing relationship with. According to his memoir, Buñuel helped hang Guernica, despite hating it.)

For a debut film, especially one made so early in cinema history (merely two years after the first talkie), it is remarkably sophisticated. The Surrealists were not merely nihilists trying to shock the world by being controversial, they were also brilliant artists who knew how to make a real impact with their work. According to Elisabeth H. Lyon in her essay “Luis Buñuel: the Process of Dissociation in Three Films,” the most important formal cinematic innovation of the movement was the principle of dissociation. Quoting André Breton, she describes dissociation as the “‘fortuitous juxtaposition’ of two disparate realities, creating an element of shock or surprise” that transforms “the relationship between the elements within the image and between the beholder and the object.” She says that with Un Chien, Buñuel was successful at translating essentially literary ideas into film language. She describes how Buñuel is able to shock and manipulate his audience not simply with controversial imagery, but with film language. The relationship from shot to shot: “faux-raccord (literally, false match), the inversion of one of the central narrative devices of filmmaking” is used during the scene on a beach with the woman beckoning the man to come nearer to her. Using film grammar, he creates an impossible space that cannot exist outside the film. “The movement is carefully matched, even the eyeline is matched between the shots forcing the viewer to make connections, by following the movement and the eyeline, that do not exist in spatial continuity.” After priming the audience to expect the two characters to unite, he pulls the rug out and reveals that they are not really looking at each other. At the young age of 29, in his first film, Buñuel manages to successfully find a filmic way to express surrealistic ideas.

During the the making of the film, Buñuel and Dali were both deeply embedded in the Surrealist movement and culture—not merely a descriptor, Surrealism was a movement, a group of people, with a shared set of principals. André Breton, a close friend of Buñuel’s until his death, was the de facto leader of the movement (though having an official representative of the movement contradicts some of the anarchistic principles they valued), and it was he who formed essentially what was the Surrealist creed. This movement stayed with Buñuel his whole life. Though many of its members either became rich and successful, died young, or compromised their values, Buñuel stayed relatively true to their ideals of shocking and changing the world— even as he took jobs in Hollywood.

Following the success of Un Chien Andalou, he followed it up with two more Surrealist films: L’age D’or and Land Without Bread. These films granted Buñuel enough notoriety that he was offered a job at MGM. The studio bosses, though perplexed and angered by his films, were impressed enough by his potential that they offered him $250 a month to come to Hollywood and learn technical skills. He spent most of his tenure at the studio getting lost in Los Angeles, drinking, and assaulting Charlie Chaplin’s Christmas trees, before eventually resigning. From 1931 until the start of the Spanish Civil War, Buñuel lived in his country of origin and produced 18 films. He then fled back to America where he was offered a job at MoMa distributing anti-Nazi propaganda films—until Dali published a book describing Buñuel as an atheist, forcing him to resign and leave the United States. This permanently soured his relationship with Dali, and the two would only see each other on two more occasions before they died.

After his stint at MoMa, and a long period without directing a film, Buñuel immigrated to Mexico, where he made 24 films from 1946 to 1964. Working with micro-budgets and imperfect scripts, Buñuel put in his 10,000 hours and became a master filmmaker. As a young man, his work clearly demonstrated an intuitive understanding of film language, but he had little experience working with actors, budgeting, and lacked technical skills required to be a great filmmaker. His films had large audiences in Mexico, but were sadly not seen widely in the rest of the world, with the exception of Los Olvidados, which earned him much critical acclaim.

After a chance encounter with producer Gustavo Alatriste, Buñuel was allowed to move back to Spain and resume making films there—with European casts and larger budgets— beginning with Viridiana. This began Buñuel’s most artistically fruitful period. Between 1961 and 1977 he made ten feature-length films (with the exception of 1965’s Simon of the Desert, which lost funding midway through production, forcing Buñuel to end abruptly 45 minutes through. His solution, however, was ingenious: the story is based on a 4th century religious ascetic, Simeon Stylites, who resides atop a tall column in the middle of the desert, and is continually tempted by the Devil to come down—and the film ends with a 16-century time-jump to an American rock club, where Simon, now dressed in a chic black turtleneck and sunglasses, continues to wrestle with the Devil’s temptations). Viridiana, The Exterminating Angel, Diary of a Chambermaid, Simon of the Desert, Belle de Jour, The Milky Way, Tristana, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty, and That Obscure Object of Desire may represent the greatest streak of work by one filmmaker in cinema history. Each film oozes with wit, economy, and Buñuel’s irrepressible spirit. What is most remarkable, is that Buñuel made these films when he was between 61 and 77 years old, and they still contain the same fuck-you attitude that defined in his Surrealist days.

During the making of Tristana, Catherine Deneuve, who played the titular character, kept a journal which she later published. While it was not their first film together, she was slightly intimidated by “Don Luis” and worried about delivering a strong enough performance to the Spanish master. She describes him as being cold towards actors, efficient with his crew, extremely impatient, and willing to alter scenes on the fly. “[H]e injects surrealism into the most classic, traditional scenes, for which he has little patience.” Buñuel was a satirist of elitism born into a life of privilege. He was a sophisticated amateur. He was fiercely individualistic, and famous as a member of the Surrealists. He was dreamer who refused to be analyzed

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