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 constantly looking outside the confines of the screen, enlarging the space of the screen, looking at something beyond that isn't there, that probably connects the two halves of her life.
But Buñuel's violent aggressions against sight actually force us back to his particular way of seeing. His world is seen first as a grey, hazy, distant jumble of undetermined things; no other director shoots a scene from quite that neutral, passive distance. Then the eye of the camera suddenly picks out an object that has been there all the time, or a revealing gesture, zooms into them, makes them come violently alive before again retiring to the indifferent point of view.
This particular way of seeing, of making the opaque backdrop shine instantly by selecting an object or gesture, assures the freedom and fluid elegance of a Buñuel film. Sight determines montage; what is seen flows into what is unseen….
Sight and survival, desires and dreams, seeing others in order to see oneself. This parabola of sight is essential to Buñuel's art. Nazarin will not see God unless he sees his fellow men; Viridiana will not see herself unless she sees outside herself and accepts the world. The characters in "The Discreet Charm" can never see themselves or others. They may be funny, but they are already in hell. Elegant humor only cloaks despair.
So in Buñuel sight determines content or, rather, content is a way of looking, content is sight at all possible levels. And this multitude of levels—social, political, psychological, historical, esthetic, philosophic—is not predetermined, but flows from vision. His constant tension is between obsessive opposites: pilgrimage and...
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