Luis Buñuel

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Randall Conrad

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Golden Age [or L'Age d'Or] is an attack on repressive society but Bunuel views social repression and individual inhibition as two sides of a single reality. The ambivalent symbolism of The Golden Age enables Bunuel to capture a dialectic between the outer prison—"imperial Rome", Christian civilization, bourgeois society—and the inner prison: the guilt which denies pleasure, inhibits instincts and conditions man to conformity. Each side reflects the other; both form an indissoluble whole. It is the whole which is Bunuel's target.

For Bunuel the key to liberation is desire, the mainspring of human activity. The perfect ideological complement to The Golden Age is Freud's contemporaneous study, Civilization and its Discontents—civilization originated with the sublimation of the sexual urge, a process reflected in the development of the individual….

[The] inhibiting brick and concrete civilization which surrounds us is vulnerable only when our vision is sharpened by passion. During the mock documentary, a row of house-fronts along an empty street falls apart in a series of billowing explosions. For the most part in The Golden Age, however, the buildings of imperial Rome remain standing—society is impenetrable to all who don't see through it. (p. 3)

The Golden Age constitutes a whole mythology of society and its conflicts, thanks to the double character of its symbols; at the same time, it constitutes an attack upon society, an aggravation of the conflicts.

Furthermore, it is our own society, bourgeois society, which Bunuel attacks. The subversive radicalism of The Golden Age has often been identified with Marxism….

The real history of society is irrelevant in The Golden Age since its unconscious premises are permanent. The sole dynamic force in The Golden Age is sexual desire inasmuch as it negates civilization. In return, the essence of civilization is summed up by its unanimous reaction to one man's erection….

Nowadays The Golden Age seems more pertinent to the Freudian critique of civilization than to dialectical materialism; left-wing critics are obliged to perform an exercise of interpretation if they want to reopen a Marxist dialogue with Bunuel's film. Yet in its own time, The Golden Age was readily accepted as a politically revolutionary work. (p. 4)

Without being a Marxist film, The Golden Age presents strong analogies to a Marxist critique. It insists on the concrete nature of the real world. It tramples upon reactionary ideology—religion, romance, bourgeois rationalism—and it is open to a class conscious and historically conscious reading. (p. 6)

The Golden Age is a surrealist film above all and a Marxist film only by association.

Bunuel's next film, the third and last of his surrealist period, was the short documentary Land Without Bread…. Using nothing but objective data about one of the most barren regions in Europe and concealing himself in the role of the neutral reporter, Bunuel achieves a reading of reality that is perhaps his purest surrealist work.

It is the very objectivity of Land Without Bread which makes it an unbearable experience, a surrealist experience. The element of subjective aggravation is no longer a theme of the film itself (as in The Golden Age); it is now the spectator's own consciousness which is aggravated.

Bunuel's achievement in Land Without Bread is due as much to his choice of subject—an impoverished area of Spain cut off from society—as to his construction of the film, which proceeds by systematic contradictions of the viewer's logical reactions….

The depiction of labor is an essential theme in Land Without Bread but it is not labor as we know it in the civilized world, labor contributing to the furtherance of a developed social system. The labor of the peasants of Las Hurdes is an effort to tame a hostile nature for the first time, an effort which invariably ends in failure and puts their embryonic society back at zero…. Bunuel identifies the essential component of the peasants' life as hunger. Not...

(The entire section is 4,181 words.)