Luis Buñuel

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Tony Richardson

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 849

Surrealism is born out of despair; its only power is to hasten the general cataclysm by its own prophetic chaos. Max Ernst said of it, "In turning topsy-turvy the appearances and relationships of reality, surrealism has been able, with a smile on its lips, to hasten the general crisis of consciousness which must perforce take place in our time."

No other work of the period expressed this so completely as L'Age d'Or. All civilisation is oppression, suffering, frustration; above, the cynical emptiness and callous show of the rich; below, the misery, hunger and incipient revolution of the poor; individuals are ridden with inhibition, anxiety and guilt; beauty is, like Hans Schwitters' haphazard, delicate collages of tram tickets and paper money, the momentary chance of an afternoon's boredom—clouds pass in the mirror as the girl, restless and lonely, waits for Modot's arrival. Bunuel has taken a traditional romantic theme, love thwarted by circumstance, and seen it with "un œil à l'état sauvage", stripped of any sentimental associations; love is a fierce lust with clumsy embraces and frustrated satisfaction. The honesty of his attitude is explosive and cauterising.

Yet it is not despair that finally pervades the film but a savage glee, almost optimistic in destruction. (pp. 125-26)

[Though] the props are still surrealist—the man with "patches" of living flies, the cow on the bed—and the general form loose and episodic, there are indications that Bunuel had exhausted the surrealist approach and had already begun to shape events into drama. Surrealism had become a technique for exposing and analysing reality rather than a means of creating an independent world of fantasy….

[Bunuel records the story of Land Without Bread, or Las Hurdes,] with a flatness and lack of comment that make it the more alarming. No moral is drawn, no response instructed, no easy attitude given. Bunuel is content, as was Goya in Los Desastres de la Guerra, to let the naked record speak for itself…. Though the material is organised with masterly skill, the very conception of "art" here seems irrelevant. It is the most profoundly disturbing film I have ever seen. (p. 126)

In L'Age d'Or, Bunuel had begun to create dramatic action; in Land Without Bread he had approached reality directly; Los Olvidados was the fulfilment of both these developments….

As in all Bunuel's films, the treatment is conceptual. The characters are simplified to whatever aspect or passion Bunuel is creating, and all irrelevant traits are suppressed. The unique force of the film comes from the combination of austerity and strictness in conception with a startling, often ironic, poetry of expression, with its images of donkeys, black hens, doves that can cure fever, cripples, torn meat, pariah dogs, in an almost timeless setting of arid squalor…. The prophecies and thunderings of L'Age d'Or have become fact, the horrors actual, the vision immensely darkened….

Perhaps only Goya has created horror so acute. Bunuel's vision is too uncompromising to permit any softening of its bestiality; but—and one cannot say this emphatically enough, in view of what many critics have written—he never uses horror inartistically. There is no sensationalism in the handling of violence in this film; terror is balanced by pity, hopelessness by humanity. (p. 127)

[Robinson Crusoe ] is as remarkable in its fidelity to Defoe as in its transmutation. After establishing the situation in a few sparse images, Bunuel follows Defoe's story-line, through Crusoe's working out of a way of life for himself, the descent of the cannibals, the rescue of Friday, the arrival of the mutineers, his outwitting of them and...

(This entire section contains 849 words.)

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his final departure from the island. In style, too, Bunuel has matched Defoe's plain, direct prose; the simplicity ofLand Without Bread is here used for an artistic purpose. Bunuel saw, as did Defoe, that Crusoe's struggle, often clumsy and inept, against conditions on the island, was fascinating on its practical, pedestrian level; he records, simply, the flat, absorbing routine of Crusoe's daily life.

Imaginatively Bunuel pierces further, looking into the heart of the man to see there the desolation and anguish of someone isolated from all human contact. (p. 129)

To see Bunuel in any artistic context, one must look beyond the cinema to the piercing, insolent seers of his own nation, to Goya, El Greco, the Picasso of Guernica. Without honour in his own country, he is a Spaniard first and last. How his vision will alter is difficult to foresee. Perhaps, as with Goya or the Mexican Oroczo, it will become crueller, less supportable; but in all his later films there are signs of a new resolution, a calmer, though not less clear-eyed, wisdom. Pedro can at least turn on Jaibo …: Crusoe returns to sanity and fellowship. It is not that Bunuel's view of the world has changed—suffering, struggle, disease and pain are as fierce as ever—but his belief in men seems greater, and, in that belief, prophecy and revolt have given way to understanding and acceptance. (p. 130)

Tony Richardson, "The Films of Luis Bunuel," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1954 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 23, No. 3, January-March, 1954, pp. 125-30.


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