Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2395
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 and social circumstances. He is hamstrung, he is weighed down like a slave who has to carry (to use Buñuel's imagery) pumpkins, priests, and a piano laden with rotting donkeys. Nothing could be more grotesquely further from the truth than to say that the pumpkins evoke cooking and domestic chores, that the smiling priests represent the way the Church tries to trammel love, that the piano is a symbol of bourgeois life, and that the corpses of animals are reminders of the putrefaction that awaits us from the moment we are born and overtakes us when we die. On the other hand, it does not seem to me to be farfetched to interpret the allusive truth of this sequence as a dynamic symbol that reflects everything which a man must take a grip on if he is to approach the woman he desires. She appears to him as something multiple, as a kind of quarry, an enemy, a beautiful animal with mother-of-pearl flesh, a living statue. (pp. 12-13)
L'Age d'Or resorts to the simplest kind of surrealist action—direct insults and a punch in the face…. The intertitles that occasionally appear during [the first] part of the film take on, as a result, a very particular meaning (one that goes to explain the tremendous power of Buñuel's art): they create an alienation effect whereby the world and our society are subjected to the impassive examination of an experimenter who apparently knows nothing of them. (p. 14)
But Buñuel's impassivity is feigned: it conceals a burning passion that transforms itself into a diamond or into phosphorus in order better to scratch or to burn everything it touches. L'Age d'Or is the most exhaustive catalogue of oppressions ever compiled for the screen. But it is not just a statistical record that can safely be stowed away in some archive, there to enrich the wizened heritage of western culture. This "pavilion of bloody meat" is a quivering, seething, consuming indictment that calls for rebellion and revolution, while at the same time advocating a liberated, totally unrestricted kind of mad love, or amour fou. (p. 15)
No other film has ever deciphered the structures of a society better than L'Age d'Or; the society in question is our own, even though it may give the false impression of having evolved since 1930. It still camouflages its criminal hypocrisy behind starched dickeys, uniforms and cassocks, behind slogans about the wisdom of the nations of the world and the twin myths of human nature and original sin, and behind Christian morality in general (as interpreted historically—and most ingeniously—by those in power in a bourgeois, capitalist society). Buñuel demonstrates how love is able to destroy established order, and why it is vital for it to do so if there is to be any hope of founding a form of humanism that is truly the measure of man and is stripped clean of idealistic mumbo-jumbo and fallacious freedom. (p. 24)
There is not the slightest trace of a hiatus between L'Age d'Or and Las Hurdes. Buñuel unceremoniously plunges us "into the icy waters of selfish motivations." (p. 30)
A little boy writes "respect your neighbour's property" on the blackboard in a schoolroom where on one of the walls an engraving has been pinned which shows a bewigged and powdered noblewoman dressed in Eighteenth century clothes—a dramatic confrontation of the two faces of the same class-ridden society. By making visually explicit the relationship between concrete suffering and the abstract universality of an engraving, the film instantly juxtaposes, in a highly revealing situation, the contradictions that are eating away our society. In a flash, it destroys the inevitability of injustice: it is no longer possible to find a reason for it in theological explanations.
Injustice is the product of a human order which through the clever use of parables about Good and Evil makes a travesty of the most basic notions of justice. Buñuel tears away the mask and points an accusing finger at the syphilitic faces and running sores that form part of a world crucified by Christianity…. (p. 31)
By getting across the alienation of the Hurdanos without a trace of pathos, Buñuel is in fact postulating that there is but one last hope for them. There is something of all of us in these Hurdanos, victims of themselves and of others. As we, who are chronically overfed, watch these Beckettian creatures in the strangulating syndrome of extreme poverty, we somehow realise that we are their brothers because our human universe, like theirs, is one of scarcity—but on another level. Polluted air and chemically contaminated food are our unripe cherries. What we most lack is time to live. (p. 34)
Like many other great film-makers, Buñuel transforms every subject he touches. More importantly, even when subjected to the pressures of the film industry, he has never betrayed his deepest artistic and personal convictions; he has always seized every opportunity to reaffirm (usually via insinuation rather than in the outright way likely to shock the sensibilities of political and Christian censors) the very same message that emerged with such force from his first films. (pp. 45-6)
L'Age d'Or offers us a vertical cross-section of a society whose hypocrisy stifles love. El may be considered as the horizontal cross-section of the same society: Buñuel uses the inverse, negative process, and eliminates the elements of revolt, scandal and insult. But although his attack on established values in El may seem more insidious it is nonetheless just as hardhitting as L'Age d'Or. (p. 60)
[A summary of El's melodramatic plot] should make it clear that its highlights of jealousy and foot fetichism conceal a subtly constructed piece of psycho-social criticism that unmasks exactly the same oppressive set-up as that … in L'Age d'Or. But in El the motivations for the hero's failure in love are more fully emphasised…. Whereas Modot opts for rebellion, Francisco chooses to inflict upon himself a conventional, repressed pattern of behaviour that results, during the sequence, for instance, where he is unable to dictate a letter to Gloria, in a typical manifestation of impotence. Whereas Modot's desire leads him openly to cause scandals and to trample on all established values (to slap wheedling matrons, kick blind men, jeer at pity, insult ministers and put sex before everything), Francisco's urges are caught in a vicious circle, disintegrate, and seethe in the pressure cooker of religious and bourgeois principles. And yet although consistent self-denial results in the gradual stifling of desire, which finally seems to be tamed and completely sublimated in the person of the serene, secluded monk, one should not imagine that this desire has been totally annihilated. For however great the alienation, however powerful the institutional regulations aimed at damping it, love never loses its faculty of suddenly bursting out. This is why the uneasy conscience continually strives to escape the ever-present, ever-watchful threat of love by seeking refuge in mysticism. (pp. 67-8)
[One] has to admit that Buñuel did not "compose" L'Age d'Or, The Exterminating Angel, Simon of the Desert or any other of his masterpieces. For he has an innate sense of what is or is not poetic licence. As a director, he has never allowed himself to be governed by the "rules" which are supposed to underlie the grouping of images, the ordering of sequences, and the dovetailing of the editing, according to those cinematic rhetoricians-cum-carpenters who see themselves as teachers but are themselves incapable of planing a plank or knocking in a nail. (p. 79)
Buñuel covers his tracks by mimicking banality. He serves us with a light-hearted farrago of spontaneous invention, serious thinking, ironic winks at the audience, powerfully constructed and original creativity, and a combination of burlesque and tragedy. He slips back and forth from unself-conscious self-discipline to disciplined unselfconsciousness as airily as Picasso. In Arcibaldo de la Cruz—probably because Buñuel seems almost to be parodying himself—one can perceive better than in any of his other films how he manages to inject madness into realism, and how a piece of frothy entertainment can be shot through and through with black humour. He does not indulge in any cunning aesthetic devices or spectacular dream sequences, but pads unobtrusively up to his subject in order to be able to sink his teeth into it more devastatingly. (p. 80)
[In Viridiana] Buñuel remains faithful to everything he has ever said or stood for, synthesising in a quite startling manner the excessive violence and atrocities of L'Age d'Or and Las Hurdes with a new, more mature humanism. He is still a rebel who stands by his original principles, but he no longer needs to make his voice heard by having recourse to spectacular provocation. Viridiana encapsulates Buñuel's whole Weltanschauung. Good and evil are both fallacies that lead to dead ends. All acts are tinged to an equal degree with ambiguity, and nothing will change so long as we still live with our present moral system, i.e. the denial of amour fou and the affirmation of mystifying abstract forces. In Buñuel's eyes, there is no point in saving either a dog or a soul so long as the psycho-social set-up encourages the enslavement of dogs and souls—which should not of course stop us saving a dog if ever we can. Such are the concentric parabolae of Viridiana, a film that relies less on intellectual argument than on hitting the spectator between the eyes. Once again Buñuel's detractors, the narrow-minded champions of a cinematic language that possesses a semantic specificity, are thoroughly wrong: more clearly than in his other films, the direction is much, much more than the mere visual translation of anecdotal or literary arguments that have been inventively arranged into a shooting script; it creates a magic combination where form and content fuse dialectically at white hot temperature. (pp. 120-21)
[A] free approach, which consists of bringing together the most dissimilar objects and images in the figurative unity of a disturbing combination, is to be found throughout Buñuel's work. But in La Voie lactée [The Milky Way] it takes on a very particular quality. The director, in the simplest, most casual way, juxtaposes not a monstrance and a pavement, but holy texts, philosophical tirades about God or Christ, and everyday phrases set in a modern context. The fundamental declarations that define dogma answer the heretics' professions of faith, and vice versa.
In the course of this interminable exchange, the truth constantly changes sides. Each protagonist is convinced that he alone is in the right. But the truth as decreed by the ecclesiastical authorities—an unassailable truth because it was engendered by the divine word—inevitably ends up by having recourse to temporal powers in order to impose itself. (pp. 157-58)
Buñuel ruthlessly debunks the whole concept of religious meditation and makes theology look like one enormous hoax clothed in mumbo-jumbo. His documentary description of the heresies brings out all that is unjustifiable in the body of dogma: the sole justification of this dogma is its struggle against a lie which, with a good deal of effrontery, it itself sets up as a lie which should be struggled against.
As the film goes on, Buñuel's demolition of Catholicism becomes more and more devastating: with his derision, irony, humour and geniality he dynamites a spiritual edifice that is little more than a mirage, and demonstrates that when man's nature and condition is looked at in a certain fraternal way dogma is suddenly seen to be the worst heresy of all. (p. 160)
La Voie lactée is basically a comedy. It is a light-hearted film that is sacrilegious without ever aiming to shock in a facile, superficial way; and it calls for a return to conscious atheism and to an individual autonomy that is closely bound up with the desire for collective freedom and with a non-theoretical, concrete struggle against intellectual imperialism. (p. 164)
With Tristana, a narrative made up of countless little everyday details, Buñuel once again demonstrates the ambiguity of our values and the relativity of our judgements without ever ramming the fact down our throats. He also shows that no genuine revolt can tolerate any kind of compromise and that no passion can survive without constant nourishment: it must devour us at all times. The trouble is that our condition as human beings tends to make us always want our passion to last; we want to make it permanent because we are afraid to lose that nugget of gold which we are constantly trying to track down but of which we never find more than a shadow, that nugget which can only be gained if we take the risk of losing it—in other words, ourselves. We are doomed to senile decay; and all that awaits us at the end of the road is death. Weariness can encourage our cowardice and our thirst for thrift. But nothing can ever be permanently secured. The conquests of passion must not be stockpiled because their capital gain is nil. If the price is to be maintained, only the most courageous course must be taken, which is that of putting them constantly at stake according to a responsibility and a faithfulness of which only we, in the last resort, can be the judges: we alone control the metamorphoses of our existence and we alone are the mystery that throws the arch of dialogue between the invisible and the visible. (p. 185)
Freddy Buache, in his The Cinema of Luis Buñuel, translated by Peter Graham (translation copyright © 1973 by The Tantivy Press, London, Great Britain), Tantivy, 1973, 207 p.
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