Luis Buñuel

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 976


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.

The antipsychological Buñuelian scenario functions on the same principle as the hot-and-cold shower—alternating favorable and unfavorable signs, positives and negatives, reason and nonsense. He puts these elements to work on both the action and the characters in his films. Anti-bourgeois, anti-conformist, Buñuel is as sarcastic as Stroheim but he has a lighter touch; his world view is subversive, happily anarchist. (p. 261)

Buñuel is a cheerful pessimist, not given to despair, but he has a skeptical mind. Notice, he never makes films for, always against, and none of his characters ever appear to be very practical. Buñuel's skepticism extends to all those whom he finds playing too neat a social game, those who live by accepted opinions. (pp. 261-62)

Too many commentators refer to Buñuel as a poet of hallucination who follows the caprices of his fantastic imagination, while in reality he is a brilliant screenwriter very much concerned with dramatic construction. (p. 263)

Let's look at how he constructed … The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (Archibald of the Cross), which he made in Mexico in 1955. He was not then universally recognized as a genius, and he was working in a country in which the censors would have prohibited him from showing a murderer who is not only likable but goes unpunished into the bargain. (p. 264)

I'm not familiar with the literary sources of Archibaldo de la Cruz, but the cinematic inspirations are clear—Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1948), which tells the story of a man who murders widows … set against the musical theme of The Merry Widow; a film by Preston Sturges, Unfaithfully Yours (1948), in which an orchestra conductor … imagines three different ways of killing his wife as he conducts a symphony; and, above all, Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux (1947). The distraught woman whose path Archibaldo keeps crossing is obviously related to the extraordinary Martha Raye (Captain Bonheur's wife) whom Verdoux-Bonheur never quite succeeds in murdering.

But the true interest of Archibaldo lies elsewhere—in the ingenuity of its construction, the audacious handling of time, the expertise of the cinematic narrative. If you question the audience at the end of Archibaldo—remember, its full title is, mischievously, The Criminal Life of Archibald of the Cross—almost everybody will tell you that they've just seen the story of a likable guy who kills women. It is absolutely not true; Archibaldo has killed no one. He's been satisfied simply to wish, after the death of his governess when he was a little boy, for the deaths of the nun who was a nurse in the hospital, the beautiful disturbed woman, the sultry guide, and his unfaithful fiancée. Four of the five women have died in one way or another shortly after Archibaldo has expressed his desire. We have anticipated these deaths as fantasies (flashes forward), and then we've seen certain of them really occur, but only as recounted by Archibaldo in flashback.

In the hands of most film writers, Archibaldo would have become a series of sketches, but Buñuel and Eduardo Ugarte were able to intertwine the individual episodes by introducing us to all the female characters early in the story, and then, in the second half of the film, gathering them delicately for their ten-minute scenes to show them as real women.

Archibaldo is one of those rare films so finely constructed, written with such a sense of how to put images on a screen, that reading the screenplay gives only a weak idea of the result, maybe even a completely inaccurate impression…. If one simply recounted its scenes literally, it would seem ridiculous. Lubitsch and Buñuel are the masters of the invisible flashback, the flashback that interrupts without breaking the story line and, on the contrary, refreshes it when it threatens to flag. They are also masters at bringing us back to the present without startling us. They both use a two-pronged hook with which they jerk us backward and forward. The hook is almost always a gimmick—comic in Lubitsch's work, dramatic in Buñuel's.

Too many screenplays are conceived for their literary effect, and they end up as novels written in pictures. They are pleasant to read, they make easy promises, and they deliver on them, presuming the director and the actors have as much talent as the writer. I'm not out to criticize the straight story-line movies—of which Bicycle Thief is one of the most beautiful examples—but to suggest that the talents of the scenarists who wrote The Big Sleep, North by Northwest, Heaven Can Wait, or Archibaldo de la Cruz are far greater. The discipline of film has its own rules, which have not yet been fully explored, and it is only through works such as those of Buñuel and the other great director-writers that we will one day realize them fully. (pp. 267-68)

François Truffaut, "Buñuel the Builder" (1971), in his The Films in My Life, translated by Leonard Mayhew (copyright © 1975 by, Flammarion; translation copyright © 1978 by, Simon and Schuster; reprinted by permission of Simon and Schuster, a Division of Gulf & Western Corporation; originally published as Les Films de ma vie, Flammarion, 1975), Simon and Schuster, 1978, pp. 261-68.

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