Peter Harcourt

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1116

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.

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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 terrifying gap between the rich security of the church and the destitute, precarious state of whole sections of the Spanish people. Yet it is a mistake, I've always felt, to see this influence as negative in any simple way. Not only has Buñuel returned to religious considerations in his films with such regularity that they must be taken as one of the mainsprings of his art, but it seems to me that a large part of what is most positive in his films could have come from this early training as well.

For instance, at the centre of Buñuel's vision is what the surrealists were to call the destructive forces of man, what Freud has categorized as the unmanageable 'id', but what Buñuel would have known from way back as the problem of evil. Related to any form of pessimism, there is always a belief in evil as an abstraction, or at least as an unalterable characteristic of the nature of man. If one simply believes that social injustice is the source of man's problems (as so many fans seem to think Buñuel does), then one can combat this injustice by constructive social action; but if one believes that evil is inherent to the nature of man, then constructive action becomes that much more difficult and one's belief in improvement that much more tenuous. If evil is intrinsic, if the impulse towards destructon is deeply planted in man's nature—as Christianity has always taught and as the Parisian surrealists were excited to reaffirm, as if making a new discovery—then the problem for any civilization is to find some way of containing it. Here too, the church may have helped.

While rejecting the metaphysical consolations of Christianity, Buñuel nevertheless seemed to gain from Spanish Catholicism an urgent recognition of the importance of ritual in combating our more unmanageable desires…. Often [such ceremonies] are presented in a bizarre, even a facetious light—like the foot-washing sequence that opens the strange and magnificent El—and they are invariably tinged with the suggestion of a repressed sexuality; but sometimes, as in Viridiana, the sense of ceremony can lend to what might otherwise be a commonplace scene the feeling of intense personal involvement. (pp. 107-09)

Intertwined with this feeling for ritual, there is also in Buñuel a concern with the peculiarly symbolic associations inherent to inanimate objects, a concern that also must have been encouraged by the iconography of the church. Whether, as in L'Âge d'or, it is Modot being distracted from his lovemaking by the foot of a statue of Francisco's valet in El, who polishes his bicycle in his bed, in Buñuel these actions take on an additional force from the symbolic role the objects play in the characters' lives.

Finally, when speculating in this way about the relationship of his early environment to his mature view of life, we might be tempted to relate Buñuel's continual concern with human solitude to the fact of his own exile. Almost all his life, in order to work, he has had to live away from Spain; for large sections of it, in order to live, he has had to perform menial roles within the film industry. Although in his private life apparently the gentlest of men, in his films Buñuel has insistently returned to the problems of violence and evil and to the recognition that these passions seem often the result of a man being isolated and made to feel alone. (pp. 109-10)

[In] his films, it would seem to be part of a recognition that, finally, the individual is an isolated phenomenon, with only a limited ability to react profitably with another person or to act constructively upon the outside world. Though there is always great gentleness in the films of Buñuel, there is also great destructiveness; and the destructiveness seems, socially, to be the greater force. Power is much more easily organized than gentleness; and in any case, even within any individual manifestation of gentleness, there is also a dammed-up force of destructiveness threatening to break free or to turn in upon itself. (p. 110)

I don't want to appear too solemn about the troubled master; for there certainly is in Buñuel a strong iconoclastic impulse and, as in all great artists, a wry sense of the absurd. But … even Buñuel's humour is edged in black despair. More often than not, it is the self-protective humour of a deeply pessimistic person, the humour of a man distressed by his own vision of the universe but who has also a keen eye for the multitude of self-deceptions that, for many of us, make life bearable. (p. 111)

Perhaps it was the defeat of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War; perhaps it has been Buñuel's hard and (one assumes) lonely life; perhaps it is just the way he sees things that makes his world so without a hope for the eventual triumph of the gentlest impulses in mankind. And even though we might strive to see things differently, Buñuel's vision is not an easy one to disagree with…. (pp. 133-34)

Often in Buñuel we experience great tenderness; but almost constantly in his films it meets with defeat. As an emblem of his world, we might remember the deformed Ujo, as if even genuine goodness must be achieved at a terrible price; or we might remember Don Jaime as he writes out his will, the resigned smile on his face as he makes the final dadaist surrender to the powers of darkness, as if his attempt to achieve goodness has been the biggest joke of all. (p. 134)

Peter Harcourt, "Luis Buñuel: Spaniard and Surrealist" (originally published in a different version in Film Quarterly, Vol. XX, No. 3, Spring, 1967), in his Six European Directors: Essays on the Meaning of Film Style (copyright © Peter Harcourt, 1974; reprinted by permission of Penguin Books Ltd), Penguin Books, 1974, pp. 102-34.

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