Luis Buñuel

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Peter P. Schillaci

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1656

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 diminish man's freedom. (pp. 112-13)

There is no way to "prove" Bunuel's demythologizing role. But the idea can be made plausible and even informative if we can develop it out of his remarkable films, rather than out of a theological context….

[It] is characteristic of Bunuel's work that the contents of its subconscious core of meaning can only be suggested. His images, like fragments of a dream, invite a sensitive reflection on the psyche that produced them. (p. 113)

The life of Un Chien Andalou is found, not in [a] catalog of actions and images, but in the shocking and provocative associations it freely creates and breaks. The film confirms Bunuel's contention that cinema is "the superior way of expressing the world of dreams, emotions and instincts."…. Characters do not unify the experience. They are all marked by an ambiguous sexuality—effeminate men and mannish women—but they are inconsistent even within these categories. The abrupt and exaggerated eruptions of emotion strike the contemporary viewer as ludicrous, but they are clearly related to the perverse sexuality which rejects any expressive control of the passions. (pp. 118-19)

The dreamlike quality of the film is a function not only of the rejection of waking logic, but of the casual way it presents the most bizarre disjunctions. At times, as in the dying fall of the domineering man, the dream fantasy becomes poetic, beginning in the apartment and ending in the park, where his hand grazes the naked back of a woman in a statuary pose. At other times, the dream becomes a nightmare of nameless fears, pursuits, and frustrations. Throughout, sexual symbols provide what little associational unity exists among the images. They are a catalog of Freudian metaphors, too complex to analyze in detail. (p. 119)

As in the case of Bunuel's first film, [the] action tells us little about L'Age d'Or. But if we turn to another level of images, a pattern of relationships emerges…. The separation of the lovers is not a mere distraction, but the very premise of the new religious society. The couple represents amour fou, the mad, single-minded passion which Bunuel uses to symbolize the natural man, unfettered by time and space, tabu or custom. The Church's frustration of the natural man is its demise. (pp. 121-22)

The ending of the film shows that Bunuel's associational unity is more in control than in his first film…. Even the "story" manifests more continuity, as the frustrated love of Lya Lys and Gaston Modot encounters the repressive sexuality of the culture. But in spite of all these elements, discontinuity is still the salient feature of the film. The emotional reversals of the couple are bizarre, played at the height of rage or lust, disorienting the viewer. Hints of sexual perversion abound as warped expressions of the simple love (amour fou ) which the Church denies. The result is incest, foot fetishism, and such...

(This entire section contains 1656 words.)

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deviate sexuality as the De Sade episode's ultimate degeneracy.

The religious comment of L'Age d'Or, if one can summarize it, shows the Church shipwrecked on the hard, unyielding rock of human nature. (pp. 123-24)

[Un Chien Andalou, L'Age d'Or, and Las Hurdes] are subject to reinterpretation in the light of subsequent Bunuel works, but their consistency with the most important and the most trivial of his large-budget films invites us to reflect on their unity of conception. Bunuel's style had preserved the film version of the surrealist esthetic in a way that no single painting could have done, and yet Bunuel cultivated the form only as a way of looking at reality. His credo was more important than a school of art, and surrealist fantasy was chosen as a way of making his uniquely personal statements effective. The major themes of his lifetime concern had already emerged in their basic outline. The attack on organized religion, the affirmation of a natural humanity seldom given a voice, the fascination with human deformity, perversion, and the capacity for evil—all were there. His iconoclast's hammer was already demolishing statues and idols, churches and institutions that pretended to protect but really destroyed men. The emotions of his films were those of his own life—anger, a lust to live, direct, passionate expression, and a sense of social outrage. With Las Hurdes, his social concern took on cosmic overtones that transcended the social, political, or religious. Ultimately, Bunuel's vision is metaphysical and theological. (pp. 128-29)

Exterminating Angel is an extended metaphor, a parable attacking social conventions with vicious, black humor. (p. 142)

The Exterminating Angel is a nightmare we have all experienced in some way, evoking in the viewer a disturbing sense of recognition. It seems obvious that the mansion here is a Freudian place, a set of customs, a life style, a world view into whose structures people are frozen and trapped. The people are high society, but the culture and sophistication (even the courtesy and decency) are apparently only skin deep…. [The] extreme sangfroid with which the camera records the horrors makes the film a surreal experience. The evening's conversation has been a barbaric exchange of outrageous insults and allegations, delivered with polite indifference. The disorder of the drawing room soon assaults our senses, its imagined odors seeping under the closet doors to offend us.

Seldom has there been a more savage indictment of "civilization" and its values, and yet, each shock image or sharp word draws a gasp and a stifled laugh typical of black humor's effect. (pp. 143-44)

In Diary of a Chambermaid, Bunuel once again surveys the nightmare of decadent class privilege and gross injustice with a calm, almost accepting eye. He raises our hopes that the girl's death will be avenged, and then, as if to say there is no justice, he destroys that hope…. The frustration of ideals and the reversal of values are as complete as any achieved by Bunuel in Un Chien Andalou, but they appear in the style of his new surrealism, a calm portrayal of absurdities so complete as to become hallucinatory.

Although religious elements abound in Diary they are not central to its subject. This may be why Bunuel returned to the Church, a parallel obsession, in Simon of the Desert. (pp. 146-47)

Simon of the Desert has a light, comic touch that sets it apart as an amusement. Simon, like Nazarin, seems to have appealed to Bunuel if only for his mad devotion to ideals. This may be why the saint is never ridiculed directly in the film. He preaches lofty ideals to the monks and laymen who approach him, he humbly refuses ordination to the priesthood, he restores hands to a man who lost them for thievery, and he overcomes a variety of bizarre and amusing temptations. However, he is just a bit dotty, and there exists in him something of the coldness which we detected in Nazarin and in Viridiana, a denial of the human. (p. 147)

The film evidences a grudging admiration for Simon's obsession, the religious fetish so calmly accepted by the Church and people of his time. However, most of the humor, if not directed at Simon, is created at his expense…. The film's pattern of unblinking acceptance of the miraculous, followed by the man's failure to change anything, ultimately condemns Simon to irrelevancy. (p. 148)

[In Belle de Jour] Bunuel has created such ambiguities between fantasy and the real, between dream and actuality, that it is all but impossible to separate these elements. But an effect so carefully planned must be intentional, and so whatever our interpretation of the film may be, it seems clear that Bunuel wishes to remind us that these contrasting realms are really one. (p. 149)

There is, of course, no need to choose, to select what is real and what is unreal, because it is precisely this ambiguity that serves to make the director's point. We see once again how repressed sexuality breeds refined, perverted humanity. As always, however, there is no judgment on persons so afflicted. (p. 150)

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie may become the parting salvo in a war that began with Bunuel's silent classics and developed in The Exterminating Angel—the war on the bourgeoisie. Ten years after this savage attack, the director reverses the plot to play new variations on its savage absurdities. (p. 155)

Not quite a comedy of manners, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie nevertheless evokes recollections of Oscar Wilde, and of Restoration Comedy drawing room farces. It is the unbelievable imperturbability of the protagonists, their supreme self-possession in the midst of social and political disaster, that gives the film its satirical comic thrust. (p. 156)

Bunuel seems to say that the bourgeoisie can take frustrations with equanimity because they know life has never denied them anything for long. Before heroin other forms of business existed, and before that, colonialism and slavery. For the future, one must have confidence, both in one's class, and in its single most precious talent—survival. (p. 157)

Peter P. Schillaci, "Luis Bunuel and the Death of God," in Three European Directors: François Truffaut by James M. Wall, Fellini's Film Journey by Roger Ortmayer, Luis Bunuel and the Death of God by Peter P. Schillaci, edited by James M. Wall (copyright © 1973 by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; used by permission), Eerdmans, 1973, pp. 111-57.


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