Luis Buñuel Essay - Critical Essays

Buñuel, Luis


Luis Buñuel Luis Buñuel Image via

Luis Buñuel 1900–

Spanish director and writer.

Though best known for his surrealistic works, in his films Buñuel encompasses a variety of genres that in turn reflect his compendium of beliefs. Buñuel is a paradox: a religious man who daily thanks God that he is an atheist; a tender man who makes films about sadism; and a realist obsessed with fantasy. Although often obscure and difficult, his work has wide appeal because Buñuel addresses a universal theme: the individual's natural impulses and desires opposed by society and religion.

Buñuel's bourgeois Spanish upbringing is the target of his social criticism and his Jesuit education is partially responsible for his anticlerical attitude. Studies of Freud at the University of Madrid also proved an important influence. Upon graduation Buñuel went to Paris, where he studied at the Academie du Cinéma and assisted Jean Epstein on several films.

In 1928, Buñuel made his first film, collaborating with Salvador Dali. The result, Un Chien andalou, is composed of seemingly irrelevant associations, a trademark of surrealist thought. Since Buñuel felt that sleep was the mind's most natural state, his films often have a dreamlike, fragmented quality. Continuity, according to Buñuel, is an example of man's attempt to civilize the irrational by organizing nature. Un Chien andalou condemns this effort. More important than the film's intent to condemn, however, is its desire to shock. In fact, Buñuel expected such negative reactions that he went to the opening of the film with his pockets filled with stones. To the contrary, the film won many favorable responses. But his next film prompted explosive denunciations. L'Age d'Or, referred to as the only authentic surrealist film ever made, advocated a nonconformist revolution, attacking human reason.

Buñuel broke with surrealism briefly to film a documentary, Land without Bread, which graphically depicted the sufferings of an impoverished area of Spain. The chilling objectivity in this film has been likened to the works of Goya, whom Buñuel has long admired.

During the late 1930s, Buñuel worked for the Museum of Modern Art until Dali accused him of atheism and he was released. After dubbing some films in Hollywood, Buñuel traveled to Mexico to make his first film in twenty years. This period is known as Buñuel's rebirth, marked primarily by a brutally realistic style interspersed with touches of surrealism. Though his first films were purely commercial, their revenue permitted Buñuel to direct his successful Los Olvidados, a film of social protest. Its violent portrayal of a group of juvenile delinquents left viewers alienated and appalled, yet in awe of Buñuel's skill.

After a brief filmmaking venture in France, he created Nazarin, a cinematic definition of his religious philosophy. Unlike his earlier works, it is devoid of ambiguity and confusion. Nazarin demonstrates Buñuel's desire to place himself inside the soul of his characters and reflects his belief that an individual must be studied in relation to others.

Buñuel returned to Spain to make Viridiana. A restatement of all his previous brutal themes, it was deemed sacrilegious and banned by the Spanish government. The films after Viridiana are of an increasingly satiric nature. Simon of the Desert, in particular, demonstrates Buñuel's conviction that a pious lifestyle is futile.

One of his most recent films, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, is considered a hallmark in his career. It is a brilliant satire of bourgeoise conventions, using dream sequences and black humor. Like his other films, The Discreet Charm is as confusing and alienating as it is impressive. Probably the best consensus of the general opinion of Buñuel was given by Henry Miller: "They have called Buñuel everything—traitor, anarchist, pervert, defamer, iconoclast. But lunatic they dare not call him."

Henry Miller

Buñuel is obsessed by the cruelty, ignorance and superstition which prevail among men. He realizes that there is no hope for man anywhere on this earth unless a clean slate be made of it. He appears on the scene at the moment when civilization is at its nadir….

They have called Buñuel everything—traitor, anarchist, pervert, defamer, iconoclast. But lunatic they dare not call him. True, it is lunacy he portrays in his film, but it is not of his making. This stinking chaos which for a brief hour or so is amalgamated under his magic wand, this is the lunacy of man's achievements after ten thousand years of civilization. (p. 55)

Perhaps it is the baroque element in human life, or rather in the life of civilized man, which gives to Buñuel's works the aspect of cruelty and sadism. Isolated cruelty and sadism, for it is the great virtue of Buñuel that he refuses to be enmeshed in the glittering web of logic and idealism which seeks to mask from us the real nature of man…. There is no straddling the issue. Either you are crazy, like the rest of civilized humanity, or you are sane and healthy like Buñuel. And if you are sane and healthy you are an anarchist and you throw bombs. (pp. 57-8)

"L'Age d'Or" is the only film I know of which reveals the possibilities of the cinema! It makes its appeal neither to the intellect nor to the heart; it strikes at the solar plexus. It is like kicking a mad dog in the guts. And though it was a valiant kick in the guts and well aimed it was not enough. (p. 59)


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Tony Richardson

Surrealism is born out of despair; its only power is to hasten the general cataclysm by its own prophetic chaos. Max Ernst said of it, "In turning topsy-turvy the appearances and relationships of reality, surrealism has been able, with a smile on its lips, to hasten the general crisis of consciousness which must perforce take place in our time."

No other work of the period expressed this so completely as L'Age d'Or. All civilisation is oppression, suffering, frustration; above, the cynical emptiness and callous show of the rich; below, the misery, hunger and incipient revolution of the poor; individuals are ridden with inhibition, anxiety and guilt; beauty is, like Hans Schwitters' haphazard, delicate collages of tram tickets and paper money, the momentary chance of an afternoon's boredom—clouds pass in the mirror as the girl, restless and lonely, waits for Modot's arrival. Bunuel has taken a traditional romantic theme, love thwarted by circumstance, and seen it with "un œil à l'état sauvage", stripped of any sentimental associations; love is a fierce lust with clumsy embraces and frustrated satisfaction. The honesty of his attitude is explosive and cauterising.

Yet it is not despair that finally pervades the film but a savage glee, almost optimistic in destruction. (pp. 125-26)

[Though] the props are still surrealist—the man with "patches" of living flies, the cow on the bed—and the general form loose and episodic, there are indications that Bunuel had exhausted the surrealist approach and had already begun to shape events into drama. Surrealism had become a technique for exposing and analysing reality rather than a means of creating an independent world of fantasy….

[Bunuel records the story of Land Without Bread, or Las Hurdes,] with a flatness and lack of comment that make it the more alarming. No moral is drawn, no response instructed, no easy attitude given. Bunuel is content, as was Goya in Los Desastres de la Guerra, to let the naked record speak...

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Lindsay Anderson

The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe is a film by an artist of fresh, still developing talent, a poetic film, with a purity of style that marks it as the statement of a man of integrity, direct, uncompromised…. In fact so simple, so inevitable are the images, that you have to imagine what the conventional film treatment of the story would be to appreciate quite how daring—and how masterly—is Bunuel's naked, unadorned presentation of the simple facts. No jolly establishing sequences at Plymouth, no sentimental farewells, no pretty Polly waving a handkerchief from the jetty, not even a smashing storm sequence: just long waves rolling in to a deserted beach, and a man staggering up out of the water….

The first reels of the film are like the best kind of documentary—like Moana, with its loving, contented observation of the practical details of living. Then comes the second theme, of solitude. "I also wanted to tackle the subject of Love … that's to say the lack of love or friendship: man without the fellowship of man or woman." Bunuel emphasises the terrible loneliness of his hero with vivid scenes of hallucination—staged with the utmost economy. (p. 86)

The scenes with Friday are a development of that second theme, of loneliness…. The delicate humour with which these scenes are presented, Friday's dignity and naif wisdom, Crusoe's shame, the warmth of their eventual "grande fraternité humaine" (Bunuel's words)—all these must surely astonish those who had docketed this director in their minds as a harsh and cruel experimentalist, fascinated exclusively by the violent and the depraved.

But of course there has never been any doubt of Bunuel's great love of life and the living. It has made him angry in the past; in this film it makes him reflective, observant, gentle, stirring but never inflamed. (pp. 86-7)

Lindsay Anderson, "Film Reviews: 'The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1954 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 24, No. 2, October-December, 1954, pp. 86-7.

Basil Wright

[The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz] is in many respects a very remarkable film. It is a comédie noire in which the director may have taken himself more seriously than he originally intended. Like all Bunuel's films, it maintains an identity of atmosphere from beginning to end, and in its crucial moments produces the horror which lies behind the farces of life and human behaviour. Viewed in relation to the canon of his work, this film confirms a growing belief that the so-called iconoclasms of L'Age d'Or, and the apparently deliberate shock-tactics in many of his films, represent in fact a quite simple outlook on life—the philosophy, in fact, of Luis Bunuel. (p. 87)


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Gavin Lambert

[The disturbing, overwhelming final episode of Nazarin] is in the great tradition of Luis Buñuel, who once said that his aim in making films was to convince people that they don't live in the best of all possible worlds. (And, in parenthesis, that there's no sign of the world getting much better.) He has never dramatized this belief so powerfully, and with such immense sadness, as in the whole of Nazarin. (p. 30)

Nazarin loses Christ and finds man. Like Dostoevsky's Prince Muishkin, or his Alyosha ("I am a monk who doesn't believe in God"), he finds him among the derelict, the criminal, and the mad. By implication Buñuel is saying—as he has always said—that this is the way society...

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Emilio G. Riera

Viridiana is a work of genius, and as such has accomplished much more than it set out to. In it Buñuel offers his audience a splendid opportunity for exploring his creative universe and finding enrichment in a fresh point of view, a new outlook on reality….

Buñuel is not a believer to be overlooked. He obviously believes in the miraculous or, rather, in the liberating force of the irrational and in the poetry of instinct. Religion, however, as commonly understood, is paradoxically, merely an attempt to rationalize the miraculous…. This is the function of dogma. And of one thing I am certain—Buñuel is utterly free of dogmatism. He likewise instinctively opposes a secular form of...

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David Robinson

Viridiana still speaks as loud and as clear and with the same voice as L'Age d'Or, still asserting sanity and cleanliness in a world whose nature is to be mad and filthy. If there has been a change in the thirty years between [the two films], it is that the Swiftian fury of L'Age d'Or has given place to a calmer philosophic clowning, as cool and therefore as deadly as Voltaire. (p. 116)

Viridiana's picture of mankind does not present a very flattering image of God. Buñuel depicts men's viciousness in terms that are no less direct and no more amiable that those of L'Age d'Or. If there is a hero at all it is Jorge, who lives positively and (as a good surrealist)...

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Geoffrey Nowell-Smith

At first sight (and with hindsight too, as the films have reached us in the wrong order), Nazarin … looks simply like a more ambiguous version of Viridiana. (p. 194)

The ambiguity lies in the fact that Buñuel refuses either to approve or condemn his hero, with the result that the film can be read in two different ways. Either we must take in that Nazarin is a fool and his saintliness futile and absurd, or else that his perseverance in the face of adversity is a living proof that faith is its own justification and reward, and the things of the spirit better and stronger than those of the flesh. Taken singly neither of these readings is satisfactory…. [If] Nazarin is to be condemned,...

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André Bazin


The theme [of Los Olvidados], on the surface anyway, is the same that, since the appearance of Chemin de la vie, has served as a model for all films dealing with juvenile delinquency: misery makes an evil counselor, and redemption comes through love, trust, and hard work. The fundamental optimism of this theme is, first of all, a moral optimism, on the order of Rousseau's, which proposes an innate goodness in man and a paradise of innocence in childhood, laid waste before it is ripe by an adult world. But it is also a social optimism, which suggests that society can repair the evil it has done through reeducation. (p. 195)

With both children and adults,...

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John Russell Taylor

Never since L'Age d'Or has Buñuel's expression of his beliefs been so intense and concentrated, not even in Viridiana, the most complete later expression, since then there is a fully articulated plot to be dealt with and the film is more than twice as long. But one L'Age d'Or is enough; no man, not even Buñuel, would need to make two in one lifetime. It offers such riches all at one go that it leaves dozens of fragments of raw material just begging to be taken up again and reworked, as well as numerous ideas to be applied to an infinite number of new situations. The later films, after some twenty years' gap, set out to do precisely this; to build on the firm foundations offered by L'Age...

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Strother Purdy

[A] careful look at Exterminating Angel reveals it … as Bunuel's best film, perhaps, and as a film almost alone in a mode that might be called existential surrealism.

Ever since Chien Andalou Bunuel has been expected to put oddly or outrageously juxtaposed images in his films, and not necessarily to have anything in mind beyond an urge to shock, or to express senseless violence, while doing it…. In Exterminating Angel, on the other hand, the events are generally impossible outside of dreams (truly surreal), but there should be no more presumption that they are therefore meaningless than there should be concerning the events in Viridiana, or that events in dreams are...

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Brian Murphy

For anyone interested in Bunuel, Simon del Desierto is essential because this is the one film in which Bunuel takes as his immediate subject that which has played so important a part in the background of all his films: Christianity….

Simon is obviously neither Viridiana nor Nazarin: he is a powerful, fascinating figure, and Bunuel's treatment of him is generally sympathetic. Nevertheless, the film, intellectually a dilemma, is cynical and pessimistic. On the one hand, there is the nihilism of the 20th century which we all know; on the other, there is Simon's world—which is not entirely typical….

One of the most interesting tensions in any Bunuel film is between the...

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Lita Paniagua

Patterned loosely after the picaro novels of the Spanish Renaissance, The Milky Way follows two itinerants, amiable, friendly fellows…. [They] participate as spectators in periodic episodes illustrating various formalistic squabbles on points of dogma in the life of the Church: the divinity of Christ, the Holy Trinity, the Immaculate Conception, the Eucharist, the Existence of Free Will, the Origin of Evil … the whole tiresome bag. It is doubtful if this line of silly medieval chatter could at best be forged into significant thought-provoking questions under the conditions of the world today. In the hands of an aging reforming zealot, they turn into instruments of torture more like the tools of the...

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Stanley Kauffmann

[The Milky Way is a] parable of Christianity, but it is free of Christ parallels (Nazarin), of sterile and protracted allegory (The Exterminating Angel), of shallow Evil-as-travail-toward-Good (El). The structure of this new film is taut and well-modeled, the interplay between idea and image is delightful, the whole work is funny and bitter and peculiarly devout from beginning to end. (p. 231)

The film is as well made as Buñuel's pictures have often—not always—been. Occasionally he still lets people walk out of shots, leaving us to stare for a second at empty places where the action was; and occasionally there is a meaning-less emphasis (like a close shot of...

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Joan Mellen

[Within] the confines of [Tristana's] rather melodramatic if morally resonant plot, which always borders on the perverse, as do all of the director's films, Buñuel has managed to interweave meanings that go far beyond the Electra theme. Throughout the film, Buñuel comments on the psychological effects of social dependance. (p. 52)

Buñuel's psychology is impeccable. Her mind a tabula rasa, it is logical that Tristana would become whatever her surroundings provide, that her psychic impulses would be directed by the will of her domineering guardian. (pp. 52-3)

Sexually, Tristana, after her initiation by Don Lope, becomes the sister of Belle de Jour…. Like Belle de...

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FrançOis Truffaut


Luis Buñuel is, perhaps, somewhere between Renoir and Bergman. One would gather that Buñuel finds mankind imbecilic but life diverting. All this he tells us very mildly, even a bit indirectly, but it's there in the overall impression we get from his films. Even though he has very little stomach for "messages," Buñuel did manage to make one of those rare, truly antiracist movies, The Young One (1960), the only film he has shot in English. It succeeded because of his masterful ability to intertwine sympathetic and unsympathetic characters and to shuffle the cards in his psychological game while he addresses us in perfectly clear, logical language.


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Pauline Kael

"The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" is a cosmic vaudeville show—an Old Master's mischief…. Luis Buñuel is no longer savage about the hypocrisy and the inanity of the privileged classes. They don't change, and since they have become a persistent bad joke to him, he has grown almost fond of their follies—the way one can grow fond of the snarls and the silliness of vicious pets. He looks at them now and they're such perfectly amoral little beasts they amuse him; he enjoys their skin-deep proprieties, their faith in appearances, their sublime confidence. At the same time, this Spanish exile-expatriate may have come to a point in life when the hell he has gone through to make movies is receding into the past,...

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Carlos Fuentes

An obsessive artist, Buñuel cares about what he wants to say; or rather, what he wants to see. A really important director makes only one film; his work is a sum, a totality of perfectly related parts that illuminate each other. In Buñuel's films, from "An Andalusian Dog" to "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie," the essential unifying factor is sight. His first image is that of a woman's eye slit by a razor and throughout the body of his work there is this pervading sense of sight menaced, sight lost as virginity is lost; sight as a wound that will not heal, wounded sight as an interstice through which dreams and desires can flow. Catherine Deneuve's absent regard in "Belle de Jour" is calculated: She is...

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Freddy Buache

It would be a mistake to try to work out a systematic exegesis of Un Chien Andalou, because it is impossible to translate, completely into ordinary language the complexity of this poem—for poem it is, and not a fable or an allegory. On the other hand, it would be equally wrong to see it as the convulsions of two wild imaginations [Buñuel and Salvador Dali]. It is open to logical interpretation, and its theme is an extremely serious one. It describes the dramatic collision between desire and the object of that desire in a context that literally bristles with pitfalls. (p. 10)

Man is not free to approach the woman he loves. He carries around with him a whole ramshackle load of moral...

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Peter P. Schillaci

Through forty years of filmmaking, Luis Bunuel has been opening our eyes to see what might otherwise evade our notice. And he is not averse to using a razor slash where it is appropriate. (p. 111)

The personal dimension in each Bunuel film converts the body of his work into a mosaic of the man. (pp. 111-12)

Whatever else he has done, Luis Bunuel has consistently demythologized a vestigially Christian culture, and he has done so since long before theologians announced that God is dead. He has gone from avant-garde visual theatrics to a bland, straightforward directorial style, all the time nourishing the same obsession—to lay to rest all the myths, secular and religious, which...

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Peter Harcourt

Luis Buñuel … is first and foremost a Spaniard and after that a surrealist. His view of life has developed from this primary fact. His inheritance has been Spanish, as his response to life seems largely to have been intuitive. It is only in his more playful moods that he sometimes seems cerebral, content to mock his pet hates from merely the surface of his mind.

A crucial part of this Spanish inheritance was his Jesuit education. Spanish Catholicism, perhaps more extremely than that of any other country, must have brought home to the young Buñuel the surrealist antagonism between the ideals of the spirit and the exigencies of the flesh, as it would undoubtedly have brought home to him the...

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Raymond Durgnat

The spectator who prefers easy butts can easily dismiss … [the] commensalist nostalgias [of the dinner guests in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie] as simply some insectdance, or a deluded and delusive ritual of solidarity, or an essentially egoistic need for reassurance of social acceptability. Yet dinner parties are a residual—and a potentially meaningful—form of potlatch. And, even if it's hopeless, it's only human to attempt to recapture a tribal fraternity by such psychological surrogates as the gang, the clique, the set. Part of the irony is that real needs are denied, and the quest is switched from solidarity to food—seven guests in search of a Host….

The characters...

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Marsha Kinder

Phantom of Liberty is a film about the impossibility of escaping the tyranny of convention in politics, society, and art…. Buñuel's anarchistic vision has remained constant. Man persists in denying his animal nature and creating a civilized code of laws and manners that only heightens his absurdity and intensifies his oppression. This theme lies at the center of all Buñuel's work; he never escapes it, and neither do we, his audience.

As in earlier films, the central social ritual is the dinner party, for it offers a prime example of how civilized man copes with his basic animal needs…. Using a Swiftian ironic reversal, in Phantom Buñuel reminds us that eating and shitting are...

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Randall Conrad

The Golden Age [or L'Age d'Or] is an attack on repressive society but Bunuel views social repression and individual inhibition as two sides of a single reality. The ambivalent symbolism of The Golden Age enables Bunuel to capture a dialectic between the outer prison—"imperial Rome", Christian civilization, bourgeois society—and the inner prison: the guilt which denies pleasure, inhibits instincts and conditions man to conformity. Each side reflects the other; both form an indissoluble whole. It is the whole which is Bunuel's target.

For Bunuel the key to liberation is desire, the mainspring of human activity. The perfect ideological complement to The Golden Age is...

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Allen Thiher

Buñuel's first film [Un Chien andalou] is commonly understood either to be an unadulterated bit of nonsense or a symbol-laden exercise in hermeticism that only the initiated can understand. Neither of these ideas is entirely false, but neither is adequate for a full comprehension of one of the most important films of the avant-garde. (p. 38)

Our initial postulate for understanding Un Chien andalou is that surrealist practice is a ludic activity, a form of play, that attempts systematically to subvert the rules of the game, whether it be in the realm of syntax, narration, or iconic representation. Un Chien andalou is, then, an anti-game which, by the systematic way it proposes to...

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Raymond Durgnat

If the inexplicable abounds in Buñuel's work, it is so that his moral arguments are constantly related to the inner world of desires and feelings, related in a way which asserts their irrational existence as categorical imperatives of man's nature. Buñuel is a moralist, but also protests against the rationalist, as well as puritan, attempt to apply moral standards to every impulse and feeling of man.

In his detachment from his own lyricism, Buñuel is more Brechtian than Brecht. He has no need of alienation effects, which in practice delight us aesthetically, thus de-alienating themselves. In his theories, Brecht was a rhetorician, and he pays the price for it. Buñuel needs no alienation effects,...

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Don Willis

The archetypal heroes of the comic, or serio-comic, films of Luis Buñuel such as El (1952), Nazarin (1958) and Simon of the Desert (1965) are pure, in either sense of the word: innocent, simple, homogeneous. They haven't a trace of deceit or hypocrisy and they aren't self-questioning or self-aware. Buñuel doesn't make Nazarin and Simon contradict their moral and religious principles. Instead, he makes them push these to their logical, absurd extreme. Yet the films reveal a dichotomy: the absoluteness of Nazarin, Simon and Francisco, which is their primary strength, is at the same time, in context, their primary weakness, their comic flaw. Buñuel puts his heroes in a multiple perspective which, in...

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David L. Overbey

It is the fact, process and results of obsession and desire which are under dissection [in Cet Obscur Objet du Désir]. As the title indicates, the object of that desire, while not unimportant, remains obscure, for it may be that within this context the very frustration of desire is desire's true objective. If that is indeed the case, Cet Obscur Objet du Désir indicates that Buñuel has begun to despair; his characters here no longer wrestle against the forces of repression and frustration but collaborate and embrace them….

Far from creating a fascinatingly romantic image of desire á la Dietrich [as Josef von Sternberg did in The Devil Is a Woman, based on the same...

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André Breton


The day will soon come when we realise that, in spite of the wear and tear of life that bites like acid into our flesh, the very cornerstone of that violent liberation which reaches out for a better life in the heart of the technological age that corrupts our cities is

(p. 327)

Buñuel has formulated a theory of revolution and love which goes to the very core of human nature; that most tragic of all debates, galvanised by well-meaning cruelty, finds its ultimate expression in that unique instant when a distant yet wholly present voice, so...

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